Do You Have Digital Eye Strain or Computer Vision Syndrome?

The scary side of what all that screen time is doing to your eyes.

Do You Have Digital Eye Strain or Computer Vision Syndrome?
Photo: Alex Sandoval

As ~magical~ as technology has made your life, it also has its downfalls. It's ruining your attention span, memory, and relationships. It's making you fat and lazy, and it's skyrocketing your risk of disease. Not to mention, it's giving you anxiety and a wonderful thing called "tech neck."

Another thing to add to the list? It's putting many people at risk of computer vision syndrome and digital eye strain.

While these eye health issues have been around for a while, they surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people were spending more time at home in front of screens. A February 2021 study done in Saudi Arabia found that prolonged use of digital devices significantly increased during home isolation, as did incidences of digital eye strain. Other data from Eyesafe and LG Display found that people were spending more than 13 hours per day on screens during the COVID-19 pandemic — up 30 percent from before the lockdowns. As a result, they found that 59 percent of people were experiencing symptoms of digital eye strain.

But what are digital eye strain and computer vision syndrome, exactly, and is there anything you can do about them? Here, all the details — including whether or not you need to worry.

What Are Digital Eye Strain and Computer Vision Syndrome?

Computer vision syndrome is a condition that results from sitting in front of a computer for hours on end. The symptoms are often tired, sore, irritated eyes and blurry vision. But you don't need to be parked at a desk to get hit with this problem. You may feel physical eye discomfort after two or more hours of any screen use per day. In this case, it's generally referred to as digital eye strain, says Justin Bazan, O.D., optometrist and medical advisor to The Vision Council.

Digital eye strain, the general term for any screen-induced eye discomfort, is super common, with 31 percent of Americans (and a whopping 68 percent of millennials!) reporting experiencing eye strain, according to a report by The Vision Council. The Vision Council report found that 22 percent of people experience dry eyes, headaches, and/or vision problems, and 30 percent have neck and shoulder pain after two-plus hours of screen time per day. It's not all that surprising, considering 52 percent of people admit to using two devices simultaneously each day. (Uh, BTW, multitasking with devices is literally re-wiring your brain. And not in a good way.)

Both digital eye strain and computer vision syndrome happen because the eye focusing and eye movements required while viewing a digital screen place additional demands on your visual system, according to the American Optometric Association. It's even more of a risk if you have uncorrected vision problems (such as farsightedness or astigmatism), inadequate eye coordination, or aging changes happening to your eyes, according to the AOA. Similarly, if you wear glasses or contacts and your vision prescription is outdated or incorrect, it could be making digital eye strain symptoms worse, says Bazan. (All the more reason to get on top of your yearly checkups.)

How Serious Is Digital Eye Strain?

Some really good news: Many of the symptoms of computer vision syndrome and digital eye strain are only temporary and will decline when you take a break from your devices, according to the AOA. Plus, research has yet to show that the blue light emitted from devices (also called high energy visible light or HEV) results in enough damage to cause permanent vision loss, says Bazan. (More on that here: Do Blue Light Glasses Really Work?)

But that doesn't mean excessive screen time won't cause other issues: Research suggests that blue light exposure may result in damage to the retina plus long-term vision problems such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and cataracts, says Bazan. Not to mention, it might suppress the natural release of melatonin, disrupting sleep, as well as mess with your metabolism. One study in the New England Journal of Medicine even found that reading a screen with one eye closed can cause temporary blindness in one eye. Yikes.

How to Prevent and Treat Digital Eye Strain

No one's saying you need to give up all tech and retreat to live an unplugged hermit life in the woods. However, you can do some simple things to minimize the strain on your eyes and overall discomfort. (Also try adding these yoga poses into your workout routine to combat bad posture caused by constant tech use.)

1. Check your screen setup.

If you think you're suffering from computer vision syndrome, first take a look at your desk and screen setup. The closer something is to your eyes, the more they have to focus and turn in. For most people, that can lead to more rapid onset and intensity of symptoms, says Bazan. A good rule of thumb is to focus on a screen that's an arm's length away. (See: How to Set Up the Most Ergonomic Home Office Ever)

"While I have ­yet to see concrete evidence, anecdotally, working on a larger screen, with larger fonts that are of high resolution, seems to help stave off symptoms, especially when the person is wearing a customized pair of digital eyewear," says Bazan. On that note...

2. Try some protective eyewear.

If you've ever wanted to get glasses but have perfect vision, now you totally have an excuse to grab a trendy pair of blue light glasses in the name of health. Or, if you regularly wear glasses, anti-reflective and blue-light-blocking treatments can be added to your lenses.

Considering grabbing a pair from trendy Australian brand Quay (which has even launched a collab with Chrissy Teigen) or from direct-to-consumer glasses retailer Warby Parker. You can also grab an affordable pair from Amazon for under $10 per pair or, of course, buy some from your eye doc.

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Quay Australia Blueprint Bluelight Glasses In Clear

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Warby Parker Percey Striped Sassafras Blue Light Glasses (Non-Prescription)

Warby Parker
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PengSer Blue Light Blocking Glasses Unisex, 2-Pack


ICYMI above, if you have unresolved vision issues or your vision prescription is outdated or incorrect, you're more likely to suffer from digital eye strain or computer vision syndrome, according to Bazan. That said, it's a good idea to check in with your eye doc and evaluate your prescription if you're having any eye strain symptoms.

3. Add some protection to your screen.

If you don't want to wear blue light glasses, there are also protective devices you can add right to your laptop, computer monitor, smartphone, or tablet screen. They work similarly to blue light glasses by blocking the wavelengths of blue light.

This can be a smart choice because blue light is important for regulating your circadian rhythm and your body's wakefulness, and also comes from other sources like indoor lights and the sun; if you block all blue light by wearing glasses all day, it's sort of like telling your body it isn't daytime, which can have adverse effects on your body's wake/sleep cycle, as Sunir Garg, M.D., clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, previously told Shape. Instead, by simply blocking the blue light coming from your devices, you're still allowing your eyes to perceive blue light from other sources, like the sun.

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Ocushield Anti Blue Light Screen Protector and Privacy Filter for Laptop and Computer Monitors

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Ocushield Anti Blue Light Glass Screen Protector for iPhone


4. Take visual breaks.

Reminder: Blue light isn't necessarily the bad guy here. After all, the jury's still out on exactly how harmful — or not — blue light is for eye health. You can still develop computer vision syndrome or digital eye strain from staring at screens all day, even if you're blocking the blue light from all your devices since you're still straining your eyes to focus on screens for extended periods of time.

So, last but not least, you should focus on taking breaks during your workday (or any other bout of extended screen time). Both The Vision Council and the AOA recommend following the 20/20/20 rule: every 20 minutes, take a break from looking at a screen for 20 seconds by looking at something 20 feet away. This will give your eyeballs a break from focusing on the screen to reduce visual stress and fatigue, Lindsay Berry, O.D., a neuro-optometrist in Dallas previously told Shape. In addition to employing the 20/20/20 rule, try these other eye exercises and mobility drills for better eye health.

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