It’s safe to assume that we’ve been spending more time on our devices than ever. After all, there are only so many things to occupy ourselves with at home while riding out the Covid-19 pandemic. So prevalent is the overuse of computer monitors and handheld devices that it has its own term: digital eye strain (DES). And if the symptoms are not taken care of, more serious issues can arise.
According to Dr David Goh, medical director at Novena Bladeless Cataract Surgery & Eye Specialist Centre, the symptoms of DES include difficulty focusing, eye spasm, eye pain, blurred vision, decreased visual acuity (the ability to discern shapes and details) and dryness. If left untreated for prolonged periods, something called conjunctival hyperemia can occur.
“The dryness of the eyes can result in inflammation of the ocular surface. This leads to decreased tear production, which leads to even more dryness. If no precautions are taken to break this cycle, there can be greater risk of infections and ulcers of the cornea,” he says. He warns that those particularly at risk are contact lens wearers, dry eye sufferers, and patients with diabetes or eyelid problems. DES can also lead to progressive myopia.
“With high myopia, which is when it is more than 600 degrees, the eyes are more likely to have degenerative diseases earlier in life, such as cataracts, glaucoma, retinal tears and myopic macular degeneration. Although these conditions can be treated, prevention is always better than cure,” says Dr Claudine Pang, a retinal eye surgeon at Asia Retina.
Not just your eyes
Too much screen time can also impact our overall health. For one, the light from the screens can overstimulate our brains, causing insomnia or poor quality sleep. In addition, in hunching over our screens so much, we’re more prone to straining our necks, shoulders and backs, which can result in pain and more severe musculoskeletal issues over time.
More significantly, our behaviours and cognition may also be adversely altered. Dr Goh warns that DES can cause irritation and anxiety, and even psychological conditions like depression.
“Some studies have found that people develop addictive behaviour to social media and, in turn, their phones. They crave the use of their devices constantly and use them to cope with, or modify, their moods. They experience withdrawal symptoms when they’re unable to access their phone or apps. If these behaviours progress to interfere with everyday life, it becomes a cause for concern,” adds Dr Pang.
Blue light exposure
Think you’re safe from these effects because you use blue light-blocking glasses or a blue light filter? The thing is, nobody knows with certainty how much blue light is harmful to human eyes. “
Animal studies have shown that blue light can cause damage to rabbit and mouse retina through various mechanisms. However, no human studies have been able to document retinal damage by blue light,” says Dr Pang.
She points out that, as such, it’d be “unscientific” to assume all blue light to be harmful. “We all need some blue light to regulate normal circadian rhythms and prevent development of myopia. Blue-light deprivation has also been shown to be associated with depression-like changes in the brain. As with most things in life, blue light exposure should be kept within moderate amounts.”
Should long-term exposure be necessary, additional anti-blue light measures are encouraged, but it’s important to remember that the aim isn’t to filter out 100 per cent of blue light.