So many aspects of our lives have moved to the virtual world over the past few months, and our eyes are paying the price for the increased time we are spending in front of our screens.
Dr. Daniel Laroche, ophthalmologist and president of Advanced Eyecare of New York, told InsuranceNewsNet that spending more time in front of computers, smartphones and TV screens is damaging to our eyes as well as to our overall health.
“Since we’ve been in this COVID-19 environment, people are spending more time online, doing more videoconferences, working virtually. This can cause eyestrain,” he said. “Eyestrain can cause headaches, and it can lead to nearsightedness in children.”
Laroche urged screen-users to adopt the “20-20-20 rule.”
“After looking at the screen for 20 minutes, look at something that’s 20 feet or more away for 20 seconds,” he said. “That allows your eyes to relax and reduces the strain on your eyes.”
How do you figure out what’s 20 feet away? Laroche suggested looking out a window and across the street, or looking across the hallway into the next room.
It’s not enough just to move your eyes, Laroche said. You must also move your legs.
“You have to take more of a break from your screen,” he said. “Every one to two hours, get up, walk around, stretch your legs and get the circulation going. That increased blood flow also helps reduce eyestrain.”
Children also are spending more time in front of screens as more education moves online. Increased screen time in children not only leads to greater risk of nearsightedness – or myopia – but it also can lead to a higher risk of retinal detachment when they reach adulthood, Laroche said.
He advised parents to make sure their children observe the 20-20-20 rule as well. “In addition, get your children to spend 30 to 60 minutes a day doing an activity outdoors. Get them in a different environment, out in the fresh air, and get their circulation going as well.”
Screen time also can lead to decreased ability to focus, Laroche said. “That’s another reason why you want to take a break and look away from the screen – so you don’t lose your ability to focus.”
While you look at your screen, your eyes don’t blink as much as they normally do. That leads to dryness, and older people are particularly susceptible to dry eyes, Laroche said.
Staying hydrated can combat those dry eyes, he said. He recommended combining screen breaks with hydration breaks.
“While you’re taking a break from the screen, drink some water, or drink green tea or vegetable juice. Green tea and vegetable juice have antioxidants that also can reduce dryness in your eyes and boost your overall eye health.”
Eyedrops also may be needed to soothe dry eyes, he said. The right kind of eyewear can combat the ravages of screen time, Laroche said.
“When people approach age 40, their eyes don’t focus as well as they used to. We find people that age often have to wear reading glasses. But reading glasses are not the same as computer glasses. You need to have the proper spectacle correction. If you are using the computer a lot, you need to make sure your glasses can be focused on the right distance. Make sure you have the proper prescription for the work you are doing.”
With more people working and learning from home, the boundary line between work time and personal time continues to blur. Laroche said it is important to set a cutoff time for using screens each evening – important not just for eye health but for overall well-being.
“We shouldn’t have any screen time at night because when you’re looking at that blue light at night – doing screen time – that makes your body think it’s daylight. It messes with your body’s circadian rhythm and alters your sleep patterns. As a result, you won’t get a good night’s sleep and you will be groggy the next day.
“For some people, they will set their screen time between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., or others will say no screen time from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. You need to find the schedule that works for you and stick to it. You need to set a cutoff time and stick with that time.”
Laroche said lack of sleep also affects the eyes, so sticking with a regular bedtime can boost eye health.
“You may think you are being more productive by working until 1:00 in the morning, but your productivity will suffer the next day and your eyes will be even more strained.”
Stress also affects eyesight, Laroche said.
“Stress increases blood pressure and cortisol levels in the body, and that definitely is not good for your eyes. Make sure you get a good night’s sleep. Take a break from whatever is causing you stress. Maybe it’s turning off the bad news on TV. Try to find something that is pleasurable to you. Exercise for 30 to 60 minutes a day, preferably outdoors.”
Mindfulness also has a role to play in eye health.
“Meditation can reduce stress levels,” he said. “It’s a simple thing to go into a quiet room somewhere, close your eyes and take 16 deep breaths. Do this two or three times a day. It can give your eyes a break from the screen and lower your eye pressure by about 20%. It also can lower your blood pressure by 20 points and lower your heart rate.”
The cold-weather months bring their own challenges to eye health.
“When the weather gets cold outside – especially if the air is dry – it can lead to dry eye, especially in older people,” Laroche said. “The thing to do is put warm compresses over the eye. It increases the blood flow to the eyelid glands and allows them to produce the secretions that protect the eye. When you have cold, dry air and there is wind, it also can cause reflex tearing in the eye. Gel drops can prevent that.”
Laroche urged people to continue to wear UV eye protection in the winter months. “Sunlight protection is important to help protect eyes from UV light that can attack the macula and cause cataracts.”
The main causes of blindness, Laroche said, are diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration and glaucoma. Obesity increases the risks of developing these conditions, he added, so maintaining a healthy weight and eating a diet rich in dark green leafy vegetables can help protect you from losing your vision in the future.