Can’t Avoid Screen Time? 6 Ways to Minimize Eyestrain

It can feel impossible to reduce how much time you spend in front of the computer — even when your dry, tired eyes are screaming at you to try. To the rescue: simple habits you can adopt right at your desk.

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This will probably sound familiar: Between computers, phones, TVs, and tablets, many of us are face-to-face with screens for most of our waking hours. In fact, the average American worker spends seven hours a day on the computer, according to the American Optometric Association — and many of us sit in front of more screens after the workday.

Staying plugged in for hours on end won’t permanently damage your vision, but it can make your eyes feel dry and tired — and even lead to temporary blurriness. Over time, it can cause headaches and neck and upper back pain, says Ugochi Kalu, O.D., F.A.A.O., an optometrist with National Vision in Freeport, New York.

Since powering down isn’t always an option, it’s a smart idea to counteract the toll on your eyes in other ways, Dr. Kalu says. Use these six tips to make sure you’re not sacrificing your eye health to your screen time.

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1. Blink Often

Our eyes are designed to blink about 15 times a minute, to keep their surfaces moist. But research shows that number goes down to as few as five times per minute while we’re on our digital devices.

“When you’re on your computer all day, you tend to blink less,” Dr. Kalu says. The solution is to make blinking a conscious habit, not just an automatic reflex. Slap a sticky note on your computer screen as a visual reminder. You can also use over-the-counter artificial tears whenever your eyes feel very dry. And if the air in your office is dry, consider bringing in a humidifier.

2. Take Breaks

If you gaze at a computer screen for hours on end, it can cause the focusing system in your eyes to spasm. As a result, your vision may seem blurry when you look away from the screen.

The best way to avoid this is to rest your eyes for 15 minutes after every two hours of continuous computer use, says Dr. Kalu. You can still work — just use that time to make phone calls, rather than staring at a screen.

Also, follow the 20-20-20 rule: “Every 20 minutes, look at something at a distance of about 20 feet for 20 seconds to give your eyes a chance to refocus,” Dr. Kalu advises.

This is particularly important for kids, since some research suggests that there may be a link between computer use and nearsightedness among children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Make sure your young ones walk away from their screens for at least 10 minutes every hour. (Using a timer may help them — and you — remember.)

Use that time to take a movement break, preferably outdoors, which gives the eyes a chance to focus on things at different distances and get exposed to natural light.

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3. Adjust Your Lighting

If the screen you’re looking at is brighter than the surrounding light, your eyes have to work harder to see. Avoid using a device in a dark room, says Dr. Kalu. Work in a well-lit environment and adjust your screen’s brightness to match the level of light around you. You can also increase the contrast on your screen, or apply a matte screen filter to reduce glare.

4. Position Yourself Correctly

Make sure your screen is slightly lower than your eye level, about 5 inches below your eyes, advises Dr. Kalu. If you look up at a screen, it forces you to open your eyes wider, which in turn dries them out faster.

You should sit approximately 2 feet — about an arm’s length — away from the computer, she adds, and adjust your chair’s height so that your feet rest flat on the floor.

You can also follow the 1-2-10 rule: Look at cell phones from a foot away, computers from 2 feet away, and TV screens from about 10 feet away.

5. Wear Computer Eyeglasses

These can be worn by themselves (with or without a prescription) or over contact lenses (without a prescription) to help reduce eyestrain. “Computer eyeglasses can be a different type of prescription than you’d get to correct nearsightedness or farsightedness,” explains Dr. Kalu.

“Some of the farsighted prescriptions may work for the computer, while others will not,” she adds. “It depends whether other refractive errors such as astigmatism [a football-shaped front surface of the eye] and presbyopia [age-related farsightedness] are also present. The lenses are specifically designed to help you see the computer screen better, which should be about an arm’s length away from you.”

You can also get a glare coating applied to the lenses to decrease the amount of light reflected from the screen. See your optometrist to get a pair with the ideal combination of protective features and a prescription that works with the way you plan to wear the glasses.

6. Enforce a Power-Down Hour

Lack of sleep can lead to blurry, weary eyes. Unfortunately, the blue light emitted by your electronic devices can interfere with restful shut-eye. That’s why groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that kids shut everything down about an hour before they go to bed.

The rule holds true for adults too, says Dr. Kalu. Try to do something relaxing instead, like taking a warm bath, reading, or doing a few yoga poses.

If you’re using all of these tips and still notice eyestrain, Dr. Kalu says that vision therapy may help. Here, a specialized optometrist will give you different strategies to help your eyes and brain work together more effectively. Some insurance plans may cover this treatment; check with your individual plan.

“It usually involves exercises to train your eyes to coordinate and focus properly,” Dr. Kalu says. The results may take time, but some patients find it very effective, she adds.