We’re now living in an ultra-connected, on-demand world dominated by screens. Everywhere you look there’s a TV or computer or cell phone staring back at you, and all that electronic light exposure, while helpful in boosting your productivity, can have serious health consequences. From eye strain to poor sleep to cognitive impairment, too much screen time has become a real risk of modern life.
The key, like most other non-genetic health risks, is balance. Logically, you can’t stare at your computer eight hours a day at work, watch a few hours of TV at home, then fall asleep texting your friends and not expect to suffer a bit of eye strain. "Some of us are using these things for up to nine hours a day. Your eye muscles have to focus at that near range and that can be fatiguing," Dr. Christopher Starr, an associate professor of ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, told CBS "This Morning.”
The main problem with digital screens like your cell phone is that most of them are backlit and emit blue light, or high-energy visible (HEV) light wavelengths. This blue light is responsible for much of the eye strain associated with too much screen time. It’s also been shown to suppress your body’s natural production of melatonin, the sleep hormone, which can lead to trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep throughout the night.
Studies also show that staring at digital screens for prolonged, uninterrupted periods can reduce the amount of blinking you do. "When you're not blinking, and you're staring and your eyes are wide open, tears evaporate very quickly," Dr. Starr said. "You get dry spots, blurred vision, it can cause redness, pain, and over the course of the day it just worsens and worsens."
Tips to Reduce Digital Eye Strain
- Follow the 20-20-20 rule: for every 20 minutes you look at a digital screen, look away for 20 seconds at an object at least 20 feet away to give your eyes a break from focusing so hard on that near-range screen. Set a timer on your phone to help you remember.
- Wear glasses with anti-reflective lenses, or put a special screen on your computer that is designed to filter out the blue light.
- Enable “night mode” on your cell phone, if applicable (especially during the hours leading up to bedtime).
- Adjust other indoor light so it doesn’t compete with the light coming off your digital screens—too much indoor light is not better for reading because it causes glare.
- Go outside and allow your eyes to adjust and be exposed to natural light as much as possible. Even standing and looking out a window while at work can give your eyes a much needed break.
- An hour before bed, start to unplug… from TV, the internet and your phone. Maintain a healthy bedtime routine so your body knows it’s time to sleep.
Kids & Teens: How Much Screen TIme is Too Much?
In addition to vision health and quality sleep concerns, too much screen time has been linked to emotional and behavioral disorders in kids and teens. In a 2014 Psychology Today article, Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D., explains that even average screen time (average being a staggering seven hours a day, or about 50 hours a week glued to a television, computer or cell phone) can create subtle changes in young, developing brains, including impaired cognitive functioning:
“As a practitioner,” Dr. Dunckley writes, “I observe that many of the children I see suffer from sensory overload, lack of restorative sleep, and a hyper-aroused nervous system, regardless of diagnosis—what I call electronic screen syndrome. These children are impulsive, moody, and can’t pay attention… excessive screen-time appears to impair brain structure and function. Much of the damage occurs in the brain’s frontal lobe, which undergoes massive changes from puberty until the mid-twenties.”
Other studies that looked at teens and screens show links between too much screen time and things like increased risk of being overweight, suffering from depression and even physical distress (“gamers thumb” is the new tennis elbow). The question is how much is too much? Here’s what a 2012 documentary produced by HBO Films concluded:
- Experts discourage children under the age of two from using television programs, pre-recorded videos, web-based programming and DVDs.
- Although 75% of the top-selling videos for young children claim to be educational, research does not support educational benefits for children under two.
- Television viewing before the age of three has been linked to cognitive delays, difficulty paying attention and problems with sleep.
- Children under five who spend time watching TV spend less time interacting with parents and siblings and in free play.
- Screen time (not including internet research for homework) should not exceed two hours of high-quality programming a day.
- 21% of 8-18 year olds are exposed to TVs, computers, video games, cell phones and movies for more than 16 hours a day and are more likely to report getting lower grades.
Adults have a hard enough time disconnecting from their electronics and turning off the television, but consider how much harder it is for the average teen who literally grew up with this technology as commonplace. Parents need to take a leading role in not only demonstrating a healthy balance of screen time and “real world” interaction but enforcing the rules as well. Here are some tips from WebMD to help you create your own house rules:
- Don’t treat screen time as a reward (or a punishment).
- Make regular plans to see friends.
- Record shows to watch later instead of staying up late.
- Eat at the dinner table, and put your screens away.
- Take the TV and computer out of bedrooms, and limit bedtime texting.
- Reduce your gaming time, maybe turning it into a weekend-only activity (and ditch the violent video games that research shows makes you more aggressive and less sympathetic toward other people).
- Turn off the TV after 8 p.m. and do something relaxing like reading or light yoga/meditation before bed.
- Stretch out your fingers and thumbs every so often while you’re texting or gaming.
Whatever your age, too much time spent staring at digital screens can have a negative impact on your eyes, your sleep and even your brain. Whenever possible, unplug and reconnect with the real world by going outside, reading a book or having a face-to-face conversation. Make use of your downtime by giving your eyes a break from squinting at an electronic screen.