A recent study found that the average office worker spends 1,700 hours per year in front of a computer screen — and that was before many of us began working from home. Add to that our frequent use of phones and other digital devices, and you’ve got a recipe for unhappy — and possibly unhealthy — eyes. What are the implications for the eyes during this period of greatly increased screen time?
When we’re moving between meetings and offices and interacting with people face-to-face, it’s a simple fact that we move our eyes more. We blink more, which helps keep the eyes lubricated and comfortable. But when we look at a screen for extended periods, we tend not to blink. In fact, focusing the eyes on computer screens or other digital displays has been shown to reduce a person’s blink rate by a third to a half.
According to Esen Akpek, professor of ophthalmology at Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins Medicine and an expert in dry eye, not only does prolonged gazing — such as that which occurs when reading on a computer screen — dry the eyes, it also starts a vicious cycle. “When your eyes become dry, that reduces reading speed, which further increases exposure time and worsens dryness,” says Akpek, “and this can ultimately lead to inflammation of the eye surface and a self-perpetuating chronic dry eye.”
You may have noticed that staring too long at the screen can make your eyes feel tired. Your vision may become blurred at times, or your eyes may feel irritated and begin to tear. So what can those who must work from home do to help protect their eyes?
Create a plan and stick to it
The best antidote, says Akpek, is to take frequent breaks. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, shift the eyes to look at an object at least 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds. Looking into the distance allows the eyes to relax. If necessary, set a timer as a reminder. It can also be helpful to get up and stretch, walk around for a few minutes and look outside.
Artificial tears may offer some additional relief when eyes feel dry. Many kinds of artificial tears are available without a prescription, says Akpek, who recommends those that are preservative-free and come in single-use droppers to avoid repeatedly exposing the eye surface to preservatives.
Make the screen more eye-friendly
If the computer screen is brighter than the surrounding light, the eyes have to work harder to see. Adjusting the screen’s brightness to match the level of light around it can help reduce eyestrain. Increasing the contrast on the screen may also help. If the screen has a lot of glare, try using a matte screen filter.
Where you sit in relation to the computer can also make a difference. A good rule is to sit about at arm's length away from the screen, and position the screen so the eyes gaze slightly downward. In addition, Akpek says, it’s important to make sure the humidity in the room is adequate and that there are no strong drafts from air conditioners, fans or other sources.
What if you do these things and continue to have dry, irritated eyes? “If people try the above steps and are experiencing consistently dry, red eyes, or if they have eye pain or fluctuating vision, there could be other factors at play,” says Akpek. “In that case, it’s important that they contact their ophthalmologist.”