Does staring at screens all day really damage your eyes? We asked an expert

Digital eye strain
KieferPix/Shutterstock
The amount of time we spend staring at screens has increased dramatically in the last few years. We know that our sedentary lifestyles spent staring at screens impacts our physical health thanks to the obesity crisis, and we’re starting to explore the impact on our mental well-being as anxiety disorders are on the rise, but what effect is all this screen time having on our eyesight?

“No one knows for sure at this point if prolonged use of digital devices actually causes permanent damage to the eyes,” explained Gary Heiting, OD, senior editor of AllAboutVision.com, “but it’s well established that it causes eye strain and discomfort.”

Digital eye strain, sometimes referred to as computer vision syndrome, is well documented. If you’ve ever experienced dry or irritable eyes, blurred vision, eye fatigue, or head, neck and back pain after using a computer or smartphone, then you’re familiar with it.

A 2015 report from The Vision Council, Hindsight Is 20/20/20: Protect Your Eyes from Digital Devices, found that 61 percent of Americans have experienced eye strain after prolonged use of electronic devices — nearly 2 out of every 3 people. Long-term damage or not, we have an outbreak of eye strain on our hands.

What about long-term damage?

Because they emit HEV light (also called blue light), staring at phone and tablet screens may actually harm our eyes permanently. HEV light is that portion of the visible light spectrum that comprises light with the shortest wavelengths, which carry the greatest potential to damage living tissue.

We’re spending almost as much time staring at screens as we do sleeping.

“Many eye care providers are concerned about the potentially damaging effects of high-energy visible (HEV) light emitted by digital devices because laboratory and animal studies have shown exposure to high levels of HEV light can damage tissue in the retina of the eye in a way that appears consistent with retinal changes associated with macular degeneration, a leading cause of permanent vision loss in older adults.” says Dr. Heiting. “But no one knows for sure at this point if prolonged use of digital devices causes sufficient exposure to HEV light to cause permanent eye damage.”

Blue (HEV) light is also emitted by the sun and LED light bulbs, but most of us don’t stare at them for hours on end.

Was Mom right about not sitting so close to the TV?

You don’t need to worry about going cross-eyed, but your mom may have had a point about sitting too close to the TV. It may actually harm your eyes. Proximity is definitely a factor in eye strain and HEV light exposure.

“The amount of HEV light exposure a person receives depends on many factors, including screen technology, screen size, screen brightness, distance from the screen to the user’s face, and duration of use.” Dr. Heiting explains. “Even though smartphones have small screens, they potentially could cause greater cumulative HEV light exposure than a large-screen TV.”

Part of the problem is that we tend to open our eyelids wider and blink less frequently when we’re staring at screens. Fatigue kicks in because we’re focusing on a screen at a fixed distance for a prolonged period without looking away.

How much time do we actually spend on screens?

Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends 2014 report found that the average American (aged 16-44) spends 444 minutes or 7.4 hours staring at screens every day. That’s 147 minutes of television, 103 minutes on a computer, 151 minutes with smartphones, and 43 minutes on a tablet.

We’re spending almost as much time staring at screens as we do sleeping, the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the average night’s sleep for an American (aged 25-54) at 7.7 hours.

Many of us, especially those who work on a computer all day, spend most of our waking lives staring at screens. The Vision Council report reveals that a third of adults spend more than 9 hours every day on digital devices, but there are clear generational differences:

Percentage of population that spends more than 9 hours a day on devices:

  • 26 percent of Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964
  • 32 percent of Gen Xers, born between 1965 and 1980
  • 37.4 percent of Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996

It should come as no surprise then that digital eye strain is on the rise.

All this extra screen time is also part of a shifting trend toward close-up work that’s thought to contribute to rising levels of myopia or nearsightedness. Apparently the condition is reaching epidemic levels worldwide. The National Eye Institute reports 34 million Americans suffer from myopia right now and projects that figure will hit nearly 40 million by 2030.

What can you do to protect yourself?

We may still be in the dark about the long term effects of HEV exposure, but there’s no doubt about prolonged screen time causing eye strain. We asked Dr. Heiting for some advice and this is what he recommends:

    1. Maintain a comfortable working distance at the computer (close to arm’s length from the screen) and avoid hunching closer and closer.
    2. When using a phone keep the screen as far away from your eyes as comfortably possible — the greater the distance your phone is from your eye, the less eye strain it is likely to cause — provided the print size and images are large enough for comfortable viewing.
    3. Every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and look off into the distance — at something 20 feet away. This is called the “20-20-20 rule” by many eye care providers, and it relaxes the focusing muscle inside the eye, relaxes the muscles outside the eyes that converge the eyes (points them inward to stay aligned on near objects), and stimulates blinking to remoisten the surface of the eyes — all comforting things!
    4. Get an eye exam. Even minor problems with your eyesight can increase your risk for digital eye strain. Also, ask your eye care professional about the best type of glasses for your digital viewing needs. You might benefit from eyewear specifically prescribed for computer or other digital device use.
    5. Ask your eye care provider about glasses that block blue light. There are a number of brands of eyeglass lenses and coatings that can reduce your exposure to HEV light when using digital devices.
    6. Make sure your eyeglass lenses (if you need them) have an anti-reflective (AR) coating. Eliminating reflections from your lenses can increase viewing comfort and reduce eye strain.
    7. Go outside and play more!

If you want to read more about digital eye strain then check out the CVS section at AllAboutVision. We’re off outside to stare at distant trees for a while — see you out there.

