On my mind: Digital eye strain

31Jan 16
Man having a break in a coffee with a laptop.

I’ve always had bad eyesight. For much of my life, I could barely see anything two feet in front of me. I had bottle-top glasses as a kid, and contact lenses as an adult.

But then, in my early 30s, I decided to have laser eye surgery. It was great. I would wake up in the morning and I could see! For a few years I had 20:20 vision.

However, my eyesight is now starting to deteriorate again. I find myself squinting to read things, and the TV often looks a bit blurry. I recently had an eye test, and a second opinion…and then a third…and it looks like I’m close to needing glasses or contacts again.

I’m keen to delay that for as long as possible, so I decided to do some research into possible causes of this change. You only have one pair of eyes, after all, so it makes sense to do whatever you can to look after them.

As soon as I came across a recent study by The Vision Council, about ‘digital eye strain’, I knew it made sense. Synptoms of digital eye strain include redness, irritation or dry eyes, reduced blinking, blurred vision and headaches.

This research found that 30% of adults in the US spend more than half their waking day (half! which in this case means nine or more hours) on a digital device. And that around two-thirds of working-age Americans experience digital eye strain.

The stats I’ve found about Brits are even worse. Apparently we check our smartphones 150 times a day. One hundred and fifty.

A third of us check our phones within five minutes of waking up, and 40% look at them five minutes before going to sleep.

I’ll put my hand up — I’m guilty of this. But doing the job I do, and being an avid reader, means it’s often hard to get away from a screen. Even when I’m on the go I’m often eyes-down on my laptop, tablet, kindle or iPhone.

However, I’m now 100% convinced that this is responsible for my deteriorating eyesight.

I then started looking into it from a more general wellbeing point of view, and wasn’t all that surprised to find evidence of the negative links between screentime and sleep, mental health and productivity at work.

I’d heard about how ‘blue light’ emitted by screens could affect your sleep (I vaguely knew it was to do with melatonin), but I didn’t understand the science behind it. It’s fascinating — and worrying. Did you know that LED bulbs in modern lights are also culprits? Did you know that blue light may be doing long-term, irreversible damage to our retinas?

I hadn’t heard the term ‘text neck’ before, but it’s pretty self-explanatory. The wear and tear of being hunched over your laptop or phone cannot be ignored. The average human head weighs 12lbs. Held at a 15-degree angle this becomes the equivalent of 27lb. At 60 degrees it’s 60lb. About the weight of an 8-year-old, sat on your neck.

I’d not only heard about, but witnessed — and actively try to counteract — work cultures where employees want to be seen to be on e-mail at all hours. These create stress, which can lead to anxiety and depression. I think it’s getting out of hand. So I was interested to read more views about how this ‘e-mail epidemic’ is damaging UK productivity.

And it was no surprise to hear that the ‘multi-tasking myth’ is being thoroughly exploded. Digital technology doesn’t make us better at multi-tasking, therefore more efficient. People who are regularly bombarded with electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory, or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.

So now I realise that my reliance on screens could also be impacting my overall wellbeing and productivity, as well as my eyesight.

It’s hard for me to say this, as I’m a total tech geek, but although the tech revolution is great at providing solutions, it also comes with its own problems.

So I’ve spent the last few months researching ways in which I can use technology in a smarter, healthier way. Some of it’s pretty simple — about changing the way or frequency I use existing things in my life — and some of it’s about finding new, alternatives technologies. Which personally I find really exciting (see previous reference to my being a geek)…

Here are my tips:

Listen to audio books. This has been a hard transition for me, but I’m starting to enjoy it. You can get most things on audio book now, and it’s great for the commute. As I tend to do a lot of walking to and from locations to avoid the tube, I’ve also found that I can get a bit of extra listening in then too.

Enable voice dictation. I can now talk to my devices whilst looking away, rather than using their keyboards. (Minimising the amount of typing you do can also prevent RSI.) Likewise, I have also have text-to-speech software, which means if that if I have a particularly long e-mail or article, my device can read it out so I don’t have to look at the screen. It’s actually fairly accurate and it can buy me back a whole hour each day from staring at a screen.

Reassess your workstation set-up. If you use a laptop only, get a separate, larger computer screen to connect to. I can’t tell you what a difference this has made to me. Remember your screen should be one arm’s-length away, directly in front of your face, just below eye level.

Increase the font size. All the text on my phone and other devices is as large as it can be now. It might look a bit granny-ish, but I find it really does help.

Drink more water. It sounds simple, but it keeps your eyes hydrated. You can try eye drops if they start getting dry in the afternoon. It sounds even more obvious, but blinking a lot helps clear fuzziness too.

Remember the 20:20:20 rule about taking breaks from your screen. Every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and look at something 20 feet away.

Limit times in the day you do e-mail. I find this hard as I like to be responsive, but it does make a difference, not only to eyesight but also to productivity. E-mail is one of the worst distractions.

Don’t have your phone by your bed at night. Last year I put mine in the corridor outside (with the alarm on loud) and it was transformative. Now that I’m using audiobooks, it’s back in the bedroom with me, so I need to find a new solution to allow me to do both!

Cucumber. Apparently the ascorbic and caffeic acids in it reduce inflammation and water retention, so if your eyes feel puffy, put a couple of slices on your eyelids. I can listen to an audio book at the same time, so it’s win-win.

Blue-blocking glasses. I’m about to roadtest some of these — apparently their amber colour filters out harmful blue light. I’ll let you know how I get on.

I don’t know if any of this will stop me needing regular glasses again eventually, but in the meantime I’m looking after my eyes better. And my overall wellbeing. And, I’m more efficient.

What started with a bit of squinting has reminded me that you have to be smart about using technology. I’m glad the digital era’s here to stay, but just because I’m a geek doesn’t mean I want the glasses to match.

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