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“Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” If you’re not familiar, the local newspaper press or paperboy may have shouted this phrase in the early 1900s announcing breaking news, while trying to sell the crowd a newspaper. These days, however, most of us have live news updates and an infinite amount of information available at our fingertips the second we turn on our television, log into our computer, or start browsing the web on our cell phone.

There is no doubt that the average American spends an increasing amount of time looking at digital devices. Workplaces are more productive with the use of computers. Some school systems are offering virtual learning and online classes, and children and adults alike are enjoying expanding their social networks via digital social media and cell phone use. Recent studies show that American screen time averages between 7.5 and 10.5 hours per day.

At Eye Center, Inc., many of my patients wonder about the impact prolonged digital viewing has on their eyes and their vision, and how they can promote healthy screen use in the future.

First and foremost, proper eye care and eye health begin with an annual comprehensive eye exam. Your doctor can assess your vision and prescribe the appropriate eyeglasses or contact lenses. Nonetheless, prolonged screen time can be strenuous, and is associated with a group of symptoms that the American Optometric Association now defines as Computer Vision Syndrome, affecting more than half of computer users.

The symptoms include eyestrain, fatigue, redness, burning, blurred vision, and/or double vision, and can also include neck and shoulder pain and headaches. Symptoms are associated with several factors, including overworking our eye’s focusing system, dry eyes from reduced blind rates, distracting glare from surrounding lights, and improper placement of the computer screen.

Fortunately, there are some strategies we can implement to make digital screen use as comfortable and healthy as possible.

First, when doing any digital work or near task, apply the “20/20/20” rule, which suggests that for every 20 minutes of work, take a break for at least 20 seconds and look at an object that is at least 20 feet away. This gives your focusing system a chance to relax. This short break also gives your eyes a chance to refresh their tears, and I’d recommend using this time to use an over the counter artificial tear drop if needed.

Next, evaluate and modify your work environment if possible. Ideally, sit approximately 25-35 inches from your computer and have your computer about six inches below eye level, screen tilted slightly down. Keep your screen not much brighter than the surrounding light, limiting or adjusting sources of glare such as windows and overhead lighting.

In addition to the symptoms experienced during Computer Vision Syndrome, extensive amounts of daily screen time can also inhibit normal melatonin release and disrupt our sleep patterns. One study showed that each hour of digital screen use was associated with 3-8 fewer minutes of nightly sleep. Several studies agree that digital use, especially before bed, is associated with shortened sleep duration and poorer quality sleep in general.

For better nightly sleep, try to encourage daily “screen-free” time, avoid screens at least one hour before bedtime, and discourage the use of digital devices (including television) in the bedroom. Your mind needs this time to “unplug” and relax and reset for another day.

Written by: Dr. Paige Laudicina