With persistent spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 in California and nationwide, some traditionally in-person activities – work, school and social interactions – will likely remain remote more often than usual for the foreseeable future.
As a result, the use of digital devices has surged significantly, with Americans logging an average of 13 hours per day watching screens. That compares to between seven and 10 hours per day before the COVID-19 pandemic started, with the increase in screen time likely contributing to more exposure to blue light.
While this low-wavelength, high-energy light offers some benefits, such as boosting alertness, too much of it may cause problems. Researchers continue to evaluate the potential short- and long-term health implications that may come from excessive exposure to blue light, including potential damage to retina cells, particularly in children and teens; increased incidences of age-related macular degeneration; disrupted sleep cycles; and digital eye strain.
In fact, nearly 60 percent of U.S. adults report symptoms of digital eye strain, which may result from extended computer and smartphone usage and can contribute to dry eyes, headaches and neck or shoulder pain. With that in mind, here are three tips to consider as the consistent use of digital devices remains a fact of life for most people:
Use the 20-20-20 rule or other rest tactics. It is important to give your eyes some rest during the day by breaking up long stretches of screen time. The 20-20-20 rule recommends that after 20 minutes of computer work, people take 20 seconds to look at something that’s approximately 20 feet away. Other strategies include keeping devices at least 30 inches from the eyes, as this separation can help reduce blue-light exposure; and switching to a task for which the eyes don’t have to focus on something up close, such as returning a call. Also, getting outside may reduce the risk of developing nearsightedness, which has become increasingly common in part due to the increased use of screens and today affects 41 percent of Americans – up from 25 percent in 1970.
Leverage blue-light-blocking technology. Many smartphones now include a “night mode” feature, which adjusts the screen’s setting to help filter out blue light. Likewise, specialized screen protectors can feature blue-light-filtering properties, while also helping prevent cracks or scratches. To help block blue light at the source, some computer manufacturers are embedding blue-light-filtering technology into the screens, helping ensure color clarity while reducing exposure to blue light. Another option is to get glasses with premium anti-reflective coating, which may help prevent harmful reflective glare and reduce the risk of digital eye strain.
Get a comprehensive eye exam. It’s a good idea for computer users to get an eye exam every year, according to the American Optometric Association. If you experience ongoing symptoms of digital eye strain, prescription lenses for computer viewing may be needed. Plus, a comprehensive eye exam may uncover other health conditions not usually associated with the eyes, including diabetes and some types of cancer. For children, remember that a school’s vision check is not a substitute for a comprehensive eye exam, as screenings usually focus on measuring acuity levels and might miss conditions such as poor eye alignment, focusing problems and farsightedness.
As we contend with the ongoing pandemic and transition to an increasingly virtual world, considering these tips can help people maintain or improve their eye health as part of an overall focus on whole-person well-being.
This week’s guest columnist, Dr. Scott Edmonds, serves as the chief eye care officer for UnitedHealthcare.