Eye strain in a digital age

Parents should limit screen time for children to prevent eye-related health issues.

From ‘doom-scrolling’ on smartphones to binge-watching television, people have more than enough access to screens throughout their daily lives. While extra screen time does not necessarily mean a visit to an ophthalmologist is needed, it does mean the eyes are exposed to more situations that cause eye fatigue, dryness and other conditions. Here’s how to mitigate digital eye strain – and what to look out for in children.

Digital eye strain

With the widespread use of computers, tablets and smartphones, increased screen time has many people complaining of chronic eye strain or fatigue, called asthenopia. In some cases, people will experience burning, tearing, reduced vision quality, blurriness, headaches or brow aching.

Eye dryness

Humans naturally blink at a particular frequency without having to think about it. This underappreciated phenomenon is very important in preventing the eyes from drying out. Blinking does a lot for eye health. It stimulates tear secretion, helps to distribute tears evenly, and drains old tears into the nose (which becomes mucus). When a person focuses on something for a long time, like a screen, their blink rate can be less than half what they usually blink. This will dry the eyes out. Dry eyes do not see well or feel good.

Take breaks from screen time to allow the eyes to relubricate.

Blinking more is one of the first steps to help with dry eyes. If a person cannot reduce their screen time, they should take breaks to allow their eyes time to recover and relubricate themselves. But it is a good idea to power down from devices early and avoid staying up late at night in front of a screen. Aside from decreasing the amount one blinks, the bright lights of screens also contribute to a feeling of wakefulness. Those who sleep less may develop poor sleep habits like insomnia. Poor sleep habits have been linked with eye dryness. So, eye health and sleep health can suffer if a person stares at a screen all day and night.

Another treatment for eye dryness is to get a good brand of lubricating eye drops or artificial tears to use during or after long periods of screen time. There are many products and brands available over the counter. It is a good idea to ask an eye doctor which ones to use as each person has different needs.

The near vision system

When humans read or look at something up close, like a phone screen or a book, multiple different muscles of the eye simultaneously contract. This is the near vision system. Using a screen for a long time will repeatedly engage the muscles of the near vision system, and symptoms of eye strain or aching around the eyes can develop. These issues become more prevalent with age. 

Children have an almost limitless ability to use the near vision system and focus on objects very close to the face without fatigue. However, over time, this system for seeing up close gets weaker and weaker. By ages 45 to 50, the near vision system can weaken enough that a person may find themselves moving objects away rather than closer to see better (presbyopia). Because very small text cannot be seen far away, magnifiers or reading glasses become required to enlarge words. Having the proper glasses prescribed can significantly reduce symptoms of eye strain related to reading up close on a screen. 

Those who have not reached middle age can still reduce the demand on their near vision system. Do this simply by moving screens further away from the face. Try using larger font sizes or even bigger screens. For example, place the computer further away or try reading articles and books on a larger tablet rather than the phone. 

A special note on children

While screen viewing has not been shown to cause any permanent eye damage in adults, important consideration must be given to children and the developing eye. When babies are born, their eyes are too small, preventing normal vision. The eyes grow slowly over time in a very precise manner to allow most children to see well by adolescence. However, healthy eye development in children is a process that can be disrupted.

Evidence has emerged in recent decades that indicate increased use of screens is linked to higher rates of near-sightedness, called myopia, in children. Once myopia develops it often becomes permanent and may progress or worsen in adulthood. Myopia has a life-long impact and is associated with many eye problems and diseases. The prevalence of myopia in children is steadily increasing throughout the world and most experts consider it to be at epidemic proportions. While many factors are likely at play and exact causes are not yet known, it is almost certain that reducing screen use for children is critical in combating this myopia epidemic in the future.

Vincent Moscato, MD.

Dr. Moscato is a part of Crystal Run Healthcare’s Ophthalmology team. Ophthalmology deals with the anatomy, physiology and diseases of the eye. Ophthalmologists diagnose and treat both medical and surgical eye problems in patients of all ages. At Crystal Run, our ophthalmology team consists of highly skilled physicians who are fellowship-trained in anterior segment surgery (for cataracts and other eye problems) and glaucoma (a group of diseases that damage the eye’s optic nerve and can result in vision loss and blindness). Our ophthalmologists offer complete medical and surgical eye care, from simple evaluations for eyeglasses to complex and delicate eye surgery.

Vincent Moscato, MD is a board-certified ophthalmologist at Crystal Run Healthcare. He earned his medical degree at the University at Buffalo, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Science in Buffalo, N.Y. He completed his Ophthalmology residency at the Institute of Ophthalmology and Visual Science, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, N.J., and his internship in Preliminary Medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in Manhattan, N.Y. His clinical interests are comprehensive eye care and cataract surgery. Dr. Moscato is seeing patients in Goshen, N.Y., and Rock Hill, N.Y.

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