These days, not many of us earn our paychecks by laboring out in the fields or at a factory. The transition to a knowledge economy has resulted in some great advantages, but it also means that more and more jobs now consist of sitting at a desk all day starting at a computer.
New research has started to show how unhealthy it is to repeatedly sit for such long periods, but what about the other side of the equation, repeatedly starting at screens? How bad is it, and will it cause long-term damage?
The evidence for long-term damage to your eyes is thin at best, and some have even accused various groups of perpetuating the myth for decades. It is true that myopia, the visual condition known as nearsightedness, has been linked to “near work,” which includes staring at computer screens. But those who frequently read books carry the same risk, and overall it is far from a causal relationship nor a reason for too much concern, as genetics is a more significant factor.
But even if permanent damage is unlikely, there is another, real problem: eyestrain resulting from starting at a screen all day. This carries a variety of issues, as it “causes eye exhaustion: burning, dryness and muscle aches—all unpleasant and potentially incapacitating symptoms while they last.” (Scientific American)
Screen-induced eyestrain is a widespread problem, as research has shown that “between 50 and 90% of people who work in front of a computer screen have some symptoms of eye trouble.” (CNN) Fortunately, there are a few things you can do.
How to protect your eyes when staring at screens
The best piece of advice for workers who sit at a computer is to take regular screen breaks so they don’t continue to stare at the screen uninterrupted. A good rule of thumb is the 20-20-20 rule: “Every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds.” (source)
You can use various apps, or the old fashioned stopwatch, to remind you to get up and take a break or at least focus your eyes elsewhere for a period of time. (The “take regular breaks” tip is good for productivity as well as preventing eyestrain.)
In addition to breaking up your time, there are some specific improvements you can make to your desk setup to help your eyes. Scientific American recommends that you “invest in one of today’s nonglare computer screens, and don’t be afraid to change your computer’s brightness, contrast or text size, all of which will alleviate eye stress.” Another tip is to “position your screen slightly lower than your eyes; the top of your monitor should be level with your eyebrows.”
Another less obvious improvement you can make relates to blinking. Research demonstrates that reading on a computer screen makes people stare more than they do when they read a print source. And this extra starting means they blink less, “which means your eyes get less refreshment from tears,” because “when you blink, you spread a layer of tears over the eye.” Blinking less, then, leads to dryness and sore eyes (source).
What About Smartphones and Tablets?
These days our desktop computers are far from the only piece of technology in our arsenal. Are smartphone, tablet and other gadget screens better, worse or the same?
There’s at least one factor that with the potential to make mobile devices more harmful: distance. Simply put, we typically hold our phones and tablets much closer to our eyes than we would do with either a printed book or computer screen. A research study found that participants “held their phones 14 inches from their eyes to read text messages and 12 1/2 inches for a Web page. Typically, people read printed text from a distance of 15 3/4 inches (source).”
Overall, don’t worry too much about long-term eye damage if you stare at a screen all day at work. But do be aware of eyestrain and make sure to take regular breaks. Do you have any other solutions for dealing with the problem?