In our modern world, the use of screens and digital devices is part of everyday life. And COVID has increased our use of them more than ever, as we’ve relied on devices for work, socialising, entertainment and communicating during lockdown. But what impact is so much screen use having on our eyes?
What is digital eye strain?
Digital eye strain (DES) is eye discomfort and other symptoms that follow the use of digital devices. It’s mostly temporary, and symptoms usually disappear after a break from screen use. But it can cause frequent and significant discomfort.
It’s thought that more than half of computer users experience DES. And we’re spending more time looking at screens than ever. Adults in the UK spent more than three and a half hours a day online in 2020, whether that was on computers, smartphones or tablets. By the time you’ve added in using computers for work, gaming and watching television, the total amount of screen time will be much higher.
The following devices can all cause DES, especially if two or more are used at the same time, or if you switch between them.
- Desktop computers
- Gaming consoles
Small screens – such as those on smartphones – can put particular strain on eye muscles. The use of social media throughout the day and multitasking between screens only adds to the problem. It’s not uncommon to see someone in an office using two desktop screens, with their smartphone also to hand. In fact, nearly nine in 10 of those aged 20 to 29 report using two or more digital devices simultaneously on occasion.
Using internal communications to encourage breaks
You might make it a focus of your internal communications to encourage staff to take short, but regular breaks away from the screen. That can be a rest break or doing other tasks away from the screen. Even just looking away from the screen at regular intervals is beneficial. Getting away from the computer at lunchtime for a longer break is also important – whether in an office environment or at home.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of DES can include:
- tired and uncomfortable eyes
- dry eyes
- blurry vision
- neck and shoulder pain
As a knock-on effect, these symptoms can impact productivity in companies that use screens and digital devices for much of their daily work.
Prevention and management of digital eye strain
Given the near-universal use of digital devices, it’s important to take measures to reduce DES both in the work environment and at home. For employees working at home, it’s important to have all the necessary equipment, including a comfortable chair and desk or table to position a screen. Don’t forget, under health and safety legislation, employers are responsible for providing and paying for regular eye tests for employees who work with display screen equipment.
Talk to your team about things they can do to avoid eye strain. Here are some key points.
- Make sure images and text on digital devices are sharp and in focus.
- There should be no flickering on the screen.
- Adjust the brightness of your device to suit your environment. For example, if you’re using a tablet in low light, reduce the brightness of your screen to ease the strain on your eyes.
- Make sure screen surfaces are clean.
- Position your screen to reduce any glare from sunlight or artificial light. You might also want to consider using a blue light or anti-glare filter.
- Text should be large enough to read easily on the device. You should be able to have it at a comfortable distance from your eyes to be able to read it clearly.
- Select colours that are easy on the eye. For example, avoid red text on a blue background, or vice versa.
Changes in activity
- When using any digital device, look away into the distance from time to time, and blink often. A good way to remember this is the 20-20-20 rule. For every 20 minutes of screen time, you should look away at something in the distance (about 20 feet away), for 20 seconds.
- Break up long spells of screen use with device-free breaks. This is particularly important if working at home, when it can be easy to just continue working or sitting at a screen. Take a walk at lunchtime instead of catching up on social media. This is not only good for your eyes, but your whole physical and mental health and wellbeing.
- As a manager, it’s helpful to plan activities, meetings or breaks around big projects that involve a lot of screen use.
- Short, frequent breaks are better than longer, occasional ones.
After work, if you’ve had a long stretch at the computer, try to have a break from devices. Give your eyes time to rest and most importantly, enjoy the beauty the world has to offer away from screens.
- More than 1 in 3 people in the UK report deteriorating eyesight due to increasing screen time during pandemic. Fight for Sight. www.fightforsight.org.uk, 12 January 2021
- Sheppard AL, Wolffsohn JS. Digital eye strain: prevalence, measurement and amelioration. BMJ Open Ophthalmol 2018;3(1): e000146. doi:10.1136/bmjophth-2018-000146.
- Computer vision syndrome. American Optometric Association. www.aoa.org, accessed 18 May 2021
- Mobile working risk management system. Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors, 2018. ergonomics.org.uk
- A nation’s online migration: Ofcom reveals a year lived online. Ofcom. www.ofcom.org.uk, published 9 June 2021
- Working safely with display screen equipment. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, accessed 18 May 2021
- Working with display screen equipment (DSE). A brief guide. Health and Safety Executive, May 2013. www.hse.gov.uk