In the current digital world, technology has taken over people’s lives. Digital gadgets - especially phones, computers and tablets – have become central to daily activities that people engage in, for work as well as leisure.
While these gadgets are beneficial at many levels, eye health experts caution that spending too much time with them is contributing to a crisis in eye health among individuals, especially children and young adults.
Research findings indicate that too much exposure to digital screens is increasingly damaging the eyesight of children and young people.
A new study published in the Lancet Digital Journal indicates that increased screen times increases the risk of affected children and young adults suffering from myopia (short-sightedness).
Aside from just developing the condition, the study indicates that the digital screens also predispose those affected to having severe symptoms of the condition, should they get it.
The study was undertaken by researchers and eye health experts from Singapore, Australia, China and the UK. During the research process, the scientists examined more than 3,000 past studies that had investigated smart device exposure and myopia in children and young adults aged between three months and 33 years old.
Based on the assessment, the researchers found that high levels of smart device screen time, such as looking at mobile phones, is associated with around a 30 percent higher risk of myopia. When combined with excessive computer use, the risk rose to around 80 percent.
The researchers note that the findings of the study are timely, as millions of young people worldwide are spending a substantial amount of time using remote learning methods that involve a lot of screen time (such as via zoom) due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Around half the global population is expected to have myopia by 2050, so it is a health concern that is escalating quickly. Our study is the most comprehensive yet on this issue and shows a potential link between screen time and myopia in young people,” stated Rupert Bourne, a Professor of Ophthalmology in the Vision and Eye Research Institute at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), based in the UK.
“This research comes at a time when our children have been spending more time than ever looking at screens for long periods, due to school closures. And it is clear that urgent research is needed to further understand how exposure to digital devices can affect our eyes and vision.”
The adverse effects of digital screens on the eye have been attributed to the high-energy light that they produce (known as blue light) which reaches deep into the eyes and wears them out, hence damaging their functionality.
The light also affects the part of the brain that is responsible for triggering the body to shut down, leading to closed eyelids and eventually sleep, as daylight reduces and dusk sets in each day.
Without sufficient sleep, the eye is unable to get enough rest, which is key for optimal functionality. This is why individuals getting insufficient sleep always complain about too much light sensitivity as well as red and itchy eyes.
To prevent or minimise their damage, experts recommend giving the eyes frequent breaks while using digital screens. This entails glancing up from the screen after about 20 minutes and choosing to stare at something so far away so as to break the monotony and intense close focus on the screens.
People are also advised to be deliberate about taking time off the digital devices and blinking so as to help hydrate the eye.
This is because it is easy to stay without blinking for a long time while people are glued to their phones or on their computers as they work or watch movies. Yet, the dryness affects the overall health of the eyes.
In addition, it is recommended that whenever possible, people should put some distance between themselves and the digital devices they are using. This is usually possible when watching television or looking at large monitors placed strategically in rooms.
For phones, tablets or laptops that have to be held closer, adjusting the screen brightness goes a long way in preventing eye damage. Some gadgets come with the option of ‘blue light’ filter which can further reduce the damage to the eye.
As with all other conditions, prevention is always better than cure. Therefore, health experts advise people to watch out for symptoms of digital eyestrain and be quick to adjust their screen use habits so as to avert irreversible damage to the eye.
The symptoms include blurred vision, eye soreness or irritation, increased sensitivity to light, loss of focus, headaches, insomnia (lack of sleep), as well as dry, red or watery eyes.