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Life Kit: How to minimize eye strain in a world of screens


The American Academy of Ophthalmology and the National Eye Institute predict that half of the world's population, half of everybody, will be nearsighted by the end of 2050. One big factor - screens. The average person spends about 6 1/2 hours a day on screens. And what does all that time staring at a little rectangle of light mean for your eyes in the short term? Life Kit's Andee Tagle has some answers.

ANDEE TAGLE, BYLINE: If you ever feel like your eyes are working hard to get through the day, it's probably because they are.

VALERIE LAM: So there's two systems being engaged when you are focusing so hard on the computer screen.

TAGLE: Valerie Lam is an optometrist in Costa Mesa, Calif.

LAM: So convergence is for our eyes to pull together to look at something that's close. Our computer screens are usually about 16 to 20 inches away from our eyes. That is a very near target. A very near target has a lot of demand on your eyes. The other system is our accommodation system, which is kind of like the autofocus feature of your eyes. It helps you see clearly. These two systems have to work together, and they're holding that position for eight hours a day. That's why people feel eye fatigue or, you know, they get headaches above their eyebrows. They feel like they want to rub their temples at the end - because your vision system is working so hard throughout the day.

TAGLE: Lam is describing some of the symptoms of digital eye strain. That's the term for group of related vision and eye problems that result from looking at screens for too long. Other effects include blurred vision, neck pain, dizziness, even migraines, but it's actually not just about the time we spend looking at screens.

RUPA WONG: When we are on devices, whether it be a computer or a phone or a tablet, we tend not to blink as much.

TAGLE: Doctor Rupa Wong is an ophthalmologist and clinical associate professor at the University of Hawaii.

WONG: They have done studies looking at blink rates when you are talking to someone versus when you're on a device, and it is substantially lower when you're on a device. So it's really a combination of working up close for such a long period of time and then your eyes becoming more dry.

TAGLE: That's right - blink rates. Maybe that doesn't sound like a very big deal. So your eyes get a little drier than normal. Who cares?

WONG: So the amazing thing is that your tear film is responsible for a good part of the clarity of your vision. When you have dry eyes, the vision becomes blurry. And this is something that we often see. People don't come in saying, I have dry eyes. They come in oftentimes saying, my eyes hurt, or my vision is blurred. But it comes and goes throughout the day, or when I blink, it gets a little bit better.

TAGLE: The good news is, there's a lot you can do to protect your peepers from dry eye and digital eye strain. The first solution is easy to remember. You might have heard the phrase before - 20-20-20. That means for every 20 minutes of work, take a 20-second break and look 20 feet away.

LAM: And why do we say 20 feet away? Because we feel like that's equal to distance, right? When your eyes are looking far away, your eyes are more relaxed.

WONG: And then I will add, too, if you can, during those 20 seconds, just do a couple hard, forceful blinks. Redistribute the tears onto your tear film, onto your cornea so that your eyes don't get so dried out.

TAGLE: Another thing to consider is how you set up your workspace.

LAM: Lots of people invest in fancy chairs or ergo keyboards, but like, what about the ergonomics for your eyes? If you have your computer screen, and behind you is a wall, there's no way for your eyes to rest. What if you were putting your computer next to a window?

TAGLE: And then when you can, don't forget to take your eyes outside, too.

LAM: Screens might be a part of our daily reality, but our eyes can do a lot more than look at computers.

WONG: After you've done a good day of work on the screen, go outside. Go for a walk. Get some exercise. Allow your eyes to rest and to be in the natural world.

TAGLE: For NPR's Life Kit, I'm Andee Tagle.


DETROW: For more Life Kit, check out Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andee Tagle (she/her) is an associate producer and now-and-then host for NPR's Life Kit podcast.