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If you have eyes, and own a screen-based device (and you’re reading this online, so chances are you do), congratulations – this article is relevant to you.
Screens, and the devices attached to them, have staked a permanent claim on our lives. Many – arguably most – of our daily activities are facilitated by these gadgets, and studies suggest they’re the first thing many of us look at when we wake up (ahem… guilty).
A recent Medibank survey found Australians spend more time in front of screens per day than we do sleeping: nine hours. That sounds like a lot of time, but it’s scary how quickly you can hit the mark if your day includes mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, scanning news websites, texting your mum, catching up on some TV and reading on your iPad before bed. And if your day job involves a computer… you can see where this is going.
You’ve probably considered how all that screen time affects your social life and/or bank balance if you have a fondness for online shopping, but you should also spare a thought for your eyes. They’re doing a lot of hard work here.
According to Christine Nearchou, a lecturer in the University of Melbourne’s Department of Optometry and Vision Sciences, screens themselves don’t affect our eyes – it’s their size and proximity that can place demands on our vision. “The closer or smaller the screen, the more our eyes must work to maintain focus and provide clear and comfortable binocular vision for the task,” Christine explains.
Although the effects of staring at screens aren’t generally long term, eye strain is a common temporary side effect. If you’ve ever noticed blurred or double vision, headaches or sore or twitching eyes after looking at a computer for hours, you’ve likely experienced it. Eye strain occurs when the eyes are focused on an object within arm’s length for prolonged periods. This is because the eye’s lens switches from its resting state to a working state, in order to see clearly – the ciliary muscle within the eye contracts to allow the lens to focus on a near object. This can happen during any work you do close-up, including reading books.
For short periods this isn't a big deal, but as any social media addict knows, one does not simply look at one's screen for a couple of minutes. "As we find ourselves spending longer on near objects - screens - the ciliary muscle is working constantly to allow this, which in nature was not its intention," Christine explains.
Eye strain isn't the only side-effect of prolonged screen time. It can can also result in dry, burning eyes, a0s the concentration required causes your blink rate to drop. This prevents your eyes from getting the lubrication they need, which result in an uncomfortably dry, irritated feeling. Furthermore, Christine says the prevalence of myopia (short-sightedness) appears to be more common now than it was three decades ago, possibly due to the increasing amount of 'near work' being accessed via screen-based devices.
So while your phone/tablet/laptop mightn't be turning your eyes into squares (your mum was probably lying about that one), it's still giving them a bit of a workout throughout the day. Would you ever submit your biceps to hours of strain without properly warming up or resting them? Unless you’re a special kind of masochist, no, you wouldn't. So why do it to your eyes? Christine recommends using these six tricks to keep them in good shape and reduce any screen-related side-effects:
Adjust your lighting
"Lighting should be balanced with room lighting or natural lighting available, and the screen not too bright or dim," Christine says. It's amazing how much better your eyes feel when your screen isn't at its highest brightness setting.
Look at arm's length
Ideally, screens should be at least an arm's length away from your face, so keep this in mind next time you're working on a computer or watching TV. Obviously this isn't so easy with hand-held devices, especially in public, which is why they can be more problematic for your eyes.
Give yourself a break
If you're in it for the long haul, The American Optometric Association recommends giving your eyes a rest from screens for at least 15 minutes every two hours. So that's a great excuse to go outside and get some fresh air during your work day.
... and a mini-break
Nature didn't intend for our eyes to be doing intense, close-up work for prolonged periods - rather, they evolved to look out into the distance for food and predators. That's not really how we do things these days, so it's a good idea to give your eyes a nod to their evolutionary purpose throughout the day. Every 30 minutes, look away from your screen and as far into the distance as you can. Closing your eyes and giving them a quick rest can also put them at ease. Please note: this is not an invitation to fall asleep at your desk.
Channel your inner Hollywood seductress and flutter those lashes while you sift through your emails. Blinking regularly will minimise your risk of developing dry eye, because it'll keep the front surface of your eye nice and moist. Plus, you'll look really coquettish in the process.
Visit an optometrist
Even if your eye sight is perfectly normal, you should be having regular eye exams with an optometrist. "Even small eye problems associated with visual efficiency will be compounded and aggravated with high visual demands, and near activity such as screen-based tasks," Christine says. "Your optometrist can counsel you on the best way to minimise the risk of screen-based vision problems and identify any risk factors that may be contributing, such as a visual efficiency problem."