Can Screens Harm Your Eyes?

Can Screens Harm Your Eyes?

by Brian Chou, OD, FAAO, FSLS

  • February 6, 2021

Many of us have feelings, beliefs, and suspicions that digital screens damage eyes.  But can screens harm your eyes? Perhaps it is no surprise that several marketers promote dietary supplements, eye drops, and special glasses, to protect against these alleged problems.  Truth be told, the science is relatively scant in associating screen use to eye damage.  But that has not stopped the continued pitches for these products.

The Engine of Misinformation

There is no shortage of online information suggesting blue light from digital devices causes eye damage.  This is because powerful corporate forces in the eye care industry influence the consumer narrative, making many of us believe that blue light is necessarily bad.  Sales of blue light glasses has increased significantly with greater screen time during the pandemic.  While there is evidence that blue light can damage retinal cells in a lab culture dish, researchers have not shown that this holds true in real life.  Science has also debunked the claim that blue light causes eye fatigue.  The reality is that the marketing has gotten far ahead of the science and we are left with a substantial body of confounding misinformation.

The Main Culprits: Genes and Age

The primary drivers for most eye conditions and diseases remain genetics and advancing age.  These factors are largely out of one’s control.  Still, there are external factors that influence eye health.  For example, strong scientific evidence links smoking, ultraviolet light exposure, inadequate nutrition, and poor general health habits, to specific eye diseases.

Evidence-Based Guidance

In short, consumers are wise to skip the dietary supplements for “computer vision syndrome” and the over-the-counter glasses suggested to combat “eye fatigue”.  Instead, have a professional eye exam, stop smoking, wear sun protection for the eyes, eat healthy, and get enough exercise and sleep.  This is analogous to how you are wise to pass the quick-fix diet pills in favor of choosing better food, getting exercise, and seeing your doctor.

What About Eye Strain Using Screens?

“Eye strain” is a generic lay term for eye discomfort.  There are many potential causes for this discomfort.  The proper treatment hinges on the underlying cause.  If it is due to unfocused vision – for example, due to hyperopia, myopia, astigmatism, and/or presbyopia – new eyeglasses, contact lenses, and/or refractive eye surgery can help.  In some cases, the eye discomfort is due to poor eye teaming or misalignment and “prism” glasses that redirect where each eye sees may re-establish comfortable eye alignment.  Eye discomfort can also be due to eye disease, ranging from cataracts to blepharitis (inflammation of the eyelids).  At ReVision Optometry, we care for many patients with an eye disease called keratoconus, which can cause symptoms of eye strain.  In these cases, eye strain is often effectively treated by scleral contact lenses.  In summary, there are many different possible causes that underlie what the layperson calls “eye strain”.  A professional eye exam can parse out the cause.

Screen Time Can Modify Behaviors

The content shown on our digital screens is diverse, ranging from streaming video, social media, e-mail and text messages, productivity tools, and educational content.  Just like how a diet can be high in calories but low in nutritional value, a similar dynamic can occur depending on the online media consumed.  Some of the online media is the equivalent of mental “junk food”.

There is increasing evidence that social media, when used as a replacement for human connection, is associated with worse mood, greater anxiety, loneliness, addiction, and lower self-esteem.  No wonder, there is pent-up demand to broadly blame screen time while marketers propose that blue light protecting glasses are the cure.  Of course, the actual story is more nuanced and complicated.

Persuasive technology today has perverse incentives to engage user attention by showing increasingly extreme, enraging, and divisive content.  With less exposure to the natural world, we lay trapped within digital echo chambers with a limited menu of options to escape.  The AI-driven algorithms automatically stimulate our nervous systems, suggesting content based on look-alike models of who we are, while we collectively lose agency to increasingly sophisticated technological manipulations.  The increasing awareness is that not only is our democracy at risk – as citizens we are awash in a sea of digital triviality and misinformation – but more importantly, we risk losing our humanity and civility.  Fortunately, with the leadership Center for Human Technology, there is growing enlightenment and movement to expose the technological manipulations that are harming the ones we love and our society.

In short,  the answer to, “Can screens harm your eyes?” is that in most cases, screens strain our minds and sensibilities more than our eyes.  Tried and true strategies to protect your eye health include UV light protection, not smoking, a balanced diet and exercise, and regular eye exams.

For a professional examination to address your digital vision needs, schedule an appointment today with ReVision Optometry.