Staring at Screens All Day? How to Protect Your Eyes

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

If you’re like most people who regularly read online, you probably spend a lot of time looking at screens. There’s your smartphone, your laptop, the desktop computer you use at work, the tablet you use for reading on the couch, the television you use to watch TV shows or play video games, and perhaps a smartwatch or a fitness-tracking device that you use to keep track of all the exercise you aren’t getting while you’re busy looking at screens.

According to a recent report from the Vision Council (PDF), 30% of Generation X adults spend at least nine hours a day using a digital device. That percentage rises to 37.4% for Millennials. And as David Roberts points out at Vox, it’s likely that the smaller group of people who read and write content on the Internet for a living spend even more time looking at screens each day, with somewhere between 10 to 12 hours a day nothing out of the ordinary. (I’m glad I’m not the only one.)

It turns out that all of this screen time isn’t good for our eyes. Eye strain; pain in the neck, back, or shoulders; headaches; blurred vision; and dry eyes are all common symptoms the Vision Council reports are associated with “overexposure to digital devices.” That’s because staring at screens for hours at a time decreases blinking — which plays an important role in preventing eye irritation or dryness — and because screens expose your eyes to blue light. The report explains that “cumulative and constant exposure to blue light can damage retinal cells.”

Blue light can damage the retina, which is responsible for processing the intensity of light and color, because it can reach deeper into the eye than ultraviolet light. Once damage occurs, the eyes are left increasingly exposed to blue light and other harmful environmental factors. The bands of blue light that are considered the most potentially harmful to retinal cells ranges from 415 to 455 nm, and most digital devices can emit a high level of blue light, in wavelengths starting at 400 nm.

Researchers are exploring a possible link between exposure to blue light and long-term vision issues, like age-related macular degeneration (aMd) and cataracts, and Vox notes that exposure to blue light at night has also been linked to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Those effects likely have to do with blue light’s ability to suppress your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that helps you to fall asleep. Even the non-harmful wavelengths of blue light tell our brains that it’s daytime, which serves to increase our heart rates and alertness.

Fortunately, there are a number of solutions to the blue light problem. The most obvious is not look at screens for the two to three hours before you go to bed. If that isn’t a practical option for you, then you can consider wearing glasses or goggles with orange lenses, meant to block out the blue light emitted by the devices you use for evening work or late-night Netflix-watching.

As Kate Galbraith reported for The New York Times earlier this year, research has shown that people who wore amber-tinted glasses for three hours before bed improved their sleep quality, though it’s worth noting that not all brands of orange-tinted glasses have gone through the independent testing that would prove their ability to aid sleep. (Uvex is one brand that’s become a popular choice among users seeking to block blue light and its effects.)

If orange glasses just aren’t your style, you can make some simple changes to the devices that you can’t avoid using within close proximity to your bed time. You can use a blue light-blocking adhesive screen protector. Just search Amazon to find hundreds of options for smartphones, tablets, and computers, or consider the array of options offered by an Ohio company called LowBlueLights. Or consider installing an app that’s designed to decrease the harmful effects of the blue light emitted by your devices by adjusting the light by the time of day. A few popular options are f.lux for OS X, Windows, Linux, and iOS (if you’re willing to jailbreak your iPhone or iPad), and Twilight or CF.lumen for Android.

You should also keep in mind that minimizing your exposure to blue light during the evening hours is also advisable. If you have a choice, opt to use a smaller screen rather than a larger one, dim the screen and keep it as far away from your eyes as possible, and reduce the amount of time you spend reading on the device before you go to sleep.

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