laptop computer with eyeglasses

‘Cause we are living in a digital world!

Tablets, smartphones, laptops, desktops, video games… it’s no secret that our world today is more digital than ever before, but most people don’t realize just how much these digital devices impact our vision, eyes, and health!  We live in a society where it is routine to be in front of a screen for hours at a time.  It’s becoming commonplace to see even young children immersed in tablets and smartphones.  So much of our lives revolve around these electronic devices and unfortunately the impact on our eyes and vision is often overlooked!

Digital eye strain or more broadly, computer vision syndrome (CVS), affects so many people every day.  In fact, most people experiencing symptoms of CVS have no clue that their discomfort, headaches, and other symptoms could be the result digital device use.  The LED screens we’re faced with are intense sources of blue light, the effects of which are still not fully understood.  Fortunately, there are several things we can do to help us manage our digital world to keep our eyes clear and comfortable and to reduce the harmful effects of these devices on our (and our children’s) eyes and overall health.

Part one of this three-part series looks deeper into CVS:  What is it?  What causes it and what can we do about it?

What is Computer Vision Syndrome?

Computer vision syndrome (CVS) refers to a group of eye and vision-related issues caused by viewing digital screens at a relatively close distance for extended time periods.  Anyone who uses a digital device for an extended period of time is at risk for digital eye strain; the more screen time you have and/or the closer that screen is to your eyes, the higher your risk.

Common signs and symptoms include (but are not limited to):

  • Headaches
  • Eyestrain or tired eyes
  • Blurry vision
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Squinting
  • Double vision
  • Dry, irritated, sting-y or red eyes
  • Excessive watering
  • Eyelid twitching or excessive blinking
  • Neck, shoulder or back pain
  • Physical fatigue

What causes Computer Vision Syndrome?

People experience CVS symptoms because there are various things happening within the eyes when working in front of digital screens for periods of time.  First of all, because the screens are usually relatively close (within arm’s length), the eyes have to sustain accommodation (i.e. focus).  The closer an object is to the eyes, the harder eyes need to work in order to keep it clear and focused.  This focus is actually more challenging when looking at digital screens vs. print on paper due to the images on a digital screen being made up of something called pixels.  Pixels are brighter at their centres and less bright towards their outer edges so in order to see an image clearly the eyes have to constantly focus and refocus.

Secondly, I think we can all agree that digital screens are bright!  The bright backlighting used to illuminate a screen also plays a role in making our eyes tire faster.

Third, studies show that when in front of screens, people don’t blink as much.  Did you know that your blink rate is reduced to less than half of what it normally is (i.e. when you’re having a conversation) vs. when you’re in front of the computer?  Blinking is important in keeping the surface of the eye moist and keeping eyes feeling comfortable.

Additionally, many people have poor posture in front of their screens and their work stations may not be ideally setup to maximize comfort for the eyes.  You are also more likely to experience digital eye strain if you aren’t wearing the ideal glasses or contact lens prescription, if you have dry eyes, or if you’re spending large amounts of time in front of a screen without taking breaks.  The type of digital activity you participate in can also play a role; activities that require you to pay close attention (ex. video games) are more likely to cause eye strain that other more “relaxed” activities (ex. surfing the internet).

What can be done to reduce CVS symptoms?

There are some simple things you can do alleviate and prevent symptoms of digital eye strain and CVS.

Have an eye exam.  Since even very subtle vision issues have the potential to cause significant visual discomfort, this should be a first step for all computer users.  Regular eye exams are recommended yearly for children, seniors, and those with eye disease or high risk for eye disease, and every 2 years for healthy adults under the age of 65.

The 20/20/20 Rule.  Essentially, this means that for every 20 minutes of on-screen activity, take 20 seconds to look at an object that’s at least 20 feet away.  Here’s the logic: taking breaks will encourage blinking and looking far away will encourage your eye muscles to relax.  Even better, use these breaks to get up, walk around and stretch!  Research shows that taking these breaks also increases productivity!

Use eye drops.  Since you do not blink as much as you should in front of your computer, it’s a great idea to proactively use an artificial tear or lubricating eye drop during extended computer activity to keep the eyes hydrated and moist so that you can have clear and comfortable vision.

Consider computer specific glasses.  There are multiple lens options available today geared for computer users.  Stay tuned for part two of this three-part series where I elaborate a little more on the various options!

Considerations for contact lens wearers.  Contact lens wearers typically have drier eyes than people who don’t wear contacts.  And since blink rate drops in front of computers, contact lens wearers are just making a dry eye, even drier (even if there are no symptoms yet)!  If you wear contact lenses, be sure to ask us about the best lens option for you, as some lens materials will be better suited than others.  If you’re feeling the discomfort of CVS and you wear contact lenses, you should most definitely be using rewetting drops throughout the day; you may even choose to wear glasses more often.

Since a lot of workplaces have “one-size-fits-all” computer work stations, these stations may not be optimally fitted to suit your height, posture, arm length, etc.  Good computer ergonomics will reduce the risk of strain-related injuries, neck, shoulder and back pain, and digital eye strain.  The following suggestions have to do with optimizing your work station.

Adjust screen position.  Set the top of the screen so that it is just below eye level.  Consider a document holder if working with both computer and paper so that you can place paper materials at the same height and distance as your screen.  Additionally, position your monitor to minimize reflections on your screen.  Also, keep in mind that the closer a screen is to your eyes, the greater your risk of experiencing CVS symptoms!  Try to keep at least 50 cm (20 inches) between your eyes and your screen.

Increase font size and contrast.  It’s no secret that bigger things are easier to see!  Black text on a white background provides the best contrast, but other dark-text/light-backgrounds work well too.

Adjust screen brightness and room lighting.  Quite often, screen brightness and room lighting are too bright.  Ideally, you want the brightness of the screen to be similar to the ambient brightness in the room.  If possible, reduce the room lighting (close blinds, remove bulbs, etc.).  Try to make sure lighting is directed away from your eyes and your screen (to minimize reflections).

Reduce reflection/glare.  Consider an anti-reflection (AR) coating for your glasses.  Anti-glare filters for computer monitors are also available, although the surface of LCD screens typically are anti-reflective.

Maintain good posture.  Sit up straight, comfortably in front of your computer with your head looking straight forward.  You should not have to lean in; you should not have to tilt your head back.  Adjust your station so that you avoid turning your head or twisting your back to face your screen.

We are spending so much of our daily lives in front of digital screens, it is important to be aware of CVS.  In part two of this three-part series I discuss the different glasses options available to computer users.