Last Updated on February 9, 2024 by Josh Wilkerson
In the digital age, we’re increasingly conducting our lives on screens. Through computer, TV, smartphone, and tablet use, Americans spend over 8 hours each day looking at screens, on average. If you work in front of a computer, your screen time is almost certainly much higher than that. As a result, about two-thirds of us suffer from digital eye strain.
What is eye strain?
Eye strain is caused by the prolonged use of screens. Symptoms include dryness and redness of the eyes, dizziness, fatigue, and headaches. Chronic eye strain is also known as Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS). Computer Vision Syndrome plagues office workers, in particular: 90% of people who use computers for at least 3 hours a day suffer from this chronic eye discomfort. The effect is even worse for those who wear contact lenses. Many of us endure Computer Vision Syndrome on daily basis. But there are several actions you can take to relieve the symptoms of digital eye strain.
How to Reduce Computer Eye Strain
- Blink more often to prevent eye drynessIt seems obvious, but most of us unconsciously sacrifice our natural need to blink when using digital devices. It’s a well studied phenomenon: We blink at least 60% less frequently when we’re using computer screens. Looking at screens for hours a day leads to dry, red, strained eyes.
How does blinking reduce eye strain?
The eye’s cornea is our most sensitive organ. Blinking protects the cornea by forming a liquid barrier between the eye and the outside world. When we blink, tears form a film over the cornea, creating a protective layer. Glands under the upper eyelids secrete an oily fluid that seals in this moisture. Every time you blink, you replenish your eyes with the moisture they require to function. Without the lubrication they need, your eyes become dry and strain to focus properly.
You may be tempted to toss your head back and drop a few artificial tears in your eyes. While eye drops are good to have around in a pinch – especially during an all-nighter at the office or a must-see Netflix binge session – be wary of using artificial tears on a daily basis. Regular use may limit your body’s natural secretion of tears, leading you to become more dependent on them.
- Adjust your screen brightness and workplace lighting to reduce eye strainTraditional wisdom suggests that you brighten your computer screen. Indeed, if your screen is too dark, or if there is not enough contrast, your eyes may strain to focus. However, a glaringly bright screen can also cause eye strain. If you’ve ever been under a spotlight, you understand the potential damage of an overly bright computer screen.
Instead of keeping your computer screen blindingly bright, trying dimming your screen slightly: Start with the maximum brightness setting and slowly dim your computer. Stop when it reaches a brightness that feels comfortable – easy for your eyes to relax while not too dark to see clearly.
Soften your workplace lighting to reduce glare on your computer screen
Harsh lighting can introduce an additional source of strain for your eyes. Fluorescent lighting placed directly over your workstation not only taxes your eyes but also creates extra glare bouncing off your computer screen. Light reflecting on your computer monitor makes it harder for the eyes to focus. By installing soft bulbs, eliminating direct overhead lighting, or dimming any harsh light sources, you can reduce glare and alleviate the strain on your eyes.
- Take a break from your computer to alleviate eye strainInstead of relying on eye drops, you can relieve eye dryness by taking regular breaks from staring at your computer screen. Every 20 minutes, flutter your lids. Then close your eyes softly for a few seconds. Soften your face, allowing your eye and face muscles to relax. Take a deep breath.
If there’s a window near your desk, take a look outside every now and then. Look at something in the distance, and relax your eyes. If you live in an open area, look at the horizon line with “soft eyes.” Instead of intensely focusing on something in the distance, let your eyes relax. Gazing at objects that are farther away (and in natural light) allows your eye muscles to adjust and stretch. Just as you would stretch your legs during and after a run to prevent tightness and injury, stretching your eyes has a similar benefit in preventing eye strain.
Try to get up from your desk and walk around at least once an hour. Go to the water cooler, the bathroom, or do that errand at the drugstore. Your eyes (and your brain) need periodic breaks in order to rest and recharge.
- Wear glasses to eliminate eye strain caused by contact lensesAs surprising as it may seem, wearing glasses actually helps reduce eye strain. Using computer screens for several hours a day can cause eye dryness, and wearing contact lenses only makes the dryness worse. The lubricant on soft contacts lasts only a few minutes after putting them in your eyes. Contact lenses are like sponges; they absorb all the moisture from your eyes, requiring your eyes to produce more tears. Since people blink less frequently when looking at computer screens, eyes can quickly dry out quickly when contact-wearers work at computers. This eye dryness can then lead to red eyes, headaches, and general fatigue. Consequently, contact lens wearers suffer even more from eye strain than their glasses-wearing counterparts.
- Make sure your eyeglasses have an anti-reflective coatingAnti-reflective coating (AR), also known as anti-glare coating, can help reduce eye strain. You may already know that glasses with an anti-reflective coating reduce the reflection others normally see on your lenses. An added, essential benefit of AR coating is that it also filters out glare for your eyes. The AR coating deflects light emitted by computer screens that cause chronic eye strain.
In a recent study, 69% of participants preferred anti-reflective lenses over lenses without AR coating, and they experienced less eye strain while wearing the glasses treated with anti-reflective coating.
Don’t have a prescription? Wear glasses with plano lense
If you’d like the benefits of wearing glasses with an anti-glare coating but don’t actually need corrective lenses, buy “plano” glasses. “Plano” glasses have optical-quality lenses with no prescription, and they can be coated with the same protective anti-reflective coating as prescription glasses.
