iStrain: Is technology hurting your vision?

June 5th, 2015

Orginally Published in Asbury Park Press

Apple sent the world abuzz with its announcement last week of the newest iterations of the iPhone and the long-awaited iWatch.

Just as tantalizing for the technology world is Google Glass, the Android-based wearable, head-mounted computers.

But as gadgets increasingly capture our hearts, eye doctors worry what all of the computers, smartphones, tablets and an unknown world of future devices might be doing to our vision.

"What you are doing now will affect your eye health in your 50s and 60s," said Dr. Errol Rummel, a Jackson-based optometric physician.

"You could almost consider it an epidemic of nearsightedness."

Almost a third of Americans spent anywhere from six to nine hours in front of digital devices and another 28 percent spent more than 10 hours in front of technology, according to a report out earlier this year from The Vision Council, which represents manufacturers and suppliers of the optical industry.

Nearly 70 percent of American adults experience some form of digital eye strain from prolonged use of electronic devices, and it's impacting younger users, those in the 18 to 34 age group, more so than their older counterparts, the report showed.

Here's a look at some of the concerns technology might pose to your vision:

Blue light

You might know about blue light specials, but as many as 63 percent of Americans aren't aware that their electronics emit high-energy visible light, often referred to as blue light.

Blue light is a segment of visible light one step removed from the non-visible, ultraviolet light.

"Up until now we knew ultraviolet light was a problem and extra bright light was a problem," Rummel said.

But studies suggest that blue light may damage the retina by breaking down the macular pigment at the back of our eyes. The breakdown of this pigment can lead to macular degeneration, the leading cause of severe vision loss for those 60 and older, according to The Vision Council report.

"This will be an issue for this generation," Rummel said. "There's never been a generation that has spent more time" with technology than this generation."

Rummel recommends lenses that filter blue light to all of his patients who spend more than three hours per day using technology.

In the blink of an eye

Blinking is an important part of what keeps our eye hydrated and healthy. Each blink pumps the tears from glands above each eye across the cornea and into our tear ducts near our noses.

Studies are also showing staring at technology, however, slows down the rate at which we blink, Rummel said.

"When you don't blink, you're not pumping tears out of the tear gland," he said.

The less we blink, the more dry our eyes become and blurrier our vision can be because the tears are not washing away the debris. As the cornea dries, it becomes more susceptible to eye infections, he said.

Rummel said other studies are showing chemicals in the tear film are being changed by technology.

Close work

The distance between our devices and our eyes might cause nearsightedness.

"When you look at something this far away and you look at it all day long, all day long, you can develop nearsightedness," Rummel said.

Excessive close work causes the eye muscles to tighten to focus on the material close at hand. But if we continue to do so without breaks, the muscle doesn't relax to see far away distances.

This happens with all types of close work — the same effect happens for avid readers — but is exacerbated by technology because people tend not to take breaks from it like they would in other types of close work, Rummel said.

"The interaction was with the screen and you never look away from the screen," he said.

Rummel suggests adults use the 20-20-20 rule: after 20 minutes of work, people should take a 20-second break to look 20 feet away. The breaks give eye muscles a chance to relax.

Children should take more precautions, expanding the break time to five minutes, he said. This is because children's eye muscles are more impacted by the continual close focus.

The best distance to keep your technology from your eyes?

Rummel suggest the "Harmon Distance" to reduce eye strain. The Harmon Distance is different for each person and is equal to the length from your elbow to your middle knuckle.




BY THE NUMBERS

The American Optometric Association surveyed Americans about their vision and technology in its 2014 American Eye-Q study. Here's a look at some of the results:


When doing near work (such as reading, computer work, etc.) how often do you take a visual break?


  • Every 20 minutes, 14 percent
  • Every 30 minutes, 27 percent
  • Every hour, 29 percent
  • Every few hours, 22 percent
  • Never, 8 percent

What type of device bothers your vision the most?


  • Desktop computer/laptop, 59 percent
  • Tablet, 7 percent
  • Smartphone, 27 percent
  • Handheld video game, 4 percent
  • eReader, 3 percent
  • Other, 1 percent
  • Source: American Optometric Association, 2014 American Eye-Q survey