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I was shocked to learn how much my screen time was affecting my vision.

Morgan Noll
Mar 22, 2021 @ 4:56 pm
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Soon after the pandemic started and millions of Americans transitioned to working from home, health experts warned about the negative effects of increased screen time. Some of these effects include disrupted sleep schedules, deteriorating mental health, and, most relevant for me lately, eye strain. Working for a digital magazine, I spend my entire workday on a screen whether I'm in the office or at home, so I didn't think the warnings about "increased" screen time really applied to me at first. When I started having bouts of blurry vision and headaches earlier this year, however, I started to reconsider.

Since I've never been someone who's dealt with migraines in the past, I figured this new experience had to be pandemic- and stress-related—I just didn't know exactly what was going on or how to fix it. Then, a TikTok video demonstrating an easily replicable vision test made me realize it might be time to get my eyes checked out. In the video, which has 1.9 million views, injury expert @doc.wishloff holds a pen to her nose and films her eyes looking at it.

"This is one of my all-time favorite tests to see how your eyes are functioning," she says in the video. "If you have had a concussion or you have headaches, or you work at the desk a lot looking at a computer screen, give this a try; it might be the reason for your headaches." After doing the test, Dr. Wishloff points out that one of her eyes didn't move as quickly as the other and then demonstrates some eye circles geared to "get your eyes moving quicker."

When I filmed myself doing the eye test, I was pretty worried about what played back. While one of my eyes had no trouble looking at the pen, the other stared straight ahead and even drifted in the opposite direction—so obviously I booked an eye doctor appointment ASAP. Here's what I found out: Although my eyes were structurally healthy, and my vision hadn't worsened or even changed, the eye doctor said my eyes were tired, not from a lack of sleep, but from working too hard. She also confirmed that the likely culprit of my eye strain, vision issues, and headaches was, in fact, screen time.

To further explain the connection between screen time and eye strain and confirm whether or not that TikTok eye test actually holds up, I also talked with optometrist Lilan Le, the Head of Optometry Operations at HEYWEAR. Keep reading for everything you need to know about eye strain, how it's caused, and how to treat it.

How does screen time cause eye strain?

Dr. Le doesn't want anyone to watch the above TikTok video and freak out (as I did) just because their eyes look in different directions or move at different speeds. It's totally normal for our eyes to have difficulty looking at something very close up and this doesn't necessarily indicate that anything is wrong, she says. However, there is something about that TikTok video that can help explain the connection between screen time and eye strain, and that's the idea of "convergence." In order for us to read something on the computer or our phones, Dr. Le explains that our eyes have to converge or come together, to focus on the screen and hold that position. When we do this for eight hours a day, as many of us working from home do, it can be "really fatiguing on the muscles of the eyes," she explains.

To further contextualize this idea, Dr. Le likes to use the example of lifting weights. "If you were to lift a one-pound weight for one second and put it down, it's not that big of a deal," she says. "But if you were to hold that one-pound weight up for eight hours, you're definitely going to feel some fatigue. So that's what's kind of occurring with our eyes and eye strain."

Even though I had convinced myself that I had the same amount of screen time pre-pandemic—and had been metaphorically lifting these weight just as much back then—Dr. Le helped me understand that's probably not true. "When you go into an office environment, you have external stimuli, like reasons to look up from the computer," she explains. "You're talking to your colleagues, you're walking around, getting coffee, things like that—that allows you to take a break from your posture and eye strain. But when people work from home, they stay in the same position for many, many hours a day. They don't take breaks from looking at the computer."

What are the symptoms of eye strain?

According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the common symptoms of eye strain—also known as computer vision syndrome—include sore, itchy, burning, watery, or dry eyes; blurry or double vision; headaches; sore neck, shoulders, or back; difficulty concentrating; increased sensitivity to light; and feeling like you can't keep your eyes open.

Dr. Le says she's seen the issue of dry eyes increase during the pandemic from increased computer usage. "When we're looking at the computer and concentrating in general, we blink half the amount of times that we normally blink," she says. Blinking less often can lead to dry and irritated eyes, she explains, because "blinking is what allows our eyes to get a fresh layer of tears to hydrate the front surface."

She also explained that frontal headaches between the brows are a common symptom of eye strain for the same reason that our bodies get sore from working at computers all day. Just as we often tense up our back, neck, and shoulders when working at a desk, it's also common to squint and furrow our brows when trying to focus on the screen, which can cause these headaches.

Does eye strain make vision worse?

Fortunately, the answer here is no. "Worsening vision is more of a structural change in your eyes, like changes in like the shape of your eye," Dr. Le explains. Eye strain, on the other hand, is just a temporary response to the eyes being overworked or concentrated on one thing for too long and it isn't connected to long-term damage.

However, eye strain can make daily life rather uncomfortable, so it's worth taking the time to address and correct the root causes. Keep reading below for some easy ways that you can manage and reduce eye strain right now.

How to get rid of eye strain:

1. Take frequent breaks.

Our eyes put in a lot of work when staring at computer screens all day long, so it's important to take breaks to let them relax. Dr. Le likes to use the popular 20-20-20 rule, which goes like this: For every 20 minutes of looking at a screen up close, you should look at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds. To help yourself remember to take these breaks, you can set timers on your phone throughout the day. Just as it's good to get up and stretch our bodies during the workday, the same premise helps keep our eye muscles from getting too sore.

2. Optimize your computer position.

"The most optimal position to have the computer is arm's-length away and also at eye level or about 15 degrees lower," Dr. Le says. She explains that this is a comfortable distance for your eyes to be looking at the computer without having to converge and strain too hard to read what's on the screen.

3. Use eye drops.

Because dry eyes are a common symptom of eye strain, keeping eye drops or artificial tears nearby can help provide relief while working at the computer all day.

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4. Use a humidifier by your desk.

Dr. Le also recommends keeping a humidifier by your desk, especially during the winter when heaters tend to zap the indoor air of moisture, to prevent dry eyes. Humidifiers can also be good for skin, hair, houseplants, and respiratory conditions, so they're worthwhile investments.

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5. Get specialized glasses.

As explained previously, focusing on a computer screen for multiple hours a day can be an exhausting task for our eyes. So, getting a prescription that is optimized for the computer and close up viewing can reduce some of the work that our eyes have to do. Whether you already wear prescription glasses or contacts or not, you can talk with an eye doctor about getting a specialized glasses prescription that's specifically for computer usage.

6. Increase the contrast on your screen.

Reducing eye strain is all about reducing the amount of work our eyes have to do. So, if you're looking at tiny, hard-to-read text all day, that's not giving your eyes much of a break. For various internet browsers, you can use extensions or certain settings to increase the size and contrast of the text on your screen, making it easier to read and reduce the effort your eyes have to use.

While all the above can be great practices to prevent and reduce eye strain, you should consult with a doctor if you're experiencing frequent migraines and headaches or more severe vision issues.