- Make sure your glasses have the appropriate prescriptionYou thought you did it all the right way: You went to the eye doctor, got a shiny new prescription, and had glasses made with that Rx. When you put that pair on, you can pick out the individual leaves on trees from a block away. If you climbed a mountain, you bet you could read the road sign far below you (impressive). But most of the time you’re wearing your glasses, you’re not looking into the distance; you’re looking at the computer in front of you.
Unfortunately, your prescription is often optimized for seeing in the distance – not for using a computer. You may have a reading prescription in addition to a distance prescription. But reading prescriptions are best used for seeing up close, about 6 to 12 inches in front of you. Your computer likely sits between 18 and 36 inches away from you.
What are Computer Glasses?
Computer glasses are equipped with the optimal prescription for focusing on objects 1.5 to 3 feet in front of you (namely, your computer). If you have presbyopia (a common condition in people over 40, where both a distance prescription and a reading prescription are needed), you have two options for computer glasses: Progressives or eyeglasses with a mid-range prescription.
How can Progressives help with Computer use?
Progressives contain both your reading and distance prescriptions. The distance prescription is in the top part of the lens, and the reading prescription is in the very bottom. In between the two, there is an “intermediate” zone with your “mid-range” prescription. This prescription’s strength is halfway between your reading and distance prescriptions, making it ideal for computer use.
The advantage of wearing progressives is that a single pair of glasses suits every use: driving, computer use, reading, etc. The caveat: There is an adaptation period, during which your brain adjusts to finding the “sweet spot” for each use case. Many people, though, find that they adapt to wearing progressives and enjoy the convenience of their multiple uses.
How can I get Computer Glasses to reduce eye strain?
Others find that the intermediate zone of progressives is too narrow, and they prefer having multiple pairs of glasses, each with a different prescription. These people switch between distance glasses and reading glasses.
If you’d like to wear glasses while using your computer, but you’re wary of wearing progressives, you may opt to get single-vision glasses in a mid-range prescription (i.e. the entire lens will be that prescription). If this is the case, make sure to do two things:
Ask your eye doctor specifically to write you a computer prescription (also known as a “mid-range” or “intermediate” prescription).
Measure the distance you sit from your computer before your eye exam. Take the measurement from the bridge of your nose to the screen. This will help your eye doctor calculate the most suitable mid-range prescription for you.
Wearing glasses with a prescription customized for computer use will help prevent undue strain on your eyes and expand your field of vision.
- Clean your computer screen to prevent unnecessary eye strainThat dried soup that spattered on your screen the other day isn’t doing you any favors when it comes to vision. The dust and gunk that builds up on your computer screen causes your eyes to work harder, resulting in eye strain. Take a couple minutes every day to wipe your screen. A damp, microfiber or cotton cloth works best, as it doesn’t leave behind any paper residue. Maintaining a clear screen will reduce eye strain caused by trying to focus through the dust and dirt. And hey, you’re already taking a break (Tip #3)…Why not clean your computer screen while you’re resting your eyes?
- Limit your screen use to reduce digital eye strainIt may seem obvious, but it’s worth saying: To reduce computer eye strain, limit your use of computers. Here are some ideas for how to minimize your time in front of screens: (a) Use paper instead of a laptop. If you’re brainstorming ideas or taking notes in a meeting, jot them down on a notebook. The added advantage to this is that you can increase eye contact with your colleagues and clients. (b)Read an actual book instead of using a tablet. Though technology has improved in creating a paper-like screen for some digital devices, nothing replaces the real thing. (And of course, audiobooks are eye-friendly, too.) (c)Listen to a podcast as opposed to watching a TV show. Many shows release audio-only versions of their content already. If you can substitute a podcast for one TV show every day, you’re saving your eyes 30 minutes to an hour of screen time.
- Run a humidifier to decrease eye drynessEspecially in the colder months, indoor heating can drastically dry out the air. Just as in the desert, the dry environment increases the rate of evaporation. Unfortunately, this means that your eyes must work harder to keep lubricated. Having a humidifier in your office and home helps return the proper amount of moisture to the air, lessening the strain on your eyes.
- Sleep MoreAs with your brain and your body, your eyes need rest. In fact, sleep is perhaps even more important and rejuvenating for your eyes, as they finally get to close up shop and seal in moisture for a full 8 hours. And remember (you’ve heard it before): Never wear your contacts to bed. Contact lenses will rob your eyes’ lubrication for an additional 8 hours, turning beauty sleep into an eye-drying marathon.
Even if you’re far from bedtime, you can still treat your eyes to a little R&R. After a long day working on a computer, give your eyes a few minutes of spa treatment: Dampen a hand cloth, squeeze it out, and fold it several times lengthwise. Lie down on your couch or bed, close your eyes, and place the damp cloth across your eyes. (Cucumber slices work, too, of course.)
Oh, and while you’re giving your eyes the spa treatment, make sure to keep your entire body hydrated by sipping some water.
Reducing eye strain starts from within – getting ample shut-eye and staying hydrated – and extends to your outside environment: adjusting the lighting and humidity of your workspace, as well as wearing the proper protective eyewear. By keeping your eyes in mind when using digital devices, you can alleviate and prevent the symptoms of Computer Vision Syndrome and chronic eye strain.