Why too much screen time is bad for your eyes

Man rubbing his eyes

Jenna Meade

Posted May 11, 2021

Getting headaches or dry eyes from staring at your screen? Follow these expert tips to beat digital eye strain. 

Irritated eyes, blurred vision and difficulty focusing are telltale signs your screen time might be on the blink.

Whether you’re using a computer for work or settling into a Netflix session for play, your daily dose of screen time could be digitally draining the health of your eyes.

When our eyes are glued to the screen, be it the television, computer, smartphone or e-reader, we blink less, which dries out and puts strain on the eyes. This is known as digital eye strain.

While this does not cause permanent damage, it can lead to significant discomfort because eyes aren’t meant to be fixed on a single object for long periods. You may experience sensitivity to light, eye fatigue, difficulty reading small print and even neck or shoulder pain after staring at your screen. 

New research by Specsavers shows nine out of 10 people experience at least one symptom of digital eye strain while at work. The study found that four in 10 Australian office workers have difficulty focusing; sore, tired, burning or itchy eyes; watery or dry eyes; or have felt like they couldn’t keep their eyes open at their desks. 

Add after-hours screen time thanks to Zoom catch-ups, Kindle reading or Instagram scrolling and it’s not uncommon for adults to rack up 10 or more hours of screen time a day.  That’s a marathon amount of time for your eye muscles to stay engaged. Although there are no official guidelines for safe daily screen time for adults, experts including Specsavers optometrist Greeshma Patel agree that regular breaks are vital to protect eyes.

But there’s no need to cancel your next FaceTime chat or switch to airplane mode just yet. Greeshma says there are several simple things we can do to combat the effects of digital eye strain and keep using our screens. 

Eight expert tips to prevent and reduce digital eye strain

Blink it out

Healthy eyes blink 15 to 20 times per minute, but this can halve during screen time. Make a conscious effort to blink often to keep the surface of your eyes from drying out, which leads to irritation and eye strain. Try popping a sticky note on your computer screen as a reminder to blink.

Stay hydrated

Your eyes will lose moisture when you’re dehydrated, which can lead to blurry vision and headaches. Keep up your water intake when sitting in front of a screen. Having a jug of water on hand is a great nudge to stay nourished.

Introduce 20-20-20

Just like your glutes or biceps, your eyes need a break during workouts. Follow the ‘20-20-20’ rule to give your eyes a rest. Every 20 minutes shift your eyes to look at an object at least 20 metres away for at least 20 seconds. The easiest way to do this is to look out the window at something outside.

Adjust settings

Your eyes have to work harder if your screen glows brighter than your surroundings. Adjust your screen brightness throughout the day or night to match the level of light around you. Also, try increasing the contrast on your screen to reduce eye strain.

Reduce glare

Digital devices often reflect a lot of glare, again making your eyes work harder to focus. Try using a matte screen filter to cut glare or cover your windows to avoid outside light shining on your screen.

Perfect your positioning

Maintain your digital distance. You should be sitting 60 centimetres (about arm’s length) from your computer screen. It’s also best to position the screen so your eyes gaze slightly downward, not straight ahead or up. Be mindful of positioning laptops and phone screens too close. When you look at screens close to your face, your blinking will decrease.

Take regular eye breaks

Increased time on digital devices can be more dangerous for children than adults. Children’s eyes are still developing throughout primary school so it’s vital that they switch off the screen and get up and move around throughout the day. Be sure they spend time playing outside or engaging in activities where their eyes are not fixed on something close.

Get an eye check

Book regular eye checks with an optometrist to make sure your eyes are in good health and determine if any chronic eye conditions are developing. Your optometrist will also check that any current prescriptions are working as they should during your screen time.