Mobile

Tech Armor says its new screen protector improves iPhone performance. We tested it

Tech Armor has a new screen protector for the iPhone, the Enhance, that can redirect harmful radiation, while improving cell signal and battery life. Skeptical? So were we, so we put it to the test.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Laptop screen extenders and self-healing tents

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the Web this week. You can't buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

New light-emitting implant zaps cancer tumors with incredible precision

Researchers from Japan's Waseda University have developed a light-emitting, NFC-powered implant which could help battle cancer in sensitive parts of the body by emitting light. Here's how.
Computing

Calibrate your display to get it looking just how you like it

Want to see images the way they're intended to be seen? Here is our quick guide on how to calibrate your monitor using your operating system or another tool, to make what's on the screen look as good as it can.
Emerging Tech

Here’s all the best gear and gadgetry you can snag for $100 or less

A $100 bill can get you further than you might think -- so long as you know where to look. Check out our picks for the best tech under $100, whether you're in the market for headphones or a virtual-reality headset.
Home Theater

The 7 best TVs you can buy right now, from budget to big screen

Looking for a new television? In an oversaturated market, buying power is at an all-time high, but you'll need to cut through the rough to find a diamond. We're here to help with our picks for the best TVs of 2018.
Product Review

Knock, knock. Who's there? The Ring video doorbell shows you on your phone

Along with the door itself, the doorbell is one of the first items most visitors will interact with when entering your home. The Ring Video Doorbell can show you who's at the door, whether they've actually rung the doorbell or not.
Virtual Reality

Got a Gear VR headset? These are the apps and games you've got to try

Before you put on your new Gear VR headset, you should know which apps and games are worth downloading. Whether you're a fan of documentaries or arcade games, here's a list of the best Gear VR apps and games to be had.
Photography

What does this button do? A quick guide to understanding your camera’s controls

Most DSLR cameras are user-friendly, but that doesn't mean you can make sense of every button on your own. Thankfully, our quick-hit guide will help you better acquaint yourself with your camera's operation.
Mobile

Avoid scratches and dents with the 20 best iPhone 8 Plus cases

So you've got a new iPhone? Congrats! But with an all-new glass design, and looks to die for, you'd best keep it safe. Not sure about the best case choice? Check out our guide to the best iPhone 8 Plus cases.
Mobile

The best Galaxy S9 cases to safeguard your Samsung smartphone

The Samsung Galaxy S9 sports the same curved design and Infinity display as the S8, so you'll want to get a case to protect it. Here are our top picks for the best Samsung Galaxy S9 cases so far.
Mobile

These are the best portable chargers for quickly juicing your device

Battery life still tops the polls when it comes to smartphone concerns. If it’s bugging you, then maybe it’s time to snag yourself a portable charger. Here are our picks of the best portable chargers.
Product Review

The Moto Z3 Play packs a lot of juice with its included battery mod

Motorola’s latest phone is the mid-range Moto Z3 Play. It costs $500, so why wouldn’t you just get the OnePlus 6? The answer isn’t so simple. There’s a lot to like here, and the phone comes with a battery mod that extends its life…
Home Theater

Need more contrast in your life? Here’s what you need to know about HDR TVs

So what is HDR TV? In a nutshell, it’s the best thing to happen to TV since the arrival of 4K. Here's everything you need to know about the technology, what it can do, and why it’s a must-have.
Home Theater

Are there reasons to own a projector when big TVs are so cheap? Glad you asked

Since no aspect of your home theater setup is more important than your display, we weigh in on the projectors vs. TVs debate. We've put together this comprehensive guide to help you find the right option for your lifestyle.
Home Theater

The best Dolby Atmos movies for your home theater sound as good as they look

If you've got your hands on some sweet Dolby Atmos gear, the next step is to find films that take advantage of it. These are our picks in every genre for the best Dolby Atmos movies currently available on Blu-ray and streaming services.
Mobile

Best iOS app deals of the day! 6 paid iPhone apps are free for a limited time

Everyone likes apps, but sometimes the best ones are a bit expensive. Developers put paid apps on sale for a limited time, but you have to snatch them up fast. Here are the latest and greatest iOS app deals offered in the iOS App Store.
Mobile

Here’s how to unlock your phone automatically with Android Smart Lock

Tired of unlocking your smartphone with a PIN or passcode? Android Smart Lock unlocks it automatically using your location, face, and more. Here's how to set it up, and everything you need to know about it.
Mobile

FCC begins accepting petitions to deny the T-Mobile and Sprint merger

T-Mobile and Sprint are hoping the third time is the charm for a merger. It comes just months after the carriers cited an inability to find common ground, extending yet again the long dance between the two telecom giants.
Mobile

Huawei may use a perforated LCD display to create a bezel-less Huawei Mate 20

Huawei has apparently put in an order for massive, 6.9-inch OLED screens, which will be used on a new smartphone coming later this year. Potentially its 2018 Mate series phone, it will challenge other big-screen devices we're expecting.
Home Theater

Set your ears free with the best completely wireless earbuds

If you can't stand the tangle of cords, or you're just excited about completely wireless earbuds, you're going to need some help separating the wheat from the chaff. Our list serves up the best wireless earbuds around.
Mobile

Some Samsung phones aren’t alerting users of app background processes

Worried that Facebook is spying on you? Some Samsung phones aren't correctly showing some apps on the App Permission Monitor, so users won't be alerted if an app tries to access certain permissions.
Web

Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Facebook team up on new data transfer project

Some of the largest tech companies in the world have teamed up to make data portability a little easier. The initiative is called the Data Transfer Project, and the likes of Google, Twitter, Microsoft, and Facebook are all on board.