Digital communication has become an integral part of 21st-century life. Our smartphones and tablets have become pocket-sized personal assistants: reminding us of appointments, giving us news, keeping us in touch with family and friends. Let's admit that there is a hypnotic quality to our smartphones -- we steal a glance whenever possible to see what's new.
We are living multi-screen lives and are more productive because of it. However with World Sight Day approaching on Oct. 8, it's a good time to consider how squinting at small screens is affecting our vision. World Sight Day focuses global attention on blindness and vision impairment and eye health professionals are increasingly worried about the consequences of "digital vision."
Our appetite for digital media is ravenous. Online measurement firm comScore recently came out with startling statistics showing that we're bordering on obsession. Over the past two years, the time we spent with digital devices boomed by 49 percent overall. Handheld devices led the way - time using smartphones exploded by an amazing 90 percent and tablets surged by 64 percent.
Squinting at the phone may cause us to squint at everything else. Research housed through the Vision Impact Institute has shown that myopia is rapidly rising in East Asia, Europe and the United States, especially among younger people. And research is pointing to factors other than genetics, such as behavior and environment, as causing this epidemic of shortsightedness. The common denominator among these populations seems to be time spent using digital devices.
While not seeing distances clearly can be frustrating, even dangerous when driving, it can be corrected with eyeglasses, contact lenses and refractive surgery. However, high myopia has been associated with a greater risk for ocular disorders, including retinal detachment, glaucoma and cataracts.
In addition to faltering eye sight, there are the related socio-economic considerations. A University of Lyon study of 400 Parisian students ages 15-22 showed a link between visual impairment and academic performance. All the students completed a questionnaire and had a vision exam, with those showing persistent problems given additional exams and corrective lenses or therapy if necessary. Academic performance was evaluated before and after the vision exams.
The research showed significant links between bad vision and poor academic performance. Then further analysis of the data indicated that lack of preventive measures - such as regular vision exams - had a negative effect on academic performance while adoption of corrective measures had a positive result.
This study and World Sight Day are timely reminders about the importance of a regular annual comprehensive eye exam. We're good about getting the annual physical and dental check-up, but often we aren't as diligent about seeing the eye doctor once a year.
In addition, we all can take small steps to make our digital obsession healthier for our eyes. First, make sure the settings are adequate - increase screen font size and improve the contrast. Always use good lighting but avoid glare on those small screens.
Second, it's important to exercise our eyes just as we exercise our bodies. Every few minutes, look up from the screen and focus on something in the distance. This exercise helps prevent eye strain and uses more of your ocular muscles. And don't forget to take breaks occasionally - yes, it's beneficial to put the phone or tablet down for a few minutes and look at something else.
Finally - get outside (that is once you've stopped reading this on your smartphone). Sunshine can be the antidote to digital vision, according to some research. While the sun's role isn't completely understood, an Australian study showed that children who spent more time outside playing in natural light had a lower rate of myopia. Chinese schools are even experimenting with classrooms made of transparent materials to help stem its epidemic of shortsightedness in young people.
Regardless of our age or how many digital devices we have, World Sight Day is a good reminder to make that eye exam appointment you've been putting off and take care of your eyes. They're the only pair you've got.