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Feb 4, 2022

Give Your Eyes a Screen-Time Break: Here’s Why

Canadians are spending more time than ever staring at digital screens during the pandemic —on computers, tablets, TVs, smartphones, and other devices.

A 2021 study from Western University found that screen time use increased in children by an average of 3.2 h a day following pandemic school closures. Statistics Canada also reported in 2020 that Canadians increased their TV time (60% of men and 66% of women) and Internet usage (63% of men and 69% of women).

All that screen time can take a toll on our wellbeing, including how your eyes may feel. Ophthalmologists say increased screen time can lead to red eyes, watery eyes, eye fatigue, difficulty focusing and headaches.

Research shows that children begin zooming in on digital media devices, such as their parents’ tablets or smartphones, as young as 6 months old. By their teens, kids spend nearly 7 hours a day using screen-based media, watching TV, playing video games, and using social media. Especially if they’re having fun, children might keep playing and watching to the point of eye-rubbing exhaustion. This doesn’t include additional time spent using screens at school and for homework.

Why screen breaks are important:

Staring at a screen for long stretches without taking breaks can cause symptoms such as:

Image of man seated in front of a computer rubbing his eyes from eye strain
  • Eye Fatigue. Muscles around the eye, like any others, can get tired from continued use. Concentrating on a screen for extended periods can cause concentration difficulties and headaches centered around the temple and eyes. Using screen devices where lighting is less than ideal can causing additional fatigue from squinting.
  • Blurry vision. Gazing at the same distance for an extended time can cause the eye’s focusing system to spasm or temporarily “lock up.” This condition, called an accommodation spasm, causes our vision to blur when we look away from the screen. Some studies suggest computer use and other close-up indoor activities may fuel rising rates of myopia (nearsightedness), although this is not yet proven. According to the current Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines, children and youth should get at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every day. More time outside would rest our adult eyes as well.
  • Dry eyes. Studies show that people blink significantly less often when concentrating on a digital screen, which can leave eyes dry and irritated. Desktop and laptop computer use can be especially tough on eyes, because they’re usually situated higher up in the visual field than a book, for example. As a result, the upper eyelids tend to be open wider – speeding up evaporation of the eye’s tear film.

What we can do:

  • Monitor screen time. Two especially important aspects of the impact of too much screen time are making sure screens don’t cut into:
    • Sleep. Not getting enough shut-eye leads to tired, sore eyes. You should avoid exposure to screens for 1 hour before going to bed.
    • Exercise. Putting down the device or stepping away from the computer or TV can help avoid eye and vision problems from too much screen time.
Image is of a woman sitting outside with a to-go beverage looking up at her surroundings and smiling
  • Take frequent breaks. We get so absorbed in what we’re doing that we don’t notice symptoms of eye strain. Please remember to take breaks. The Canadian Association of Optometrists recommends the 20/20/20 rule: look away from the screen every 20 minutes, focus on an object at least 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds. In addition, let’s try to walk away from the screen for at least 10 minutes every hour. A simple timer can help you remember its time for a break.
  • Remember to blink. Research published in The New England Journal of Medicine says staring at a computer can cut blinking rates by half and cause dry eyes. Remember to try to blink extra while viewing a screen, especially when you take breaks.
  • Screen positioning. Make sure the screen on your child’s desktop or laptop computer is slightly below eye level. Looking up at a screen opens eyes wider and dries them out quicker. Some experts suggest positioning device screens based on the 1/2/10 rule: mobile phones ideally at one foot, desktop devices and laptops at two feet, and roughly 10 feet for TV screens (depending on how big the screen is).
  • Spotlight on lighting. To cut down on glare and eye fatigue, consider the level of lighting in a room when using a computer or other screen. Ideally, it should be roughly half what it would be for other activities such as writing on paper or working on crafts.
  • Get regular vision screenings. Regular eye exams are important. If a problem is found during one of these routine eye exams, research has delivered treatments and 3 out of 4 people can prevent blindness with early diagnosis and access to treatments.

Join FBC’s Screens Off for Sight Challenge on March 19 to promote eye health

You can help Fighting Blindness Canada promote eye health with your friends and family. Join us on March 19 for a 24-hour no-screen challenge and help support critical vision research to prevent blindness and restore sight. There are 1.2 million Canadians with vision loss and research is working hard to restore their sight. Sign up for the challenge.


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