Ever tried carrying around a bowling ball for nine hours a day? Your arms would get pretty tired. Well, that’s what you’re doing to your eyes when you stare at screens all day.
This may sound like an exaggeration, but you probably spend more time on your computer or phone than you think: Two 2016 surveys found that adults look at screens for around nine hours per day. That’s at least half of your waking hours. All that staring can really give your eyes a workout—and as a result, you might experience headaches, dry eyes, or blurred vision. So how can you prevent that when more and more of your work and personal life is happening on screens?
Why do screens cause eye strain?
You use your eyes all day. So what is it about screens that irritates them so much? According to Purnima S. Patel, M.D., clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, “The discomfort some people have after looking at screens is most likely digital eye strain. Most of us blink less when looking at screens, causing eye strain and dry eyes.”
Although reading printed books for extended periods can also tire your eyes, the inherent characteristics of screens make the problem worse. “Viewing a computer or digital screen is different than reading a printed page,” according to the American Optometric Association. “Often the letters on the computer or handheld device are not as precise or sharply defined, the level of contrast of the letters to the background is reduced, and the presence of glare and reflections on the screen may make viewing difficult.”
Screens may be irritating, but thankfully, any damage they deal to your eyes is not permanent. And you can alleviate the pain with a few minor changes to the way you work.
How to give your sore eyes a break
By far the best thing you can do is take your eyes off the screen. “Take regular breaks using the ‘20-20-20’ rule,” says Patel. “Every 20 minutes, shift your eyes to look at an object at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.” If your eyes have been feeling dry, then you can also take advantage of those breaks to refresh your peepers with some “artificial tears” drops.
In between breaks, when you are tapping away at your computer, you can at least minimize the amount your eyes have to work. Reduce the brightness on your screen to a comfortable level. You’ll find these controls in the settings of your phone or tablet, and on the monitor or keyboard of your computer. If your glossy screen is prone to glare, you may also want to turn down the lights, re-position your monitor, or use an anti-glare screen protector to minimize reflected light.
If you can swap your laptop or tablet for an e-reader, that might also help. E-ink screens like Amazon’s Kindle treat your eyes more like paper does than like the backlit screens of computers and tablets do. In fact, research shows they cause significantly less visual fatigue.
In addition, make sure you aren’t sitting too close to your computer. The top of your computer’s screen should sit just below eye level, at a distance of 20 to 28 inches—or about one arm’s length—away from your face. If you have trouble reading from that distance, don’t bring your face closer. Instead, try increasing the print size so you don’t have to strain to focus.
Eye strain isn’t the only issue screens can cause. They also disrupt your sleep. While Patel says, “There is no scientific evidence that blue light from digital devices causes damage to your eye,” she does explain that it can affect your body’s circadian rhythm. “During the day, blue light wakes us up and stimulates us,” she says. “But too much blue-light exposure late at night from your phone, tablet, or computer can make it harder to get to sleep.” So if you can, avoid screens starting about two to three hours before your typical bedtime.
Finally, if you wear glasses, make sure your prescription is up to date—and if you don’t, then it might be time for an eye exam. “Uncorrected or under-corrected vision problems can be major contributing factors to computer-related eye strain,” states the American Optometric Association. Even if you think your vision is fine, if you’ve been having eye strain problems—and it’s been a few years since your last exam—you might solve the issue with a pair of glasses. But, Patel says, “Skip the glasses that claim to protect your eyes against blue light.” There’s not much evidence suggesting they are effective.