Smartphones, tablets, laptops, e-readers - between all of our everyday digital devices, the average parent spends just over 9 hours a day staring at some kind of screen, according to a 2016 study by Common Sense Media. More than 7 hours of that time is spent on personal digital devices. Now, we know that too much screen time may impact the development of young children, but what about the toll it’s taking on adults? Could the screens we use so much be harming our eyes?
This summer, headlines flashed across major media outlets suggesting that screens - particularly the blue light that emanates from them - could lead to impaired vision like macular degeneration and cataracts later in life. But don’t drop the device you’re reading this on just yet. We checked in with Dr. Daniel Connors, MD, a Shore Medical Center ophthalmologist and retina specialist with Foxman, Foxman, Margolis & Associates to find out more.
The Blue Light Blues
Dr. Connors says that in many ways, digital technology has improved our lives.
“We have all sorts of information and resources at our fingertips now, and we can connect with people on a level that we were never able to previously. But we’ve all become much more addicted to our cell phones and devices, especially as technology improves,” Dr. Connors says. “Over time, those devices have added all sorts of colors and lights to keep our attention. Blue light is a component of that light, and that’s what people primarily have been concerned about.”
Blue light is a natural light on the color spectrum. In fact, the single greatest source of blue light is the sun. Blue light is not the same as ultraviolet (UV) light, which Dr. Connors says IS absolutely harmful.
“There has been some talk about whether blue light contributes to diseases of the retina like cataracts and macular degeneration the way that UV light does. The answer is ‘no’, there is no definitive link between blue light and any disease process related to the eye. These studies really haven’t borne out a proof that blue light is harmful. However, that doesn’t make screen time benign.”
The Impact of Digital Devices on Our Eyes
While staring at screens for too long likely isn’t doing long-term damage to your eyes, it can lead to a number of other problems.
- Screens Suppress Your Blink Reflex: Believe it or not, when you’re staring at a screen, you blink half to one-third less than when you’re reading a book, looking around or just talking to someone. “Blinking is important to your eye health. With each blink, it clears the eyes of debris, moisturizes it, and brings nutrients to the eye’s surface. The less you blink, the more likely you are to get dry eye, or what we call exposure keratopathy. This is damage to the eye due to prolonged exposure to the outside environment,” says Dr. Connors. “You may feel a burning sensation or like something is in your eye. This increases your risk of developing conditions like corneal abrasions and ulcerations. If left untreated, these can be pretty serious.”
- It Interferes with your Sleep/Wake Cycle: Because blue light is a component of natural sunlight, it can stimulate your wakefulness, which can be a problem if you’re using devices before bed. “Your brain doesn’t know that this is an electronic device, that it isn’t the sun. It recognizes something that it typically associates with the sun, and so it causes us to be more awake than we were previously. If you find that you have trouble falling asleep and you’re using your device before bed, that’s likely the culprit,” says Dr. Connors. “And don’t pick it up if you should wake up in the middle of the night, either. Put the device down, pick up a book or just do something relaxing that doesn’t involve blue light. Not getting enough sleep on a regular basis can open a Pandora’s Box of other conditions, like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. You need a good night’s rest.”
- They Can Cause Eye Strain: Staring at screens for too long can also cause something called Digital Eye Strain. This is an umbrella term for a group of eye and vision-related disorders that include fatigued ocular muscles, headaches and blurred vision, as well as dry eye and even neck and shoulder pain. “The eyes are like any other part of our body,” says Dr. Connors. “If you’re a marathon runner, eventually your leg muscles are going to get tired. It’s the same with our eyes. The more we use them, the more tired they get. Of course, in the same vein, the symptoms will likely go away after some rest.”
So, What Can We Do?
It’s safe to say that devices are not going away, but there are steps we can take to minimize the impact they have on our eyes and health.
- Take Frequent Breaks: Giving your eyes a rest regularly can really help minimize your device’s impact on your eyes. Try using the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes, look away from your screen at something at least 20 feet away, for 20 seconds or more. And try not to look at your personal electronic device for more than one hour at a time.
- Lower the Brightness on your Phone: All phones have a brightness setting. Lower yours as much as you can. Your eyes will get used to the lower brightness level.
- Break the Habit: Screens and the activities we use them for are addicting - they’re made to be that way. If you think you use electronic devices too much, try to change your habits so that you’re not overdoing it. If you are unsuccessful, consider seeking a professional to help you cut back.
- Don’t Waste Money on Blue Light Blockers: There are lenses and screens on the market that purport to block blue light, but there is little evidence these have much of an impact.
If you’re worried about developing cataracts, macular degeneration or other retinal diseases, it’s important to make sure you’re getting an annual eye exam; eating a healthy diet that includes lots of leafy greens; exercising regularly; and not smoking. Knowing the symptoms of retinal diseases is also important, so be sure to talk to your eye doctor about any possible symptoms. If you do need to see an ophthalmologist, Dr. Connors and the retina specialists at Foxman, Foxman, Margolis and Associates are here for you, with offices in Northfield, Cape May Court House, and Vineland. To learn more, visit their website at www.retina.com or call 609.646.5200.