Gearing Up for a New “Pandemic” on the Eyes
By Sarah Wang, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology, Fairfax, VA, USA
As the novel coronavirus continues ravaging communities worldwide, children and adults are spending more time than ever before on their electronic devices. Social networking websites, streaming platforms, and video games accumulate hours of usage. Students and employees are turning to remote learning and working. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, teleworking was already on the rise. In the US, the population of employees working remotely increased from 19.6% in 2003 to 24.1% in 2015, and in Sweden, the prevalence of working from home jumped from 5.9% in 1999 to 19.7% in 2012 (Feldstead & Henseke, 2017). Research conducted by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) reported that the teleworking rate in the UK increased by at least 20% over the past decade. There are currently no official reports on the increase of remote working in 2020. However, given the current pandemic situation along with the rapid advancement of technology each day, the numbers are expected to be at an all-time high. This may introduce the world to a new set of health problems: the Digital Eye Strain syndrome.
Scientists estimate that Digital Eye Strain (DES), or Computer Vision Syndrome, already impacts approximately 40% of adults and 80% of teens in the US (Rosenfield, 2016). The pervasiveness of DES is linked to the rise in the usage of digital devices globally over the years. In low-income countries, such as sub-Saharan Africa for example, mobile phone access increased from 0.05% to 28.9% from 1997 to 2009, and in high-income countries, access increased from 17.9% to 96.3% in the same year range (Pratt et al., 2012). Symptoms of DES include a variety of both internal and external issues, including burning, dryness, and irritation of eyes, headaches, neck and shoulder pain, and blurred vision. Difficulty focusing on text and images on screens due to the grainy pixels and blurry edges cause the eye strain (Harvard Health Publishing, 2017). Additionally, poor lighting, screen glare, and improper workstation setup contribute to these symptoms (Kozeis, 2009). The global shift to working from home will heighten the problem (Sheppard & Wolffsohn, 2018).
The World Health Organization (WHO) launched a vision report in 2019 revealing that over 2.2 billion people worldwide suffer from eye conditions, including DES (WHO, 2019). However, among the 2.2 billion cases, treatment remains out of reach for over one billion. This issue is most prevalent in low- and middle-income countries where many people cannot afford treatments such as prescription glasses and artificial tears. Effective methods of combatting issues such as DES at no cost are essential, especially for those without access to other forms of treatment.
Below are several ways to mitigate eye strain:
Reduce screen time as much as possible. Take ten-minute breaks periodically, and perform other activities that do not involve looking at a screen. These breaks minimize the chance of developing eye irritation (Kozeis, 2009).
Check for appropriate computer positioning. Body parameters should determine the position of the monitor and keyboard. Optimally, the center of the computer monitor should be slightly lower, approximately four to eight inches, than eye level (Harvard Health Publishing, 2017). Sit at least two feet away from the screen. Adjustable chairs and footstools may help the body more easily adjust from uncomfortable positioning relative to the screen (Kozeis, 2009).
Adjust computer lighting settings. Windows and other light sources, like lamps, may cause severe screen glare; in this case, turn the desk or computer in the other direction. Although not necessary, a matte screen filter, typically only $10, can greatly reduce screen glare (Harvard Health Publishing, 2017).
Take care of your eyes. There are numerous treatment methods for eye strains and irritation. Use artificial tears to reduce dryness (Harvard Health Publishing, 2017). Verify that eyeglass prescriptions are up to date and accurate, and purchase special reading glasses if necessary.
A simple alternative is blinking, which moistens the eyes to combat irritation (Berkeley Eye Center, 2020). Prolonged screen time decreases blinking without the user noticing - people blink one-third fewer times when working on a computer. The Berkeley Eye Center recommends slowly blinking ten times every 20 minutes as a method to increase moisture in the eyes after lengthy exposure to screens.
It is imperative that everybody continues to follow social distancing guidelines to ensure community health and stop the virus’s spread, but it is also important to protect the eyes while doing so. While technology continues making its way into the hands of people around the world, the prevalence of DES and other vision impairments will only increase. The best thing we can do is to take care of our own vision. For many of us, this just means making a conscious effort to unglue our eyes from the screen by putting a pause on our Netflix marathons, ending the Among Us game, closing out of Instagram, and taking a break from the screen between online classes or meetings.
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Sheppard, A. L., & Wolffsohn, J. S. (2018). Digital eye strain: prevalence, measurement and amelioration. BMJ open ophthalmology, 3(1), e000146. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjophth-2018-000146
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