6 Things That Could Happen to Your Eyes if You Stare at a Screen All Day

Eye experts reveal what happens when you stare at a screen all day, including digital eye strain, dry eyes, and headaches.

You may know that staring at a screen all day is not particularly good for you, and that it’s a good idea to give your eyes a rest and limit your screen time. This includes your phone, laptop, and TV. But, on average, you probably spend more hours than you realize staring at a digital device. With more people working from home, that amount of time is on the rise.

Covid-19 has put screen time on steroids,” says Paul Karpecki, OD, the director of cornea services at Kentucky Eye Institute in Lexington. You may have a work-from-home arrangement, chat with friends via video call, do online on-demand workouts, see doctors via telemedicine, and more. We’re online all the time, and there’s an indication hours spent in front of a screen are spiking.

The average adult now spends more than 13 hours per day in front of a screen, up from just over 10 hours in 2019, according to Minneapolis-based company Eyesafe, which designs and develops products that protect against blue light from digital devices. (Karpecki is also a member of the Eyesafe Vision Health Advisory Board.) Eyesafe analyzed data from a March 2020 report from the Nielsen Company that estimated that Covid-19 stay-at-home orders would lead to a 60 percent increase or more in media consumption.

Too much screen time can lead to digital eye strain, which is a condition that results in eye discomfort and vision problems, according to the American Optometric Association (AOA). It’s true that prolonged screen time does increase your exposure to blue light. However, it’s unclear whether blue light is to blame for digital eye strain, or whether products that block blue light help. (Here’s what happened to one woman who wore blue-light blocking glasses for a week.)

It’s time to take a closer look at how increased screen time may affect your eye health.

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You may blink less

You’re more likely to blink less when you’re using electronic devices or even watching TV. Specifically, staring at an electronic screen can affect how often you blink and whether your eyelids close entirely as you blink. A 2015 study published in the journal Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science found people experienced a lower blinking rate and were less likely to completely close their eyes during a blink when reading on an electronic device, like a tablet.

Your eyes will dry out and may burn

As previously stated, when you stare at a computer screen, you blink less. This can make your eyes dry out and even feel like they’re burning. “Blinking keeps the front surface of your eye moist,” says Barbara Horn, OD, AOA president, and an optometrist in a group practice in Georgetown, South Carolina. She suggests increasing the humidity in the air at home and at work (if possible). Also, sip water throughout the day to stay hydrated, a habit that benefits your whole body, including your eyes. And finally, commit to consciously blinking more often during computer work, especially if your eyes are beginning to feel dry. There’s a condition called dry eye, which is when you have inadequate or poor-quality tears, according to the AOA. Talk to your optometrist, who may recommend simple solutions like over-the-counter artificial tears. (Here are the signs you may have dry eye syndrome.)

You may get (visual) migraines with or without headaches

Ever heard of a condition called computer vision syndrome (CVS)? It’s the more formal term for digital eye strain, and some estimates say it affects half of computer users, according to a 2018 review in BMJ Open Ophthalmology. “CVS describes a group of eye and vision-related problems that can result from prolonged computer, tablet, or cell phone use,” says Horn.

One of those symptoms of CVS is headache. Poor lighting, glare, and sticking your face too close to a screen can trigger headaches. Also, poor posture when using a computer can do this too. The more you use your devices, the worse the symptoms, she says. “People who spend two or more continuous hours at a computer or using a digital screen device every day are at a greater risk of experiencing eye strain,” says Horn.

You can also experience a visual migraine, which is characterized by visual disturbances, such as seeing spots and zigzags in your field of vision, according to Brigham and Women’s Hospital. This can last anywhere between 20 to 30 minutes and typically, will then resolve. It’s important to note that visual migraines can occur with or without headaches; this is known as a migraine with aura, according to the American Migraine Foundation. These types of migraines can be triggered by extreme lighting and staring at electronic screens.

To treat and prevent headaches and migraines, take regular breaks from electronic devices and follow the 20-20-20 rule, which helps protect eyesight. That means stopping every 20 minutes to stare at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Also make sure that your eyeglass prescription is correct, as that can exacerbate CVS symptoms, too. (When the end of the workday rolls around, you can feel better with these steps to help your body recover from a day of sitting.)

You may get blurry vision

One of the symptoms of CVS is blurry vision. “Viewing a computer or digital screen is different than reading a printed page,” says Horn. “Often the letters on the computer or handheld device are not as precise or sharply defined, the level of contrast of the letters to the background is reduced, and the presence of glare and reflections on the screen may make viewing difficult,” she explains. (Also, check out these other possible causes of your blurry vision.)

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Your eyes may have trouble focusing

In order to read, your eyes have to work overtime to see clearly. The good news here is that most of the time, the blurriness will go away once you stop computer work, she says. Still, it’s not pleasant and can make tasks take longer if you’re struggling to focus. In that case, Horn suggests holding your phone or tablet further away from you at a “book reading distance” rather than up close to your face. Make the font larger if you can, and adjust the brightness to match the room (for instance: lower it in the evening). This prevents your pupils from having to adjust constantly to changing light levels, something that contributes to strain. (Here are the signs your eyes could be in danger.)

Your neck may be stiff and your jaw may ache

How do you feel after being attached to a digital screen for 8 hours? Likely not great. Symptoms like neck stiffness and jaw tightness “could be directly linked to digital eye strain,” says Karpecki. “We have something called the trigeminal nerve that serves basically as an expressway connecting our eyes to our temple and jaw. We have found that sometimes strain that happens in the eyes is reflected in soreness, discomfort, and tightness in those two other areas,” he explains. It’s important to not only take regular breaks to follow the 20-20-20 rule, but also make tweaks to your workspace to it’s healthier for your body.

Expand your reading materials when you can

Everything you read shouldn’t be from a screen—and that can be a tall order in our digital times. “There are unique challenges to managing eye health when it comes to screens and digital devices,” says Karpecki. Reading something digital is different from on paper, even if they both use the same field of vision. “Due to the pixel movement on a digital screen, something we only perceive on a subconscious level, our eyes remain focused longer and we subconsciously reduce our blink rate,” he explains. If possible, mix up your media use: grab a paper book, magazine, or newspaper for your recreational reading pleasures. Now, brush up on the 20 simple everyday habits that can improve your vision.

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