Our parents insisted that we shouldn’t sit too close to the television set and there was a good reason for it: you’d end up with square eyes they said. While that wasn’t strictly true (have you actually met anyone with quadrilateral vision?), there is plenty of evidence to support the hidden dangers of digital devices on eye health.
Now that most homes come pre-loaded with any number of screens – mobile phones, tablets, laptops, PC’s and multiple television sets – these can present a serious danger to our eye health. Factor in the hours you may also spend at work, looking at a computer screen and it’s time to seriously reconsider the amount of time you spend engaging with digital devices.
What harm could you be doing to your eye health now, and into the future?
A recent study of nearly five thousand Chinese students revealed that over 80% reported some level of short-sightedness. A number of factors played a part in those findings, but one of the key triggers was lengthy and increasing exposure to digital screens. Similar studies in Australia and the US showed lesser but notable (and worrying) change:
- Diagnosed myopia in American 12 year olds has increased from 25 to 40% since 2001.
- 64% of kids under 17 own a smartphone, and they spend around 23 hours a week using it.
- The penetration of PC’s in US homes and classrooms is above 90%, with kids devoting more than 7 hours every day to digital media.
All this exposure to digital devices comes with a price: deteriorating eye health and vision.
Although we should be most concerned about the welfare of our children – ‘a ticking time bomb’ said one researcher – all of us are at risk, whether you’re 10, 30 or 60. The damage, once done, is nearly always irreversible. Two hours a day is your recommended dose of screen time, although various social, educational and professional circumstances mean few of us are in a position to act on that.
Hidden Dangers to Eye Health
High Energy Visible Light (HEV)
According to many industry voices, ‘blue light’ is the great bogey that causes eye disease or, worse, will send us all blind! Adam Gordon at the University of Alabama sees it differently. “Unlike UV light which does cause long term damage, blue light (or High-Energy Visible light, HEV) is in the visible spectrum and emitted by a digital device. In significant amounts, such as you receive when watching a screen, it can cause eye strain that leads to blurry vision and uncomfortable, burning sensations”.
However he says “it doesn’t cause any lasting damage despite claims from those who profit from manufacturing specialists lenses. An easy way to limit the amount of strain is to observe the 20/20/20 rule: every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This helps relax eye muscles, and promotes tear ducts to lubricates your eyes”.
Of greater concern, HEV upsets our natural, circadian rhythms and the production of melatonin that helps us sleep. Poor sleep quality leads to poor eye health and that can have a lasting, damaging effect. In extreme cases, these adjustments to melatonin can lead to chronic fatigue which can have all manner of health implications, none of them good.
TIP: It’s best to turn off all screens a couple of hours before you go to bed, to ensure you get a restful night’s sleep.
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Proximity to Screens
Another of the ‘hidden dangers’ of digital devices is our proximity to the screen. “Spending long periods reading material that is within 30cm of the readers’ face is associated with a greater risk of myopia,” said Professor Wang. ‘Near work’ and poor eyesight are intractably linked, so it’s vitally important to engage in a mix of activities throughout the day that will give your eyes a break from constant, perhaps harmful, activity.
Also check the lighting around your screens. Glare from windows in front, or reflections from behind, add to eye strain as can the amount of ambient light in a room. Ideally you want that light to match the screen.
Detecting Eye Health Problems
About a third of us spend more than 10 hours a day engaged with a digital device. That number is on the rise, along with the number of people reporting problems that can be grouped as Digital Eye Strain.
What’s important to realise is that other eye conditions – presbyopia, astigmatism or myopia – add to the problem. It’s also important not to confuse them.
Detecting eye health problems early on is critical, which is why regular eye examinations are so important. All too often we labour under the misapprehension that we have a minor problem such as burning eyes for instance, when it can be so much more serious.
It’s easy to normalise problematic vision and do lasting damage to the health of your eyes. It’s also easy to get a regular, professional opinion, so be sure you do.
Although this exposure to multiple digital devices, blue light, electronic screens and the mountain of images they offer up every day is unavoidable, it’s still a shock to our system. While our brains might be ready to digest the screeds of information, our eyes haven’t caught up yet.
Our eyesight evolved by viewing different objects from different angles and distances in varying light under varying conditions. Today, much of that complexity has been taken out of our viewing habits and that lack of variety is taking its toll. Digital eye strain is here to stay, but we are able to limit how much harm it causes.
How to Help Minimise Damage to Your Eye Health
“The outside, natural environment is really important for your eyes”, says Professor Wei Wang of the Edith Cowan University Medical Sciences University. “Getting outdoors is very important for eye health, particularly in children” he said. Colours, brightness and long distance all help to relax the eyes, which is important for their long term health. When we’re outside or when children are at play, we’re not concentrating on just one thing. “This helps the muscles of the eye relax,” he said.
Here are some more tips to help minimise damage to your eye health:
- Where possible, reduce the amount of time you spend in front of a screen
- Increase the breaks you have when engaged with a screen
- Improve the environment in which you view a digital device
- Don’t sit too close to your screens
- Be sure to have regular checkups with an eye care professional to ensure your vision stays sharp for the entirety of your life
- If you wear contact lenses, consider wearing glasses when you are using your laptop or PC
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Over to you now. Do you worry about your child’s eye health? Please let us know in the comments box below.