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Is Too Much Screen Time Ruining Our Eyes?

How Over Reliance on Digital Devices Affect Health

It’s hard to admit, but I became addicted to too much screen time over the pandemic. Most of my work is computer related, I use phone apps for everything from chatting with friends and controlling my digital camera to running my robot vacuum. To relax, I like to watch a movie in the evening then read the news or articles on my tablet in bed at night. Relying on screens for my social circle, work tools and entertainment created a myriad of serious health issues with my vision, sleep, and weight.

Since American adults spend an average of 7 to 11 hours a day looking at digital devices—phones, computers, TVs, tablets—at least I know I am not alone. A former VP at Facebook admitted in an interview at Stanford Business School that smartphones and social media platforms are turning us into bona fide addicts

The pandemic exasperated our digital dilemma. Since we weren’t going out, the internet and texting helped us stay socially connected. There was a greater need to see news about what was going on out in the world and when we could get back to normal. Even though restrictions have virtually all gone away, much of this increased screen time stuck with us.

It’s time to get back to a healthier balance and minimize the digital impact on our wellbeing. The good news is, with positive changes, the risk of permanent vision damage is low. Here’s how to assess if you are a screen addict, and what to do about it.

Screen overuse symptoms
See if you recognize any of these screen-related health issues:

  1. Red or dry eyes
  2. Blurry vision
  3. Being easily distracted, losing focus or having a short attention span
  4. Memory issues
  5. