For The Daily Item

and Kyra Smith-Cullen

This past year has given many people a new view of the world around them.

Everything is virtual, meaning eyes are fixed to computer screens, cellphones, and digital devices for almost every aspect of daily living.

According to a July 2020 poll from Alcon/Ipsos, Americans’ screen time increased during the pandemic: 59% of those surveyed said they spent more time on their smart/mobile phone or watching television and 55% of Americans said their time in front of a computer screen increased.

Optometrists are seeing problems as a result of the increase.

According to a survey in November from the American Optometric Association’s (AOA) Health Policy Institute, 83% of doctors noticed an increase in patient complaints about vision problems related to extended screen time or computer use.

Digital eye strain is the result of this new view, said Dr. Judith Bianchi Bowser, director of optometry for Geisinger.

“The first thing I noticed was it all happened so quickly,” Bowser said of the transition from in-person events to everything going virtual.

“Many people didn’t think this would be long-term. But over time, people realized this was going to stay awhile,” she said.

Eye strain was the result of not only looking at the screens all the time, but it was something our eyes aren’t accustomed to.

“Our eyes were not designed to use computers especially for long periods of time, and as a result, many people who spend long hours reading or working on a computer experience eye discomfort and vision problems,” said Dr. William T. Reynolds, president of the AOA.

Bowser agreed.

“The eyes are working harder than they want to. You have to look up close and your eyes have to exert more energy,” Bowser said. She compared it to holding one’s arms up in the air for a long period of time — bending the elbow may be necessary due to the fatigue.

The most common symptoms of digital eye strain include headaches, blurred vision, dry eyes, neck and shoulder pain and eye irritation.

Reynolds said there is not a standardized number of hours to which adults should limit their screen time. He cautioned that people who spend two or more continuous hours at a computer or using a digital screen device every day are at a greater risk of experiencing eye strain.

“If you are someone who has to work on a computer or use a digital screen for an extended period of time, you should take regular breaks throughout the day,” said Reynolds. “Ideally, you want to try an activity or perform a task in which your eyes don’t have to focus on something up close.”

Bowser recommends a 20/20/20 approach to rest the eyes.

“Every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds,” she said.

Eye fatigue is especially difficult for those who wear bifocals. Looking at the computer and looking into the bifocals can be a lot for the eye to do.

The effects of eye strain aren’t usually long-lasting.

“Many of the visual symptoms experienced by users are only temporary and will decline after stopping computer work or use of the digital device,” Reynolds said. “However, some individuals may experience continued reduced visual abilities, such as blurred distance vision, even after stopping work at a computer. If nothing is done to address the cause of the problem, the symptoms will continue to recur and perhaps worsen with future digital screen use.”

People blink less when they’re staring at a screen, which can irritate the eyes and dry them out.

“As with all screens, our blink rate goes down which can also cause the eyes to become dry and irritated, so being intentional about blinking can be helpful,” Reynolds said.

Bowser suggested artificial tears to help with this issue.

Changes to office setup and habits can help people suffering from eye strain.

“Most computers are better suited at arms-length,” Reynolds said. “Ergonomically, you want the top of the monitor to be about eye level. This puts the eye in a slightly downward gaze, which is preferred for close viewing. Good contrast and matched brightness are also helpful.”

Bowser pointed out a kitchen table height is likely not the correct height to view a screen. She suggests moving the computer to another area and sitting straight. The screen should be tipped at a 10 to 15 degree angle.

Other issues could include neck strain, back strain and headache from staring too long at the computer.

Holding that iPhone in your hands is not any better.

“It’s really just as bad for your eyes, maybe worse,” Bowser said. Looking at a smaller screen size takes effort. The smaller screen can be a struggle for those who are far-sighted.

“The most complaints I hear about farsightedness is from people in their early 50s and late 40s. This is when you’re in the age of needing bifocals,” Bowser said.

Blue LightBlue light is high-energy, short-wavelength blue and violet light emitted from digital screens. The largest source of blue light is sunlight, but it’s also found in most LED-based devices. Colors of the visible spectrum tend to look white due to their wavelengths and energy. Each color has a different energy and wavelength.

“Certain UV light is dangerous. Short wavelengths of light can cause damage,” Bowser said.

“Research categorically shows overexposure to UV radiation can increase the risk for serious sight-threatening conditions,” Reynolds said, “but the verdict is out on blue light emitted from digital screens.”

Bowser said she wears glasses with the blue-light filter, which works well for her.

Blue light blocking glasses have lens that manufacturers say block or filter blue light to reduce the risk of potential eye damage.

“Typically, lenses that look more yellow tend to filter more blue light than the clearer ones,” Reynolds said. “However, tinted lenses that completely block blue light from the eyes are not recommended, as the eyes still need blue light, both physiologically and for color perception.”

He said some have seen advantages to the glasses, “but the fact is there is not enough science to support or deny their benefit.

“With or without blue light glasses, practicing eye-friendly screen habits is a guaranteed way to reduce your eye strain,” he said.

Keeping your eyes healthy during the pandemicBoth Reynolds and Bowser said the key to keeping your eyes healthy is to have annual comprehensive eye exams.

“I can’t downplay the importance of being seen once a year,” she said. An eye exam can pick up indications of unknown diabetes or glaucoma. “There is a lot we can pick up,” she said.

“An in-person comprehensive eye exam can detect more than 270 serious conditions ranging from diabetes to hypertension, STIs, brain tumors and glaucoma,” Reynolds said.

“Many eye and vision problems have no obvious signs or symptoms, so you might not know a problem exists,” he cautioned.

These early indicators, when caught by an optometrist, can be fixed in most cases, Bowser said.

Because of the pandemic, however, some patients delayed returning for their annual check-ups, Bowser said, and ended up with significant problems with their eyes.

Reynolds referred to a survey in November from AOA’s Health Policy Institute, where 43% of doctors reported a health decline in their patients with chronic conditions due to the lack of regular care since the pandemic.

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