How To Save Your Eyeballs From Digital Eye Strain
> Screens don’t cause eye strain, constant eye movement does
We’ve all been through this before.
The project deadline is tomorrow. You’re motoring along with no major issues or other distractions (thank God). This project is a priority. You’re focused, “in the zone” and getting all the parts done, arranged, edited, etc.
You’ve been in your chair for almost three hours non-stop.
Your fingers are tapping at the keyboard like a crazy woodpecker. Your eyes are laser-focused and locked onto the cursor as it blinks and zooms all over the screen.
You click the menu options to get everything sorted. You drag, drop, cut, copy, paste and type across several software applications that are all open on your desktop and running at the same time. Your computer’s processor is getting a real workout.
But, your eyes are too. The fatigue is setting in. You’re in the early stages of turning into a cubicle zombie.
The little graphic clipart on Powerpoint seems to come alive and you think to yourself, “Did that graphic just move? It looked like it just drifted off-center.”
You recheck the alignment and everything’s good.
Then a few minutes later, it happens again only this time it’s the text, “Whoa, the letters are floating up and down on their own. Did it just go out of focus too?”
You blink to adjust your eyes and it just blurs everything out.
Congrats - you’ve just maxed out your eyeballs.
You are now part of the growing club of millions that experience…
Digital Eye Strain Or Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS)
You may not have heard of either of these terms. They are both relatively new terms in the world of illnesses. Both are the result of our modern advancements in life and refer to the same thing - tired eyes from looking at screens.
It’s an all-encompassing general term that covers these common symptoms:
- Dry or itchy eyes
- Watery eyes
- Blurred or double vision
- Slow focus
- General eye discomfort
- Vision related headaches
Eye strain is something all of us cubicle dwellers have to deal with week in and week out. And, it’s even more common than other cubicle ailments like carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) or deep vein thrombosis (DVT), but certainly not as bad.
Tired eyes have been around with us since our existence as a species.
Think about our prehistoric ancestors. Walking westward directly into the sunset, searching for food, their eyes squint to minimize the intense and direct glare from the setting sun.
Or, people working late into the night “burning the midnight oil” or working by candlelight in the dark to finish up reading or writing a document.
In all of these examples, humans have always had to deal with eye strain.
The big difference is that in today’s world, we’re surrounded by so much digital technology that it’s tough to not look at a screen or display of some sort. We look at screens constantly throughout the day and night.
Think about it. What’s one of the first things you look at in the morning?
Yup, your smartphone alarm clock. And some of us even check our messaging apps or email before we even get out of bed.
Once we get to work, we lock our eyes to the computer monitor like a tractor beam for hours on end. And when we're not at our desks, our smartphones will hijack our eyes during the many micro-moments throughout the day waiting in line, sitting on the toilet (c’mon, everyone does this), etc.
After work at home, the biggest of screens will grab our eyeballs for several solid hours as we decompress with some mindless TV content washing over us.
The end result is that our eyes are getting fewer and fewer chances to take a break and rest. The biggest offender not by size but by visual demands is the computer monitor at work.
Staring At The Computer Screen At Work
That sub-heading is a bit misleading. We don’t “stare” at our screens at work. To us, staring implies little-to-no eye movement. Kinda like when we all had staring contests as kids.
Our “staring” at work is anything but staring. We’re not zoning out looking at the monitor. We’re all actively reading and visually searching for the next thing to do.
Like right now, your eyes are moving from left to right as you’re reading this sentence.
Considering all the information and data displayed on your work monitor, it is the most demanding screen for your eyes during the day. Of all the different displays in our lives, the one at work is the one we spend the most amount of time in front of.
If you’re anything like us, you probably have a bunch of programs open, overlapping each other and running on your desktop.
Email is always on with several messages opened along with incoming pop-up notifications. Our internet browser is open with at least 10 tabs running - half of which don't have anything to do with work. Plus, one or two of the Microsoft Office programs - usually an excel spreadsheet and Powerpoint because the corporate world can’t survive without dreary presentation slides.
Some of us do a real number on ourselves by having more than one monitor. We max out the information overload.
The point here is that we’ve got a lot of things going on and everything is visually channeled through the desktop screen to our eyes and eventually, our brain for next steps.
Our eyes are constantly darting from one spot on the screen to another or following the mouse cursor like a dog eyeballing a treat in hand.
It’s this ongoing eye movement that constantly works our eye muscles that lead to eye strain, not the screen itself - that’s an old myth that just won’t die off.
When you’re looking at a full screen of work for a long amount of time, you’re doing two things:
1) Reducing your normal blink rate
2) Forcing your eye muscles to work overtime
Let’s go over each of these two things in more detail and what you can do to offset the negative effects.
You Blink Less When Reading
The normal average blinking rate for your eyes is between 15 to 20 blinks per minute. This will vary depending on a bunch of other factors like your mental and physical state, environment, etc.
This Columbia University study shows how certain basic activities impact eye blinking rates. They measured the blinking rates in three states: resting, reading and talking.
