Screentime Overload? Avoid This Increasingly Common Medical Condition

We don’t always think to treat our eyes with the same care we might give other body parts, tending to take for granted that they will continue to function normally from day to day, as long as we observe the slightest of precautions such as wearing sunglasses in bright sunlight.

At the same time, most of us spend significant amounts of time—if not the majority of our waking hours—staring at computers and other devices with screens. The combination of more or less ignoring eye health and staring at screens all day long has led to an increasingly common affliction known as computer vision syndrome.

It doesn’t take much
Sufferers of computer vision syndrome report a burning sensation in their eyes and/or blurred vision that can make working in front of a computer very difficult. It can affect anyone who spends three or more hours a day in front of computer monitors, meaning the population at risk is potentially huge. Gamers may be particularly susceptible due to the addictive nature of many games, contributing to a culture of binge-play that can go on for hours—in extreme cases even days. But computer vision syndrome is real, and the risk factors shouldn’t be ignored.

A report published in Medical Practice and Reviews includes an expansive list of professions that can be affected; it includes accountants, architects, bankers, engineers, flight controllers, graphic artists, journalists, academicians, secretaries and students. The report cites four studies demonstrating that computer use for even three hours a day is likely to result in eye symptoms, low back pain, tension headache and psychosocial stress. Still, the most common computer-related complaint involves the eyes, which can develop blurred or double vision as well as burning, itching, dryness and redness.

The problem with screens
Among the causes of computer vision syndrome is the nature of words on a screen: while words printed on a page have sharply defined edges, electronic characters made up of pixels have blurred edges, making it more difficult for eyes to maintain focus. Unconsciously, the eyes repeatedly attempt to rest by shifting their focus to an area behind the screen, and this constant switch between screen and relaxation point creates eye strain and fatigue.

Another cause is the unconscious tendency of people working on computers to reduce blinking. Instead of a normal blink rate of 17 or more blinks per minute, while working on a computer the blink rate is often reduced to only about 12 or 15 blinks. The result, of course, is dry, irritated eyes.

Optimal ergonomics
The head’s distance from the screen and position in relation to it are also important risk factors. This is where the ergonomics of posture can affect not just our bodily comfort but eye health. To give the eyes a comfortable focusing distance, the screen should be about 20 to 26 inches away from the face. The closer the eyes are to the monitor, the harder they have to work to accommodate to it.

In addition, when looking straight ahead, the eyes should be at the level of the top of the monitor. The University of Pennsylvania’s ophthalmology department advises that the center of the monitor should be about four to eight inches lower than the eyes to minimize dryness and itching by lessening the exposed surface of the eyes because they are not opened wide. This distance also allows the neck to remain in a more relaxed position.

Yet research shows that many people—in one study, a whopping 71 percent—sit much closer than this optimal distance. That same study found that 66 percent of the subjects, hundreds of pre-university students in Iran, were also improperly positioned directly opposite or below the monitor.

Dim the lights
Lighting is also important. Since contrast is critical, make sure your screen is brighter than the ambient lighting in the room where you compute. Overly bright overhead light and streaming daylight force the eyes to strain to see what is on the screen, and also can create glare. A bright monitor causes your pupils to constrict, giving the eyes a greater range of focus. So do draw those shades in the home or private office, or in an open office ask your employer to lower the overheads if you suspect they’re too bright. Consider an anti-glare cover for your computer display, or try glare-reducing lenses, a new take on an old innovation popular with many hardcore gamers. These so-called “gaming glasses” or, more generally, “computer glasses” help reduce glare, increase contrast and maximize what you see through them so you can sit in front of a display for longer periods of time.

Healthcare coverage?
Have your eyes checked regularly, about once a year, and keep any prescriptions up to date. Ask your healthcare provider if a pair of computer glasses might be covered by your health insurance. Also set your documents’ default View to a large enough size so you’re not straining to read what’s on the screen before you. Clean the monitor often with an anti-static dust cloth.

Take breaks and blink
If you already have symptoms of computer vision syndrome, there are ways to reduce or eliminate them. Ophthalmologists suggest adhering to the “20-20-20” rule: Every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and look at something 20 feet away.

Consciously blink as often as possible to keep eye surfaces well lubricated. Consider lubricating eye drops if you feel it’s necessary. Keep air from room fans from blowing directly in your face or even try a humidifier to add moisture to the air in the room.