One consequence of modern working and home environments is near constant use of digital screens like computers, laptops, or smartphones. Using these devices for longer than even just two hours can cause discomfort or pain called digital eye strain. (Learn More)
This condition can cause dry eyes, headaches, neck and shoulder aches, blurry vision, and eye discomfort. Symptoms tend to be temporary, but the longer you spend in front of a computer, the longer it takes for these symptoms to go away. (Learn More)
Lifestyle and environmental changes, like the 20-20-20 rule, and better lighting and ergonomics in your office can help to alleviate symptoms. (Learn More) If these changes do not work, consider getting special digital eye strain glasses or learning some exercises that can help. (Learn More)
What Is Digital Eye Strain?
Digital eye strain is also referred to as computer vision syndrome. This condition can lead to several vision issues and forms of eye discomfort due to using a digital screen for too long. Screens include computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and portable gaming devices.
The level of discomfort often increases with the amount of use. The average American worker spends about seven hours every day working on a computer of some sort. This statistic does not take into account personal time on screens, including playing games, watching movies, or reading books at home.
The American Optometric Association (AOA) found that some people who use computer screens of some type for even two hours per day were at risk of digital eye strain symptoms. A 2015 survey found that 65 percent of American adults report experiencing digital eye strain.
The “blink rate,” which is imperceptible visual updates constantly happening on digital screens, leads people to blink less because the eyes are flickering in miniscule ways to keep up with the changes. Less blinking, different perceptions of distances, and poor ergonomics or lighting in your office environment can all lead to digital eye strain.
For the most part, symptoms of digital eye strain can be treated with minor lifestyle changes. Existing eye problems like farsightedness or astigmatism can make symptoms of digital eye strain worse rather than the other way around. However, it can be uncomfortable if the person does not know how to treat the issue.
Symptoms and Causes of Digital Eye Strain
Reading or looking at images on a digital screen is different than a printed page.
The level of contrast between the background color and the letters is lower than with a printed page. Letters or images on a computer screen are less defined than they are in a physical piece of media. Glare and “blue light” from computer screens also affect the eyes differently than with a paper book or looking at a printed image.
Digital eye strain can cause many symptoms, the most common of which include:
- Eyestrain and discomfort.
- Blurry vision.
- Dry eyes.
- Neck pain.
- Shoulder pain.
These might be exacerbated by:
- Low or poor-quality light in the room.
- Glare from the digital screen.
- Improper viewing distances, such as if the screen is too close to your eyes.
- Poor posture while seated and typing.
- Uncorrected or undiagnosed vision problems.
Many people experience a combination of these factors. When performing normal office work on a computer, digital eye strain can start to impact quality of life. However, most symptoms are temporary and will start to go away with lifestyle changes or after computer work is done for the day.
In rare cases, especially if the person spends more than seven hours in front of digital screens, these symptoms may not go away because the eyes do not have time to relax and adjust. Blurry distance vision is the most likely to continue after you are not working on a digital screen, and this problem can make driving or walking difficult.
An optometrist or ophthalmologist can look at your eyes to diagnose whether you suffer from digital eye strain or another condition that requires a different medical approach. When you go in for a diagnosis, your doctor may:
- Get a patient history. This includes any family history of certain eye conditions, if you have any underlying medical conditions and prescription medications that could impact your vision, if there are any environmental factors like chemicals in your work environment that might affect your eyes, and how long you spend on digital screens like computers or your phone.
- Take visual acuity measurements. These will assess how your vision is impacted by spending time on screens and compare it to any existing eye conditions you have.
- Test how your eyes focus and move together. Measuring how well your peripheral vision works and how well your eyes focus on objects in unison can also show your optometrist if you have any issues that may make digital eye strain worse.
Treatment for Digital Eye Strain
There are several ways to treat digital eye strain. The most frequently recommended is the 20-20-20 rule.
- Take a 20-second break from your work.
- Do this every 20 minutes.
- Look at something 20 feet away.
Lifestyle changes mitigate all kinds of eye strain, including digital eye strain. Adjust the lighting in your office or home, get a desk chair that fits your body, and keep your posture correct for typing. Check that your desk and chair place you at the correct angle to safely work on your computer.
Upgrade your computer displays. For example, newer LCD monitors tend to be easier on the eyes than CRT monitors, which had a higher “flicker rate.” Adjust your computer screen’s brightness so it does not shine so bright in your eyes. If you need to adjust the size of the letters on the screen so you can read them more easily, do that.
Make sure to spend less than seven hours per day on a digital screen, if possible. For example, if you spend much of your workday on a computer, try to find another form of recreation at night when you get home. Take consistent breaks during your workday and when you use digital screens at home.
Consider getting anti-glare screens to reduce the impact of light reflecting off screens and into your eyes.
Do not forget to blink regularly. If you are in an environment with moving air from a fan or you wear contact lenses regularly, consider using eye drops to keep your eyes moist.
Get regular eye exams to make sure any underlying visual problems are being treated and corrected. This helps to reduce strain on your eyes overall.
Computer Glasses and Exercises
If you find that you continue to suffer from digital eye strain after making lifestyle changes and practicing the 20-20-20 rule, you may benefit from glasses with special anti-glare coating or even a specific tint to filter out blue light. There is no data to suggest that there is a long-term risk specifically associated with blue light from computer screens because digital devices do not emanate harmful radiation like ultraviolet (UV) rays. However, if you struggle with eyestrain from lower levels of computer use or cannot spend less time at work on your computer, you may benefit from getting special glasses to manage eyestrain.
You could also work with your optometrist or ophthalmologist on special eye exercises to reduce eye strain. These are called visual training or visual therapy. These exercises train the eyes and brain to work more effectively together.
Computer Vision Syndrome. American Optometric Association (AOA).
Eyestrain: Overview. (October 18, 2018). Mayo Clinic.
Computer Vision Syndrome and Digital Eye Strain. (November 2017). All About Vision.
Computer Eye Strain: 10 Steps for Relief. (August 20, 2018). All About Vision.
Eyestrain: Diagnosis. (October 18, 2018). Mayo Clinic.
Are Computer Glasses Worth It? (April 27, 2017). American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).