Here are the key points from the study:
> Average blinking rate while resting is 17 blinks per minute
> Blinking rate decreases to as low as 4.5 blinks per minute when reading
> Blinking rate increases to as high as 26 blinks per minute during conversation
In other words, when we read, we blink a lot less but our eyes remain actively moving.
And, how do most of us get shit done at work?
We read - a lot.
Everything from emails, text-based documents, presentation slides, excel workbooks, etc. are displayed on our computer screen or in some smaller cases, it’s on printed paper. Either way, it’s all reading.
With all that information, data and content to absorb via our eyes, we tend to go for long periods of time without blinking.
According to the American Academy Of Ophthalmology, “we blink half to a third as often while using computers and other digital screen devices, whether for work or play. Extended reading, writing or other intensive 'near work' can also cause eye strain.”
So, when you blink less, your eyes don’t get enough of the lubrication and cleaning it needs. It gets dry and itchy and your eye muscles need to work harder at moving your eyeballs around.
Your Eye Muscles Are Constantly Being Worked
When we’re working at our desks, looking at our screens, our eye muscles are being worked in different ways.
1) Direction - up, down, right and left
2) Distance - near or far
We’ve already talked about how much our eyes dart around the screen above. This type of eye movement flexes our outer eye muscles to point our eyes in the desired direction.
The other eye muscles are inside the eye itself and connected to the cornea and lens. These microscopic muscles are responsible for adjusting our focus to things that are near or far.
The monitors at our desk are all set at a fixed distance and typically don’t change. It’s like finding the right seat height. Once we get it to the right setting, we don’t change it. It’s set-it and forget-it.
The problem with this is that it locks our focal distance and forces our eyes to focus on that distance continually without much relief.
It’s like someone asking you to hold your arms straight out with dumbell weights in each of your hands for a long time. It strains your arm muscles.
Staring at the computer screen at a set distance for extended periods of time without breaks does pretty much the same thing to your eye muscles.
Blinking Less + Overworked Eye Muscles = Eye Strain
So, when you combine blinking less, constant directional eye movement and a closer fixed focal distance, all of your eye muscles are getting worked big time.
And that is what leads to eye strain.
So, the solution to this is quite simple.
Do A Relaxed 20/20/20
This is a common method to help ease eye strain. The 20/20/20 is an easy way to remember to take a break every 20 minutes for 20 seconds looking at an object 20 feet away.
- Start by blinking a few times to lubricate your eyes
- Position your body so that you can comfortably look straight ahead at something further away
- Take a few deep breaths and relax your eyelids
- Blink slowly and maintain your 20 foot focus for 20 seconds before resuming work
In fact, don't you think you are overdue for a 20/20/20 break?
Take a visual break right now.
Pause on reading this article.
Seriously, look away for 20 seconds and take a five *slow* deep breathes.
Okay, welcome back.
Feel a little bit better, right?
By focusing beyond your monitor to a single non-moving object further away, you relax your eye muscles from all the directional movement and also relax your near distance focusing muscles.
It feels good.
Position Your Monitor Correctly
Additionally, you want your eyes to be at the most natural and comfortable viewing angle. This is usually just below your natural horizontal eye level.
Raise your monitor so that the top of the monitor is at your horizontal eye level when seated comfortably. This will allow your eyes to move around just below the horizontal level in the most comfortable zone when looking at your work on the screen.
Ask your IT helpdesk if they can supply a monitor stand to raise your monitor or wing it yourself. Go find some old phone books or an unused stack of textbooks to place your monitor higher up.
Then, move the monitor about 18” to 30” away or about arm's length. Choose a distance that places the least amount of eye strain on you. Adjust the brightness of the screen so that it’s similar to the surrounding environment and not blindingly bright.
Adjust Your Desktop Settings
Now, this is more of a software setting rather than physical changes.
Adjust your overall desktop font size, scale and layout so that you’re not struggling to read what’s on the screen. It should be easy enough to read but not so big that it takes up lots of screen space.
It’s a trade-off between information density and easy readability.
For the majority of us corporate lackeys, we’re usually on Microsoft Windows operating system. So, you can change the desktop layout by simply right-clicking on your main desktop and selecting "display settings" or something along those lines.
Choose the font size, scale and layout that gives you the best compromise between easy readability and maximizing the amount of information into a single area or space.
Again, check with your IT guys if you need more help on this.
Hopefully, this all made sense for you.
This little video clip from DNews does a great job of debunking the old myth that staring at screens will damage your eyes and hits the same key points we noted above.
VIDEO: Does Staring At Screens Ruin Your Eyes?
YOUTUBE: Seeker (DNews)
- Looking at screens up close or in the dark will not harm your eyes
- Constant eye movement is what causes eye strain
- Take frequent breaks and do the 20/20/20
So, now that you’ve finished reading this article, get up from your chair, leave your cubicle, get outside and look out into the world for a few minutes.
Let your eyes relax then allow your mind to wander about this myth...
If you cross your eyes and someone slaps your back, will you be permanently cross-eyed for the rest of your life? 😉
After you’ve pondered that thought and given your eyes a break, get back to your desk and do some hand and wrist stretches before you start working again to really balance things out.