How the pandemic might be hurting your eyes


  • Technology
  • Friday, 18 Sep 2020

The LED light emitted from most screens exposes your eyes to high levels of ‘blue light’, which can disrupt sleep patterns and lead to ‘computer vision syndrome’, associated with headaches and eyestrain, said Weinstock. — Bloomberg

When Allyn Morrison was furloughed from her job as a barista at The Perk in Fort Worth, Texas, the 25-year-old actor decided to spend the lockdown streaming shows like Unorthodox and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. She wasn’t goofing off, she explained – she was just trying to sharpen her acting skills.

The combination of 30 million Americans out of work and tens of millions more working from home exploded the number of hours people have been glued to a screen. Indeed, streaming jumped by 20% when coronavirus shutdowns first began back in March. And while rates began to fall back to Earth as businesses reopened in June, that shift may soon reverse itself.

With US infections out of control in some states and death rates rising, new restrictions are being put in place and more schools are planning on remote learning. The coming of fall also means more time indoors, a potential surge in new cases and more jobs lost as businesses retrench.

In other words, the pandemic spike in television, streaming and even social media “doomscrolling” may be here for awhile. And all that additional screen-time? Well, it could be bad for you.

The LED light emitted from most screens exposes your eyes to high levels of “blue light,” which can disrupt sleep patterns and lead to “computer vision syndrome”, associated with headaches and eyestrain, said ophthalmologist Robert Weinstock. And while he acknowledges that it may be hard for people to reduce the amount of time they’re spending in front of screens these days, there are ways to make it safer.

Investing in screen covers that filter out harsher light from laptops and phones is one option, and of course you can turn down the screen brightness or look away for 20 seconds every once and awhile. (Weinstock is on the advisory board of Eyesafe, a company that produces technology for eye protection products.)

But while many workplaces have sought to mitigate employee eyestrain over the years, the unprecedented effect of the pandemic – given the mass migration to home environments that can be less eye-friendly – has yet to fully manifest itself.

In the first months of lockdowns, people spent almost an hour more on their desktop devices, according to an analysis of 14,000 users tracked by software company RescueTime. Communications tools drove the shift – with video-chat time surging 350%, social media up 200% and entertainment platforms like Netflix and YouTube rising 200%.

Comcast said it saw Internet traffic on its US network spike by as much as 60% in some areas as the pandemic set in.

American computer usage peaked in April, jumping 24% above pre-pandemic levels, according to data from website analytics firm SimilarWeb. By the end of June, it was still elevated by 14%. People have also been spending more time on top social media apps: The total time on seven of the biggest, including Twitter and Facebook, is higher this year than last, based on data from app analysis company Apptopia.

“The saying goes, ‘rising tides raise all ships’, and that was the case for television and digital screen-based media overall,” Peter Katsingris, senior vice-president of audience insights at marketing research company Nielsen, wrote in an email.

But it comes with a price. Sleep deprivation is a common problem associated with an uptick in screen time. Exposure to blue light before bedtime can make it harder to get to sleep, possibly through suppressing the production of melatonin. This is especially the case for close-proximity devices such as laptops and mobile phones. Dry eye can also be a problem.

The Mayo Clinic suggests adding moisture to the air, taking breaks during longer tasks, positioning your computer screen below eye level and using artificial tears. (Experts remain divided on whether blue light glasses are effective.)

The best way to cut time in front of your phone is to designate a time or day that’s screen-free, according to Adam Alter, author of the book, Irresistible: The Rise Of Addictive Technology And The Business Of Keeping Us Hooked. That can mean putting it in a locked drawer during dinner, stopping an hour before going to bed, or turning it on airplane mode for large chunks of the weekend.

“You just have to be mindful and purposeful, and to cultivate the habit of leaving your phone as far away from where you are as possible,” Alter wrote in an email. “Most of us can reach our phones without moving our feet for most of the day, so the key is to thoughtfully introduce distance between us and our phones.”

But time away from a screen isn’t feasible for Americans working from home. For now at least, Americans are stuck between a screen and a pandemic.

Some seem to think screen time may recede – Netflix, which added more than 25 million paying subscribers in the first half of the year, forecasts lower subscription growth for the third quarter. But Katsingris isn’t so sure.

“It’s such an unpredictable time as states and businesses across the country are all at different stages of opening and closing,” he wrote. “Whether schools reopen or remain closed in the fall is a factor to keep an eye on in regards to media consumption.”

So it’s really up to individuals to regulate themselves. Allyn Morrison tried to monitor how much time she was looking at a screen and take breaks. Now she’s back at work at The Perk, and no longer stuck at home all day.

“It’s great to just go somewhere and not have to be here,” she said.

But for many others, screen-fixation mode – whether it’s scrolling social media for the latest news or playing video games to just tune out – remains hard to resist. At least one mental health professional thinks you shouldn’t be too concerned.

Mike Brooks, a licensed psychologist based in Austin, Texas, and author of a book on raising children in a hyper-connected world, Tech Generation: Raising Kids In A Hyper-Connected World, said the need for an electronic outlet may outweigh any damage being done.

“We need to lower the bar a little bit for what’s acceptable and not punish ourselves for the screen time,” Brooks said. “This is going to help us get through this pandemic better than we would otherwise.” – Bloomberg

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