Don’t worry, no one’s telling you to get off your phone
While our lecturers pessimistically say, “Let’s keep pretending we’re going to see each other in week 8,” I continue to hope that we might actually get to see them (and other students) in real life. You know what else is hoping for that? My eyes. While probably ranking in the top 10 of first world problems, in our current situation, staring at screens all day is something we cannot turn a blind-eye to.
Dr. Alex Müntz, an ophthalmology research fellow; Professor Jennifer Craig, an academic optometrist in the Department of Ophthalmology; and Dr. Phil Turnbull, a senior lecturer in the School of Optometry and Vision Science, are here to provide evidence for our future lawsuits against the Uni for causing eye disease in later life. Well—more like explain what extended screen time is doing to our eyes—but, is there really a difference?
What are the immediate risks of staring at screens all day?
All three experts talked about dry eye. Yummy. When focusing on our devices for long periods of time, we blink less frequently and less completely. Professor Craig explains that this means “the tear film, which coats the surface of the eye and keeps it moist and healthy, doesn’t get replenished in the way it should,” leading to sensation of burning and dryness. Dr. Turnbull says dry eye is “generally temporary self-resolving with a good night’s sleep.”
We’re also likely to deal with ‘digital eye syndrome’, or asthenopia, because we aren’t giving our eyes many chances to do something different. Dr Müntz says symptoms of this include dry eye, watery eyes, blurry vision, head or eye aches, hunched back, and neck tension.
What are the long-term risks of staring at screens all day?
Since we’re the first generation to have had access to screens all our lives—just call us guinea pigs already—research into the long-term impacts of extended screen use is only emerging. But the results of Dr. Müntz and Professor Craig’s recent study suggest that frequent screen use from an early age may lead to premature loss of oil glands needed to keep our eyes moist. These glands are like teeth; we tend to lose them as we age and they’re irreplaceable. Their results mean that we might be more at risk of experiencing severe dry eye sooner. Severe dry eye is “associated with a significant drop in quality of life,” because it affects vision, is painful, and linked to depression. In saying this, the chance of young people experiencing such severe levels of dry eye from extended screen use alone is unlikely, or at least we don’t have the evidence–yet. So, save yourself the anxiety of trying to decide whether or not to sacrifice your Sims. They can live another day.
We’re instead more likely to develop short-sightedness (myopia) because the risk of this increases by doing more near work and a lack of natural sunlight exposure—both of which are hard to counteract when working from home. Dr. Müntz thinks myopia is a much higher price to pay for extended screen use, because for a small number of people, myopia can progress to the point where glasses or laser eye surgery won’t help anymore; high myopia comes with a big risk for blindness due to secondary eye disease. That’s a tough pupil to swallow.
Dr. Turnbull also pointed out that long days on our devices can lead to “more systemic problems like poorer circulation from sitting, poor posture, as well as mental health issues from reduced in-person social interactions.”
What can we do to help our eyes?
Obviously, crusty, squinty eyes aren’t conducive to scrolling TikTok in comfort. Our friendly academics suggested a number of simple ways to keep our eyes healthy while spending 8+ hours a day looking at various screens.
One of the most useful things you can do is blink more. Professor Craig suggests asking your eye care professional for blinking exercises which help prevent dry eye, but I found some YouTube videos that look pretty wild. I also feel that walking by the people you live with and clapping your hands in their face while asking “are you scared of flies?” is surely a great way to help the others around you blink more often.
The 20/20/20 rule is one for the pomodoro stans. Every 20 minutes of screen use, look at something 20ft (6m) away from you for 20 seconds. This is even more effective if you briefly move around. Dr. Müntz suggests setting up your space so that you have to get up often to, for example, refill a glass of water.
There are lots of other things you can do for your eyes such as going for walks outside, using multiple monitors, increasing the font size while you’re typing (don’t worry, this can prevent you from becoming that boomer who has messed with their display settings, not be them), trying dictation or voice-to-text features, and physically distancing yourself from your screen. The rule of thumb for phones and tablets is that they should be held at the distance your elbow is when you hold your fist to your eyes. For computers and laptops about half a metre is good. Another great suggestion courtesy of Dr. Müntz—I swear—is to read the hard copy of Craccum instead of the online version, and to listen to things instead of watching them, when you can.
Dry eye does not need to be at the top of your priority list; Dr. Müntz said it well when he said they’re “bigger things than dry eye” right now. But if your eyes are uncomfy after long days on Zoom, even doing one of these things can help.