How More Screen Time During COVID-19 Affects Eye Health

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While screen time has steadily risen over the past three years, the pandemic-induced surge in Zoom school, telehealth appointments and remote work leaves Americans more dependent on our devices than ever before. While the shift to remote-first environments isn’t necessarily correlated with worsening vision in adults, Dr. Nadeem Vaidya of Retina Orange County, says that certain populations such as children and older patients are more at risk.

“Since the vaccines have become more accessible, I’ve seen older patients return who otherwise wouldn’t really be leaving their house,” he said.

Unfortunately, ophthalmologists had a particularly difficult time conducting standard check ups with patients in the last year, and even patients with known conditions such as retinal detachment and macular degeneration tended to delay in-person treatment, raising concerns for Dr. Vaidya about long-term health effects. Although he utilizes telehealth in his EHR software to meet with clients with noticeable changes in symptoms, video visits have been less conducive to conducting thorough eye exams.

Limited access to care is particularly worrisome for kids, as escalating rates of myopia tend to affect young children more than other age groups. A study of 120,000 children in China published in JAMA found that myopia in children ages 6 to 8 has nearly tripled compared to the previous 5 years.

“Especially for kids, limiting screen time has been shown time and time again to reduce the risk of worsening myopia or nearsightedness. Obviously with ‘Zoom school’ that has been hard to do this year, but making sure kids get at least 1 hour of outdoor activity per day is key,” Dr. Vaidya said.

This is particularly important for people whose eyes are still developing, even those in their early 20s. While the risks are not less significant for adults, the increased screen time can certainly lead to more discomfort.

“Screen time doesn’t do any permanent damage to the eye. It can cause strain of the muscles of the iris which help to focus the lens for near vision, or dry eye, but it can’t lead to permanent vision loss. The only exception is in kids where they can become more myopic,” said Dr. Vaidya.

Despite the lack of permanent damage to the eyes, it is still necessary to step away from your screen. Some features such as dark mode can be helpful for those who find it difficult to work regular breaks into their day.

“Using dark mode may help with eye strain especially with long periods of device uses, or when the room lighting is low like when using your phone in bed at night. Otherwise ideally taking a 2-3 minute break from a screen every 20-30 minutes can be helpful if possible,” he said.

As a DrChrono user, Dr. Vaidya also takes advantage of the dark mode feature in the iPad EHR especially while working with clients whose eyes have been dilated. While enabling the dark mode setting is better than staring at a brightly lit device, it’s no replacement for time away from a screen. The same can be said for blue light blocking glasses, the effects of which Dr. Vaidya chalks up mostly to a placebo.

But taking short breaks, while helpful, is not the only way to protect your eyes.

“Washing your face and hair regularly and completely reduces the risk of blepharitis which is basically dandruff of the eyelashes. Not getting enough sleep often is a risk factor as well,” he said, adding that the most overlooked aspects of eye care are also good health practices.

“Good nutrition is key. What’s heart healthy and brain healthy is eye healthy. Dark green leafy vegetables and fish or fish oil once or twice a week are all helpful to reduce the risk of macular degeneration.”