When we were growing up in the 1980s, the constant refrain was that we kids would get square eyes from watching so much television. Fast forward 30 years and while that hasn't happened (yet), we're surrounded by more screens and spend even longer glued to them. Unsurprisingly, there's still a lot of concern about how this will affect us all.
There are many studies focussing on young children and how extended screen time might affect development of speech, eyes and the ability to respond to real-life humans. That's a thorny issue, but it's as true today as it was 30 years ago that for the majority of us (adults and children), our bodies need more time spent outside doing physical exercise and less time stuck indoors in front of a computer. Of course, the advent of mobile phones and tablets means that our devices now follow us into the great outdoors, so it's increasingly hard to switch off.
This blog deals specifically with eye strain that many people experience from extended screen use. The good news is that there are many steps you can take to reduce or avoid this.
The first (and most obvious) point should be that if you are over-doing the screen time, the best solution is to get away from it - and all other screens. Close your eyes, or go and focus on the middle to far distance for a while.
However, the reality is that most of us need to use computers day in, day out at work, at home and for just about everything in-between these days. So what can you do to reduce the negative impact of essential screen use?
Let's start with the basics:
- Have you blinked recently? Do it now!
Try to become aware of taking regular big, deliberate blinks if your eyes are feeling tired or dry.
- Have you looked away from your screen in the last 30 minutes ... or 3 hours?
Aim to take frequent short breaks from your workstation rather than long, infrequent breaks. Programming often requires long periods of concentration, but if you're trying to unravel a knotty coding problem, staring at the screen doesn't always help. You can keep thinking while you stretch your legs. Very often a change of scene can really help if you've hit a mental brick wall. Also: don't forget to take a proper lunch break away from your desk and screen(s).
- What's your office or workspace like?
Ensure that you're in a well-lit room and that there aren't any reflections or glare on your screen. Because screens are lit, it is possible to work in low-light but this puts more strain on your eyes. If you're really focussed, nighttime can arrive without you realising it. Pay attention to your surroundings and turn on lights or close blinds as and when needed.
- When did you last have an eye test?
Look after your eyes by having a check-up every 1 to 2 years, and book an appointment straight away if you think your eyesight is changing or if you're experiencing any eye problems. If you need glasses, or your prescription has changed, make sure you get the lenses you need and use them!
- Burning the candle at both ends?
If you're not getting enough sleep, it can have all sorts of negative effects. Go to bed and rest your weary eyes.
Now let's take a look at the equipment you're using:
- What size is your screen?
Laptops are really handy for mobile and home working but they tend to have smaller screens. If you're based at the same desk much of the time, consider investing in a large screen (or screens!) These can be plugged into a desktop or a laptop. We use 26" screens plugged into our 15" screen laptops. Having a separate screen means you can display text as large as you like and have the screen at eye level for good posture.
- What font size are you using?
Don't struggle with tiny text, increase the font size on your screen until it's a comfortable size to read.
- What colours does your computer use?
Back in the day, computer terminals were nearly always green screen or monochrome, meaning they showed single-coloured text on a black background. As personal computers moved into desktop publishing they mimicked the look of paper and typewriters by showing black or dark text on a white background.
Many applications now offer a variety of options. For example, Adobe Photoshop offers interfaces ranging from pale grey background with dark text to black with light text. The text editors (UltraEdit and Sublime) we use to write code allow us to create custom themes.
In addition to regular eye-strain, some people with dyslexia find that off-white backgrounds or colour filters can alleviate some of the visual stress they experience.
- What time is it?
As we all know, light is a spectrum made up of wavelengths from red through to blue. Blue light is found in abundance in sunlight, but it's also emitted by electronic screens. The jury is out on the long-term effect of prolonged, close-up exposure to blue light but studies suggest that receiving a lot of blue light before going to bed can have a disruptive effect on sleep. Sleep problems are bad overall, but in particular they can contribute to tired or strained eyes. Most modern mobile phones and computers can be set to switch automatically to 'night light' or 'blue light filter' mode between certain hours of the day. This makes screens emit a warmer, redder shade of light.
- Why are you still reading?
If you are using a Kindle or eBook reader to read books after a long day of computer use, try listening to audiobooks instead to give your eyes a rest.
- Do you need more help?
Increasing font size or display size can overcome many eyesight problems, but for those with more severely visually impairments there are assistive technologies such as screen magnifiers and screen reading software.
Eyes on the prize
Most of us are pretty good at looking after our teeth by brushing and going to the dentist, but we don't always take the same care of our eyes.
It shouldn't need to be said - but we will anyway - that if you're suffering from eye problems or want advice about your eyes, you should consult a qualified expert in the first instance - either an optician, pharmacist or a doctor.
Here are some tips for good day-to-day eye health:
- Make an appointment with an optician - even if you don't need glasses, it's a good idea to visit an optician once a year or so to make sure your eyes are healthy. It's worth having regular sight-tests anyway to see if your vision is changing; sometimes it can be hard to spot changes if they take place gradually. In many cases, employers will cover the cost of a standard eye examination.
- Hyabak eye drops - if, despite lots of blinking, your eyes are still feeling dry or gritty, these eye drops are great.
- Blepharitis - if you continually suffer from dry eyes you may suffer from blepharitis. This is when oil-secreting glands in your eyelids become blocked up. It's a common condition and often not serious, but by following some quick and easy steps you can reduce uncomfortable symptoms. This eye bag is great for regular preventative use, or daily when you're going through a bad patch.
- Check out the HSE guidance about screen use: http://www.hse.gov.uk/msd/dse/guidance.htm
- Cornwall's Healthy Workplace scheme is a great source of information, advice and case studies. Sign up to register for the Healthy Workplace award.