"Technology… is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other." C.P. Snow, New York Times, March 15, 1971
One such stab is the back could be the impact of screens on our eyes. The question that begs an answer : How much screen time is healthy for eyes?
Dogs use their sense of smell to gather information about their surrounding environment. In humans, we rely on our sight and, thus, vision is the most important of the five senses. Losing our vision can create an immense impact on our lives.
The emergence of new digital technologies and the Internet have changed the way we live. We spend a lot of our waking time bouncing between different digital devices. This is because we have a habit of going online anywhere at anytime. We use these devices for home and office, leisure and work. The amount of time we spend on screens prevents us from sleeping well. Our health – our eyes in particular pay the price for our digital addiction.
There has been a global increase in screen time during the pandemic. According to the Eyesafe & United HealthCare vision report, people in the USA spend more than thirteen hours on screens since Covid 19 started. The data will likely to similar for urban types in other countries as well.
The question of how much screen time is healthy for eyes also is a concern for parents. The amount of outdoor time and physical activity for kids has reduced. It has become zero during lock-downs. Children and adults are glued to digital screens causing severe eye fatigue. My sister was facing a similar challenge with her two young kids. She finally introduced them to audiobooks and podcasts. Both her kids now love listening to stories from the audiobook apps. Instead of sleeping with ipads and e-readers, they enjoy tucking in bed and listening to stories. It is a better option not just for kids but also for people of all ages. I have switched over to using audiobooks and podcast . I can listen now even while cooking or doing mundane house chores. Listening is great for multi-tasking.
Exposure to screens and the impact of Blue Light on the eyes.
Before we can answer how much screen time is healthy, let us see what is the unhealthy about screen-time. The main culprit is blue rays - a type of light emitted by all digital displays . There are seven colors in the visible light spectrum. Each color has a different wavelength and energy level. Blue light has a short wavelength and higher energy compared to the other colors in the spectrum. These blue rays are terrible for our eyes in many ways:
- Irritation and, in some cases, even long term damage to the eyes. Blue light emitted from the devices penetrates deep into the eyes. This results in a glaring effect causing strain and irritation.
- Dryness of the eyes, caused due to reduced blinking while staring at the screens. Blink rate decreases by half when one is forever looking at the screen. Reduced blinking causes blurred vision; redness and can worsen as the day progresses.
- Sleep The sleep hormone melatonin reduces due to blue light. This disrupts the sleep patterns causing severe eyestrain.
- Asthenopia – Also referred to as “computer vision syndrome”. This occurs due to excessive screen use and is prevalent among children and adults.
- Myopia: The closer we hold our digital devices; the eyes have to work harder. If one continues to hold devices closer for more extended periods, then it can cause Myopia. Increased Myopia increases the risk of eye issues like retinal tearing, glaucoma or cataract. Research published in the journal "Progress in Retinal and eye research,” mentions this.
East Asia has seen an unprecedented rise in Myopia, according to research. Myopia is also called shortsightedness. The dramatic increase in this condition is also visible in other parts of the world.
The rise in Myopia among children is due to spending more time reading and studying. They are also glued to smartphones for longer durations. Because of peer pressures, parents end up buying digital devices for their children. My cousin went through this trauma. She gave in to such peer pressure and ended up buying an ipad for her daughter Sarika. After long hours of use, Sarika would complain about blurry vision and headaches. She was diagnosed with Myopia. But even after the eyestrain and problems, she refused to give up spending long hours on the ipad. For Sarika, being online was being cool. She did not want to be left behind by her friends. The fear of missing out (Fomo) meant hour’s online everyday.
K.David Epley, MD was from the American Academy of ophthalmology. He used innovative ways to educate the kids. He taught them better habits. He didn’t prescribe reading glasses to them. This prevented them from spending more time hooked to devices. Instead, he would explain to them that if they run too far and their legs start hurting, they would stop. In the same way if you are reading for long and eyes start hurting then stop reading. Likewise with watching videos for long.
Myopia estimates from 2000 to 2050 show an increasing trend in prevalence’s globally. This is as per the data collected and analyzed by Brian Holden Vision Institute (http://reviewofmm.com/prevalence-of-myopia-and-high-myopia-is-expected-to-rise-in-the-future/). The data suggest that by 2050, one of every two people will have myopia and one of every ten people will have high myopia.
Precautions to avoid digital eyestrain
Eyestrain hurts us in many ways. We feel terrible. Our work suffers if eye problems are not corrected on time. The work productivity drops by almost 29 percent. This is according to a Research done by the University of Alabama. (Source Financial times -https://www.ft.com/content/435eef82-654e-11e6-8310-ecf0bddad227)
There is no clear consensus on how much screen time is healthy for adults. But while the "How much screen time is healthy for eyes?" question doesnt have a definitive numerical answer, there are many things we can do to take care of our eyes. Experts in the Vision care field recommend the following steps to help us reduce eyestrain while using digital devices.
Take frequent breaks while using digital devices.
Use the 20/20/20 rule. Dr Jeff Anshell, a specialist in "vision ergonomics", popularized the 20/20/20 practice. For every 20 minutes of usage, look away for 20 seconds and focus on something 20 feet away.
Use Artificial tears or lubricant drops usage helps to relieve symptoms of dryness.
Manage light, brightness & Glare
Reduce overhead lighting to reduce the screen glare. Dim your screen if it's much brighter than the rest of the light in the area.
Adjust the room lighting, to change the contrast. It is comfortable for the eyes when the light coming from the monitor is like the light in the workspace.
You can also use a matte screen filter to avoid glare.
Distance from device
Sit farther away from the computer. Maintain a reasonable distance from your computer screen for extra protection. General rule is to be at least 25inches or roughly an arm's length out. While working on the computer, move the screen, so you have to look somewhat downward at the screen.
Manage device settings
Adjust your screen settings and avoid squinting by increasing the size of your text. Also, keep the brightness right keeping in mind the ambient light. Both too bright or too dark a screen is problem.
"Because digital minimalists spend so much less time connected than their peers, it's easy to think of their lifestyle as extreme, but the minimalist would argue that this perception is backward, what's extreme is how much time everyone else spends staring at their screens." ― Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World
There are many benefits to having the world at our fingertips. But one must find the right balance between online and offline activities.
Digital addiction is growing, and people feel stressed if there is no Internet connection. Getting enough outdoor light is also essential. It helps eye muscle develop and stay healthy.
Digital devices and screens have taken control of humanity. And we tend to give up simple pleasures like being in nature and instead opt to be with our devices at all times. It gives us a sense of connectedness. But, this sense of constant connectedness is unhealthy. Humans need gaps and solitude in their daily lives. Being constant connected is bad for our bodies. It causes stress to our eyesight, the most important of the five senses. Of course, there are ways to detox from technology. The Himalayan Digital Detox is probably the only physical detox in India right now.
What we need is the ability to switch off and find calm in our noisy digital world. Adopting digital minimalism can help us rethink our relationship with social media. And, in the process, do an immense service to our eyes.