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Screenage life: What looking at screens all day is doing to your eyes

This article is part of Vision Week, our exploration of eyeballs and videogames celebrating our collaboration with Warby Parker. Grab a pair of limited edition Kill Screen glasses here: warbyparker.com/kill-screen

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The eyes are among the most sophisticated organs in your body, comprising an automatic focusing and light sensitivity system far better than the best cameras and film designed to date. Four separate surfaces bend light as it enters the eye, and ciliary muscles flex in order to make these lenses change shape, flattening and thickening to account for distance and light.

In other words, there’s a lot of work taking place when you look at something. So it’s perhaps little wonder that 50 to 90 percent of workers who use computers every day complain of what amounts to intense fatigue, even as the job remains largely sedentary.

A 2013 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that the average 8-to-10-year-old spends about eight hours a day looking at a screen. That number was even higher for older children and teenagers, who spend more than 11 hours a day watching television, looking at a computer screen, or at a tablet or phone.

eyes become sore or produce a burning sensation

A person raised on screen media might adhere to a school routine with periods during the day of lower-than-average screen time. But when they move into the workforce, where they’re likely to have a computer-assisted job, it’s not unreasonable to assume that today’s adults spend more time looking at a screen than they spend doing any one other thing, including sleeping. Estimates vary based on demographics, occupation, and the kind of device-use measured, but this 2015 Nielsen report, which took a broad look at the scope of electronic media use, found that the average American adult spends about 11 hours a day looking at a screen. That number trends even higher for those in blue collar jobs and younger people.

While there are questions of the long-term psychological effects associated with screen time, including “structural and functional changes in brain regions involving emotional processing, executive attention, decision making, and cognitive control,” the most direct manifestation of the staggering amounts of time we spend looking at screens is unhealthy eye function. This is not altogether unpredictable: those who spend a lot of time looking at a screen can find that their eyes become sore or produce a burning sensation. Symptoms can also include chronic headaches and neck and back pain.

X-Ray Specs

X-Ray Specs, illustration by Lou Brooks

As is the wont of the medicalized world, these effects were codified and given a name: “computer vision syndrome.” This unassailably cool name aside (imagine it emblazoned across a vintage t-shirt), the scope of the issue truly does qualify it for status as an epidemic: this 2016 profile in the New York Times found that up to 70 million workers worldwide who spend three or more hours a day in front of a computer experience computer vision syndrome.

It turns out that screen media is uniquely suited to makes your eyes hurt. That NYT profile goes on to explain:

“Unlike words printed on a page that have sharply defined edges, electronic characters, which are made up of pixels, have blurred edges, making it more difficult for eyes to maintain focus. Unconsciously, the eyes repeatedly attempt to rest by shifting their focus to an area behind the screen, and this constant switch between screen and relaxation point creates eyestrain and fatigue.”

In other words, computer vision syndrome won’t be cured by simply switching from the frenetic character animations of Overwatch to the static e-reader version of a novel. It’s the very nature of pixelation that causes the focusing/un-focusing that strains one’s eyes, and not necessarily the content one encounters.

“take a 20-second break to view something 20 feet away”

However, there is some evidence to suggest that the degree to which content requires cognitive focus (rather than ocular focus), be it purely visual or language-based, can also contribute to sore eyes. For example, some studies have found that people who look at screens blink less often, and the more demanding material is on one’s cognitive focus, the fewer blinks one will take, contributing to eye strain.

Finally, there are the detrimental effects of “blue light.” As explained here:

“Blue light is part of the full light spectrum, which means we’re exposed to it by the sun every day. However, nighttime exposure to that light, which is emitted at high levels by smartphones, tablets, laptops, and other LED screens, may be damaging your vision. It also suppresses production of the hormone melatonin, which throws off your body’s natural sleep cues. […] When your melatonin levels and sleep cycle go haywire, your risk goes up for a wide range of ailments, from depression to cancer.”

It’s only appropriate, then, that some of the developers responsible for the ubiquitous presence of screens in our lives are introducing innovations to reduce those screens’ detrimental effects. Apple’s Night Shift, or f.lux, for example, gradually reduce the amount of blue light emitted by electronic devices when the sun goes down, giving everything a pleasant, urine-yellow filter.

All of which is to say that when you combine pixelated images, the cognitive focus required by heavy content, the blue light emitted by our devices, and the sheer amount of time spent experiencing all of the above, it’s no wonder our bodies occasionally revolt.

Skull_Eyeball_Implant

Eyeball skull implant, via Wikimedia Commons

Thankfully, it doesn’t take much in the way of complicated treatment or time to avoid annoying eye pain. The American Optometric Association recommends that, “To help alleviate digital eye strain, follow the 20-20-20 rule; take a 20-second break to view something 20 feet away every 20 minutes.”

And the changes that repetitive screen time are making to your eyes and brain are not all negative: as this Forbes story explains, the “left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which helps us make complex decisions and stores some memory function” and “The left frontal eye fields, which […] helps us process stimuli and includes hand-eye coordination skills” are improved through repetition. These findings were backed up in a 2014 study at the University of Toronto.

While excessive screen time might cause discomfort in your eyes, so long as some of that screen time is spent playing videogames, our ability to solve problems, remember sequences, and respond to stimuli may very well be enhanced.