How Your 9 to 5 Is Hurting Your Eyes

Medically reviewed by Judith Marcin, MD on January 30, 2017Written by Mary Ellen Ellis on January 30, 2017

It’s a digital world and most of us are attached at the hip — or the eyeball — to our mobile devices and screens. Being constantly connected has a lot of benefits, like being able to work anywhere and keeping up with old friends.

But it has some downsides too. One of these is the effect that screens are having on your eyes. You may have computer vision syndrome, also called digital eye syndrome or digital eyestrain. And, if you already deal with dry eyes, your screen time is probably making the issue worse.

What is computer vision syndrome?

The first thing to know about computer vision syndrome (CVS) is that it isn’t restricted to computer use. Any of your digital device screens can contribute to the syndrome. CVS is a group of eye problems and symptoms that are the result of spending too much time looking at computer, smartphone, e-reader, and tablet screens. How much screen time can be tolerated before experiencing CVS is different for everyone. In general, the more time you spend with screens, the greater your risks and the more severe your discomfort will be.

Symptoms and signs of CVS

The symptoms you may experience vary. Common symptoms that your screen time is affecting your eyes include:

  • dry eyes, or worsening chronic dry eye
  • headaches
  • blurry vision
  • pain in your neck and shoulders
  • eyestrain

CVS and chronic dry eye

Chronic dry eye is a condition characterized by too few tears. If you have chronic dry eye, screen time may worsen your symptoms. It’s a good idea to reduce the amount of time you spend looking at devices, especially if you’re trying to manage your dry eyes. If you haven’t been checked out by your doctor yet, and your eyes often feel dry or gritty, or are red or burning, make an appointment now. Treatments are available that can help.

Easy steps you can take to prevent or reduce CVS symptoms

If you experience any of the symptoms of CVS, it wouldn’t hurt to cut back a little bit on screen time. When you do need to use your devices, there are some things you can do to reduce eye discomfort. These are also generally good practice even before you have any symptoms:

Follow the 20-20-20 rule: According to the American Optometric Association, everyone should follow the 20-20-20 rule: While working on a computer or using another type of screen, look away from the screen every 20 minutes, for 20 seconds, and look at something that is about 20 feet away. Just this simple change can save your eyes, prevent CVS, and bring you relief if you already experience symptoms.

Be sure you have the right prescription eyewear: One of the causes of CVS is having uncorrected vision problems while using devices. If you wear glasses or contact lenses, you may need a different prescription for working with screens. Get to your eye doctor for a checkup to find out if a better prescription, tinted glasses, or coatings could help you view your screens more safely.

Sit the right way for computer work: How you position your body and your screen as you work can have a big impact on CVS symptoms. For instance, your screen should be about 4 to 5 inches below eye level so that you’re looking slightly down when you view it. Keep your screen at least 2 feet away from you. If you can’t read it at that distance, you probably need to recheck your eyeglass prescription.

Glare and poor lighting can also make symptoms worse, so be sure your screen is situated in such a way that you aren’t fighting glare.

Keep any reference materials at the same distance as your screen: If you’re referring to something else while you work, like a file, a book, or another screen, switching between the two can cause eyestrain. It helps to keep them at approximately the same distance from you and to have the other materials as close to the screen as possible. This will reduce the need to refocus as you switch from one to the other.

The takeaway

Screen time is a big part of modern life, but it’s hurting us. Be aware of the risks that screens pose to your eyes, know the symptoms of CVS, and check in with your doctor if you think you may have chronic dry eye. By being aware and taking steps to prevent or reduce symptoms, you can continue to enjoy your devices, without pain and discomfort.

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