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Too much screen time? Find out what is digital eye strain and how to prevent it

Amrita Kaur on 15 Dec 2020

The Straits Times


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SINGAPORE - Marketing executive Shushannah Lee started having blurry vision and eye fatigue during the circuit breaker.


She would use her laptop for eight to 12 hours a day while working from home, and in between those hours, she would also use her mobile phone. On weekends, she would unwind by binge-watching Netflix on television for 10 hours.


She also had poor eyecare habits, like positioning the screens too close to her eyes.


Initially, the 29-year-old, who wears spectacles, thought her blurry vision could be caused by worsening myopia. But when she consulted an ophthalmologist last month, she found out she had digital eye strain.


Digital eye strain refers to a cluster of vision- and eye-related symptoms arising from the prolonged use of digital devices such as computers, tablets and mobile phones.


Dr Errol Chan, a consultant ophthalmologist at LSC Eye Clinic, said the Covid-19 pandemic has led to people spending more time on digital devices.


Video-conferencing platforms, webinars, e-learning courses and home-based learning for students have become more common.


People have also been watching shows and playing games more often on their smartphones, especially during the circuit breaker.


Dr Chan has seen an increase in the number of patients with digital eye strain as a result of the uptick in digital screen use.


"Some of my patients have to use their devices for 12 hours or more, mostly for work. They admit that they are spending more time on their devices than before," he said.


Even outside the home, people often have to whip out their smartphones to check in and out of places using SafeEntry or to look at restaurant menus on their phones.


The LED light emitted from screens can strain the eyes.


"The glare from it makes it more difficult for us to appreciate a clear and crisp image, so the eyes strain in an attempt to bring the object of interest into focus," said Dr Chan.


Symptoms of digital eye strain include discomfort, tearing, blurring of vision, redness, a dry eye sensation and headaches.


Dr Daniel Chua, a consultant at the refractive surgery department of the Singapore National Eye Centre, said these symptoms result from people looking at the screens of digital devices for a long time, similar to reading, writing or performing activities such as sewing for a long period.


"The symptoms may be worsened by looking at small screens, taking insufficient breaks or the use of wrong prescription glasses," he added.


One of the symptoms Ms Lee, the marketing executive, experienced was dryness of the eyes.


She said: "Sometimes, I get engrossed with work on the laptop and forget to blink, which causes my eyes to become dry. Once, my left eye was so dry, my contact lens fell out."


She now uses lubricating eye drops daily to keep her eyes moist and relieve symptoms associated with the strain.


Dr Chan said staring at a digital screen for a long time and forgetting to blink often leads to dry eyes.


He explained that blinking allows a layer of tears to coat the corneas and prevents the eyes from drying out.


Mr Martin Cabrera, a healthcare professional, found out he had digital eye strain in August when he saw an ophthalmologist for blurred vision and dry eyes.


The 34-year-old said the symptoms first became noticeable in May, when he spent long hours playing games on his mobile phone at home during the circuit breaker. He also often switched off the ceiling light and relied on the light from his screen to use his phone.


Like Ms Lee, he now uses lubricating eye drops daily and takes short breaks in between using his laptop and mobile phone. He also limits the amount of time he spends on digital devices.


There is no medical evidence suggesting that prolonged use of digital devices causes long-term harm to one's vision, both doctors said.


Short-term problems such as dry eyes and blurred vision tend to improve with the reduction of digital device use, said Dr Chua.


To reduce eye fatigue, take regular breaks and look at distant objects for 20 seconds after 20 minutes of screen time, he advised.


He also suggested optimising the home-office set-up, such as using larger screens and illuminating the work space with a table lamp to reduce eye strain.


Dr Chua urged adults aged 20 to 39 to go for a comprehensive eye examination if they are suffering from an eye injury or have a family history of eye disease.


Adults aged 40 and above should undergo eye-disease screening to monitor vision changes, as agerelated eye conditions such as glaucoma and cataracts are more likely to occur.


They should consult their doctor on the frequency of subsequent screenings, said Dr Chua.


While most individuals with digital eye strain can manage their symptoms with simple measures, Dr Chan said it is important for people to seek help if the symptoms do not improve.


"The symptoms are not all specific to digital eye strain and can be caused by other eye conditions as well," he said.


Tips to reduce eye strain


Staring at your computer screen, smartphone and other digital devices for a long time can cause your eyes to feel tired and your vision to blur. Here are eight tips to relieve eye strain.


1. ENSURE THE PRESCRIPTION FOR YOUR GLASSES IS UP TO DATE: The right prescription for the distance at which you normally use your digital devices can make all the difference between seeing well and having to strain to see.


This is particularly so for those around the age of 45 who have presbyopia or the gradual loss of the eyes' ability to focus on nearby objects.


2. READ FROM A DISTANCE: Keep your eyes at least 35cm from reading materials, 50cm to 60cm from the computer and 2m or farther from the television.


3. USE AN ANTI-GLARE SCREEN FILTER: This filter decreases the amount of light reflected from the screen and lowers glare, which reduces strain on the eyes.


4. SWITCH TO DARK MODE: Changing your computer and mobile phone screen to a dark background reduces the glare experienced. You can also increase the font size to reduce straining your eyes.


5. BLINK FREQUENTLY: Blinking helps to maintain a regular tear film, keeping the corneal surface moist and optimising visual quality.


6. LUBRICATE YOUR EYES: Over-the-counter lubricating eye drops are helpful for moisturising the eyes when you are using digital devices for a long period.


They can be used every two to three hours, or more frequently, before the onset of eye fatigue.


7. TAKE A BREAK: Make a conscious effort to periodically rest your eyes when using the computer for a long period.


A simple rule of thumb is to look into the distance for 20 seconds after using the computer for 20 minutes. This gives the eyes a chance to relax.


8. GO FOR REGULAR EYE CHECKS: Schedule and go for regular eye check-ups - even if you were previously given a clean bill of health.


• Sources: Dr Errol Chan, a consultant ophthalmologist at LSC Eye Clinic, and Dr Daniel Chua, a consultant at the refractive surgery department of the Singapore National Eye Centre


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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