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How to Protect Your Eyes From the Negative Effects of Digital Devices and Blue Light

07/24/2014 10:18 am ET | Updated Sep 23, 2014
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A recent study by Bank of America shows that nearly half of U.S. consumers couldn't last a day without their mobile devices. It makes sense. Think about the first thing that you do in the morning. If you're like me, you're catching up on email before you even get out of bed. Then, you head straight to your computer at work and spend a majority of the day on it or using one of the many other digital devices that are available in today's increasingly-technological society.

But what if I told you that these electronics are emitting a dangerous blue light, which is negatively impacting not only your vision but also your overall health? It's true, and it's a major concern for eye doctors across the country.

First, let me be clear: I love technology, and I fully embrace it. I actually use a tablet and Google Glass (definitely a talking point with my patients!) as part of my exam process, because it allows me to spend more time engaging with my patients instead of having my back to them while I work at a computer. But just as I advise my patients to protect their eyes from the sun, I also advise them to take protective measures for their eyes when using digital devices.

Continual extended screen time can impact your eyes in two major ways. The first and most common side effect is digital eye strain. When we look at a screen, our blink rate drops significantly, and our eyes won't put up with that for too long without fuss.

If you've ever experienced slightly blurry vision after staring at the computer all day, that was a sign of digital eye strain. Maybe your eyes feel dry, runny or tired after scrolling through your Facebook feed, or maybe you get a headache after a few hours on the computer. These symptoms are often so common that we don't even recognize them as real issues. While digital eye strain is temporary, if left unaddressed, it can turn into a chronic problem.

The easiest way to address digital eye strain is to blink more. That might sound overly simple, but blinking helps to keep eyes lubricated. Another effective way to avoid or help to resolve digital eye strain is to follow the "20-20-20 Rule" -- every 20 minutes, stare at something at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. This exercise engages your distance vision and helps the eye to "reset."

The second -- and more serious -- impact that too much technology consumption can have on our eyes is damage from blue light exposure. Blue light is just what it sounds like -- it's a type of light that gives off a blue color. Blue light is harmful, because it's the highest energy wavelength of visible light. This energy is also able to penetrate all the way to the back of the eye, through the eyes' natural filters, and that's the problem.

Even though blue light is nothing new, the biggest issue is the amount of blue light exposure that we get each day through digital device use. With this exposure increasing over time, we are actually causing permanent damage to our eyes. But unlike digital eye strain, the effects of blue light are cumulative and can lead to eye diseases like macular degeneration.

Children are especially at risk when it comes to the negative effects of blue light exposure. These days, a lot of homework is done online, and many children have access to (or have their own) digital devices that they are using for increasingly longer periods of time. The difference for children is that their eyes are still developing, and they don't yet have the protective pigments in their eyes to help filter out some of this harmful blue light. That's why, just like with UV radiation, most blue light exposure occurs before kids are 18 years old.

While it may be a great concern for children, adults are susceptible, as well. This is especially true as adults are using digital devices more and more in both their personal and professional lives. So what can you do about it?

First, you can take steps to protect your eyes from the harmful effects of blue light. If you're not able to limit your digital device use, at least cut back on it before bed. Studies show that exposure to blue light a couple of hours before bedtime actually suppresses melatonin and delays deep REM sleep significantly. So cutting back on tech use at night means getting better sleep, making people more productive at both work and school (and speaking from my own personal experience, it makes children more pleasant).

Second, you should consider talking with your eye doctor about lenses that filter out blue light (and no, these aren't the old bright orange blue-blocker eyewear from the '90s). The lenses have little-to-no tint and can help to minimize the direct blue light exposure that you get throughout the day. Most of my patients who have these lenses noticed an immediate increase in eye comfort because of the improved contrast, which helps to relax the eyes. And if you have children, I would absolutely recommend these lenses -- especially if they have trouble sleeping at night.

By keeping in mind a few simple ways to protect the eyes, we can take pleasure in knowing that our eyes will last much longer than our trusty smartphones, tablets and computers.

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