Amanda Chu, National Center for Health Research
People are spending more time in front of digital screens than ever before. Whether it’s their phone, laptop, computer, or TV, most Americans spend 5 or more hours each day looking at a digital device.1 Even before remote classes, 83% of children spent more than 3 hours a day on a digital device.2 These numbers are certainly higher for people working and schooling from home.
Hours in front of digital screens have led to the emergence of an eye condition known as digital eye strain, or computer vision syndrome. According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), digital eye strain refers to a group of eye and vision-related problems that result from prolonged use of a digital device.3 A digital device refers to any piece of technology using an LED screen. It includes laptops, computers, tablets, e-readers, and cellphones.
Symptoms of digital eye strain include4
- Eye Pain or Fatigue
- Dry Eye
- Blurred Vision
- Neck and Back Ache
Almost 2 out of every 3 Americans report experiencing symptoms of digital eye strain.1 A survey by the AOA found that 80% of children ages 10-17 experience blurry vision and burning, itching, and tired eyes after using a digital device. This is likely due to long periods spent on devices and the lack of breaks; 68% of children in the survey said they did not take hourly breaks, and 18% reported using digital devices for more than 7 hours a day. Even before the pandemic, over half of the children in the survey used their devices to study or to do homework.2
While digital eye strain causes discomfort, it also reduces productivity. Individuals experiencing digital eye strain are more prone to make errors and need frequent breaks.5 Cases of digital eye strain also vary with age. For children, a study found that even 30 minutes using technology can lead to digital eye strain.6 While it is hard to predict the long-term consequences of digital eye strain, eye care providers have reported accelerated cases of nearsightedness in children, which may be a result of using digital devices.1
Are blue light glasses the solution?
Recently, many eyewear companies have been marketing blue light glasses as a way to reduce symptoms of digital eye strain. Since digital devices are a common source of blue light, these glasses have lenses that reduce the amount of blue light entering the eye.
To understand whether these claims are true, we first have to know what blue light is. Every color we see is part of the light spectrum with its own particular wavelength and energy. Compared to other colors, blue light has a short wavelength and carries the highest amount of energy. Common sources of blue light are the LED screens from our digital devices, fluorescent light, and the sun.7 Because of the high energy of blue light and our increased time spent in front of digital devices, some people think blue light may be responsible for digital eye strain and even some eye diseases.
But is that true? There have been no studies linking the blue light from our digital devices to serious eye diseases like macular degeneration. However, there is evidence to reject the claims that blue light glasses will improve symptoms of digital eye strain. A 2017 systematic review of 118 studies found that there were no well-designed studies indicating that blue light glasses resulted in a statistically significant decrease in eye strain.8 Likewise, a study published in 2019 of 24 male and female adults ages 22-27 examined symptoms of digital eye strain when using a blue light blocking filter versus no filter. The study found that a filter eliminating 99% of blue light was no more effective at reducing symptoms.9
On the other hand, keep in mind that blue light is a part of our natural world; our main source of it is from the sun. We need blue light for normal visual function. Blue light is important for night vision, color discrimination, and it helps regulate our circadian rhythms.7 The circadian rhythm is the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle our body undergoes every day. One of the factors regulating this biological clock is blue light. Increased blue light exposure during the day cues the body into thinking it should be awake.8 When searching for solutions for digital eye strain, it may be more effective to make changes to your work habits and environment.
Ways to Relieve Digital Eye Strain
- Limit the amount of time in front of a digital device
For every 20 minutes using a digital device, the user should look 20 feet into the distance for at least 20 seconds.10
- Take short, frequent breaks
Breaks at least once per hour will help reduce eye strain by allowing the eyes to relax, decreasing fatigue and headache. It will also help with posture. A 10-15 minute break every 1-2 hours is recommended.10
- Proper set up and lighting
A digital device that is used at too high or too low of an angle can cause neck and back discomfort. When using a laptop, for example, users should keep the device slightly below eye level and 20-40 inches away from the body.11 Font size can be adjusted to make viewing from this distance more comfortable. Reducing glare from the window or overhead lights and adjusting the brightness of the device’s screen to about the same as your surroundings will also help reduce digital eye strain.10
- Make sure you’re blinking
When our eyes look at digital screens, they blink less frequently, causing dry eye. If you’re experiencing dry eye, you may want to ask your doctor about artificial tears.10
- Maintain routine eye exams
When visiting your eye doctor, tell them how often you use your digital device and the distance you normally use them from. Your doctor may recommend special eyewear when using these devices, such as eyewear customized for computer-working distance.10
A special note for children:
When children use digital devices, they may assume that the symptoms of digital eye strain are normal. In addition, children may be using devices in environments set up for adults, contributing to digital eye strain. When your child uses a digital device, monitor their distance from the screen, their viewing angle, the font size, and the lighting, and make adjustments if necessary.12 While recommended screen times vary, the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages any screen time for children under the age of 2 and limits screen time for children ages 2-5 to an hour or less per day. For older kids, parents should negotiate boundaries for screen usage and make sure their children are receiving enough sleep and physical activity.13 Maintaining a proper environment and set up, reducing screen use, and scheduling breaks will help alleviate symptoms of digital eye strain. Parents should keep digital screen time in mind when examining their child’s schooling options, and educators should be aware of the amount of work students are assigned to complete on a digital device. It is important that children develop healthy screen habits early on.
All NCHR articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.
The National Center for Health Research is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research, education and advocacy organization that analyzes and explains the latest medical research and speaks out on policies and programs. We do not accept funding from pharmaceutical companies or medical device manufacturers. Find out how you can support us here.
- The Vision Council. The Digital Device Dilemma. Alexandria, VA: Vision Impact Institute; 2016.
- Lubell J. Solving for Sight. American Optometric Association Focus. July/Aug. 2014.
- American Optometric Association. Computer Vision Syndrome. Aoa.org
- Yan Z, Hu L, Chen H, Lu F. Computer Vision Syndrome: widely spreading but largely unknown epidemic among computer users. Computers in Human Behavior. 2008;24(5):2026-2042.
- Rosenfield M. Computer vision syndrome: a review of ocular causes and potential treatments. Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics. 2011;31(5):502-15.
- Smahel D, Wright MF, Cernikova M. The impact of digital media on health: children’s perspectives. International Journal of Public Health. 2015;60:131-137.
- Leung TW, Li, RWH, Kee C. Blue-Light Filtering Spectacle Lenses: Optical and Clinical Performances. PLoS One. 2017;12(1):2-15.
- Lawrenson JG, Hull CC, Downie LE. The effect of blue-blocking spectacle lenses on visual performance, macular health and the sleep-wake cycle: a systematic review of the literature. Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics. 2017;37(6):644-654.
- Palavets T, Rosenfield M. Blue-blocking Filters and Digital Eyestrain. Optometry and Vision Science. 2019;96(1):48-54. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30570598/
- Tribley J, McClain S, Karbasi A, et al. Tips for computer vision syndrome relief and prevention. IOS Press. 2011;39(1)85-7.
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Workstation components: Monitors. United States Department of Labor.
- Kozeis N. Impact of computer use on children’s vision. Hippokratia. 2009;13(4):230-231.
- Pappas S. What do we really know about kids and screens? American Psychological Association. April 1, 2020.