Your alarm goes off in the morning: You roll over, and check your email and social feeds on your phone. Then you head off to work, where you’ll stare at a computer for the next eight hours. Later that night, you sink into the couch and chill with a few episodes of your latest Netflix obsession. How do your eyes feel?
Many of us spend a good chunk of the day glued to a screen. Last year, a Nielsen Company audience report revealed that the average adult in the United States spends 8 hours and 47 minutes a day on a device. Which begs the question: How is all that screen time affecting our eye health and more?
The answer isn’t so clear. Some doctors worry that exposure to blue light from electronic devices may have a negative impact on our eyes. "Blue light is concerning because the cornea and the lens don’t filter it out, so it goes right to the back of the eye," says Anam Qureshi, MD, clinical assistant professor of ophthalmology at NYU Langone in New York City. She says some experts think it might damage the retina and lead to conditions like macular degeneration—though there isn't any research to back up those concerns.
Dallas-based optometrist Janelle Routhier, OD, has found that, for her patients, staring at a screen for long periods of time can lead to digital eyestrain—also known as computer vision syndrome. Symptoms may include blurry vision; trouble focusing on one thing; red, tired eyes; dry eyes; and headaches, she says.
Think of it this way: “If you’re in a squat position and you’re holding it for a really long time, your legs are going to get really tired and you’re eventually not going to be able to hold that position anymore,” says Dr. Routhier. The same thing happens to your eyes. In order to focus on an object, your eye muscles need to "constantly be pulled together," she says. And after a while, those muscles get fatigued.
What's more, a number of studies have shown that the blue light suppresses melatonin—a hormone that helps the body maintain healthy circadian rhythms. That can make it harder to fall asleep, and lack of sleep can have long-term health consequences, says Dr. Qureshi.
While more research is needed to assess the side effects of our tech habits, there are a few simple strategies you can use to play it safe and protect your eyes from your screens. Below, eye docs share their best tips.
Give your eyes a break
“If you’re going to be concentrating on a screen for a long time, try the 20/20/20 rule," says Dr. Routhier. "The goal is to take a break every 20 minutes, for 20 seconds, and look at something that’s at least 20 feet away.” You might look out a window, for example, or across your office. To create this habit, set a reminder on your phone to take these regular breaks.
Also: It sounds silly, but try to remember to blink. "When you concentrate, you decrease your blink rate, which can cause all the tears to evaporate from the surface of your eye and cause blurry vision, eye irritation, redness, and pain," says Dr. Qureshi.
Download a light-reducing app
There are a number of apps that reduce the blue light on your devices, such as f.lux. You can also use the “Nightshift” mode on your iPhone.
But the best way to keep your gadgets from interfering with your Zs is to turn them off an hour before your bedtime. Instead, opt for a less-stimulating pre-slumber activity, like reading a book or listening to some calming music.
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Get smart about your lenses
BluBlocker Sunglasses that filter out blue light (and come in a not-so-stylish bright orange hue) have been around for years—but there's probably no way you'd be caught rocking them at the office. Luckily, there's now another option that does the same job without making you look like a member of a '90s band. Dr. Routhier recommends Transitions Adaptive lenses for your eyeglasses. These lenses filter out blue light both from your screen and the sun. (Full disclosure: Dr. Routhier is a Senior Director of Customer Development at Essilor, which develops these lenses.)
The right specs can also help with digital eye strain, says Dr. Qureshi. "As you get older, you may lose the ability to see up close," she explains. Consider picking up a pair of reading glasses that will help you see your computer screen better (which may be a different strength than the specs you use to read books or magazines). "You really have to tailor the glasses you wear for the distance between you and your device," Dr. Qureshi says.