It’s hardly surprising given that smartphones have permeated into nearly every part of our existence, from simple tasks like paying for parking, or banking on the go, to helping us keep tabs on what’s going on around us.

While the phenomenon of constantly being on our smartphones is relatively recent, making it hard to really track the long-term effects of staring at screens, researchers have begun to look at the effects of digital eyestrain.

“Digital eyestrain is caused by the extensive use of the eyes in one position,” says Dr. Lisa Christian, associate clinical professor and head of the Binocular Vision Clinic at the University of Waterloo School of Optometry and Vision Science. “The telltale sign is eye fatigue.”

Blinking is key

On average, we blink about 18 times per minute. But when we’re looking at our screens, we tend to go into auto-pilot and blink less which can cause sore, dry, watery or irritated eyes, difficulty focusing, blurred or double vision, increased sensitivity to light and physical symptoms like pain in the neck, shoulders or back from hunching over.

"A recent study by a U.S.-based eye care industry association, The Vision Council, found that 61 percent of adults experience some form of eyestrain as a result of time spent on their electronic devices."

Even mindless things like walking and using your smartphone can take a toll on your vision, notes Dr. Christian.

“You need to converge and accommodate your eyes when looking at a phone,” she says. “On the other hand, when walking, your eyes need to diverge and your accommodative system relaxes – the constant shift in your focusing system can lead to further eye strain or blur.”

A recent study by a U.S.-based eye care industry association, The Vision Council, found that 61 percent of adults experience some form of eyestrain as a result of time spent on their electronic devices.

“Those at highest risk are individuals who spend two hours or more of continuous viewing time on digital screens,” says Dr. Prit Shoan, an optometrist at Credit Valley EyeCare in Mississauga. “Although digital eyestrain will not damage your eyes, vision-related symptoms will increase if the problem is not managed appropriately and may be more difficult to control long term.”
In other words, simple pleasures such as reading or writing could become difficult in later stages of life due to eyesight degradation

The 20/20 rule

Although research on “blue light” – high-energy visible light emitted by screens – points to it as a culprit for age-related macular degeneration, the research is still in its infancy.

In the meantime, digital eyestrain can be managed by being all-around conscious of your eye health.

“Give your eyes frequent breaks,” says Shoan. “Follow the 20/20 rule which states every 20 minutes, give your eyes a 20 second break and look into the distance.”

He also recommends keeping tabs on your posture to ensure you’re not cramping up. If you require glasses, wearing them while at the computer can help combat eyestrain and effects from screen glare.  

And blink, adds Dr. Christian. It may sound silly but reminding yourself to blink while staring at your screens can help offset the negative impacts of digital eyestrain.

“Most importantly, see an optometrist for an annual eye examination to prevent or treat symptoms arising from the use of digital devices,” says Dr. Christian.