Screens have become a big part of our daily lives. Over the last several decades, people went from limited TV watching to having personal devices in their pocket to be used at any time.

While there are certainly benefits, focusing our eyes on digital text, pictures and videos on these glowing devices can take a toll on them. The scientific term for this type of eye strain is “computer vision syndrome”.

Below, we explain what it is, how to protect your eyes from digital devices and ways to make small changes in your life to balance screen time.

Computer vision syndrome (digital eye strain)

Computer vision syndrome, also called digital eye strain, describes eye discomfort and vision problems caused by looking at screens frequently or for extended periods of time. Whether it’s a computer, phone, tablet or TV, your eyes need to work harder to focus on a digital screen.

The American Optometric Association explains that there are a few different reasons for the discomfort and vision issues screen time can cause. For one, letters we read on a digital screen aren’t as sharply defined as letters we read from a printed page. There’s also less contrast between the letters and the screen’s background. And when you consider the brightness of the screen and the occasional presence of reflections and glare, it all adds up to mean that our eyes are very busy – and very tired.

Digital eye strain symptoms

Symptoms of computer vision syndrome or digital eye strain include:

  • Dry eyes or watery eyes
  • Higher sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • Eyes that are sore, itchy or burn
  • Feeling like you can’t keep your eye open or on a screen
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Eye strain headache
  • Soreness in the neck, shoulders or back

Who’s at risk for digital eye strain?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, digital eye strain symptoms tend to increase as the amount of time spent looking at a digital screen increases. Other factors play a role as well, such as age and visual abilities. If someone has uncorrected vision problems to begin with, their chance of experiencing digital eye strain increases.

You could be at a higher risk for digital eye strain if you:

  • Spend a few hours or more viewing screens each day
  • Don’t take enough breaks from the screen while working
  • Are viewing a screen too closely or at the wrong angle
  • Have poor back and neck posture when viewing a screen
  • Have astigmatism
  • Are farsighted
  • Have aging eyes (presbyopia)
  • Have focusing or eye coordination difficulties

How long does digital eye strain last?

Eye strain is usually a temporary condition that will improve fairly quickly after you give your eyes a good long break from screens. However, some people can still experience problems with their vision even after stopping using a screen. If issues such as blurred vision, headaches or eye pain aren’t addressed soon, they may recur and get worse over time.

Treatment for digital eye strain

You may have heard of, or even tried, wearing blue light glasses while using a digital device. While research is ongoing, so far there’s very little evidence to suggest that wearing blue light glasses is beneficial.

According to eye care specialists, to reduce digital eye strain, it’s best to make changes to how frequently (and how long) you look at screens each day, as well as by making ergonomic adjustments to how you’re viewing the screen.

For digital device users who experience issues with eye focus, eye movement or coordination, vision therapy can help. Also called visual training, this therapy involves structured activities that help teach the eye and the brain how to work together more effectively (eye teaming).

Through regular eye care and by balancing screen time, you can proactively prevent computer vision syndrome and the effects of digital eye strain.

Screen time and digital eye strain

The average adult spends about seven hours per day looking at a screen – and that number can be even higher for people who work at a computer. That’s a long time for your eyes to be straining to see. In addition to digital eye strain, excessive screen time has other negative effects, including neck pain, problems sleeping, and a higher risk for obesity and chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.

Eye specialists recommend limiting screen time as much as possible and taking frequent breaks while using digital devices. Balancing screen time also makes more time in your day for healthier activities like exercising and getting outside.

What about kids and screen time? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) provides specific screen time recommendations for children by age. They also offer a tool called the Family Media Use Plan to help parents create a balanced screen time plan that will work well for their family.

How to protect your eyesight from the effects of high screen time

There’s no doubt about it, screen time is a necessity these days. So if you must be plugged in for long periods, here are some tips for protecting your eyes and your overall health.

Follow the 20-20-20 rule

Every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds to look at something that’s at least 20 feet away. This should give your eyes a break and help them relax. It’s also a good opportunity to stand up and stretch, because sitting too much comes with its own negative health effects.

Create a healthy workspace

Whether you work from home or at an office, setting up a healthy workspace can benefit many areas of your health, including helping to prevent computer vision syndrome. When setting up your workspace, make sure that your work surface doesn’t require you to hunch over your computer. Check that the desk is at an appropriate height to avoid strain to your neck, wrists and back, and position your monitor straight in front of you so you don’t need to look up or down to see it.

You’ll also want to put your screen a healthy distance away, so you’re not too close, and you’re not squinting to see it too far away. You can also consider getting or creating a standing desk to keep you moving more and sitting less.

Get enough sleep

Tired eyes are more prone to irritation like redness, soreness and itching. When tired eyes need to work hard looking at a screen, digital eye strain can worsen. Getting better sleep is a lifestyle change that can improve many aspects of your health.

See an optometrist for regular checkups

Optometrists are eye doctors who specialize in primary vision care. They can check that your eyes are healthy and ensure that any glasses or contacts you wear are safe when you’re looking at screens. For some visual conditions, they may recommend that you use alternative glasses when you’re at a computer.

Could you be experiencing eye strain? Talk to your doctor or optometrist

Do some of these eye strain symptoms sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in the same boat as millions of others who are trying to balance screen use in this digital age.

If you think you might be experiencing digital eye strain, talk to an optometrist. They can do a comprehensive eye exam, give you a diagnosis, and recommend helpful lifestyle changes or treatments to improve your symptoms.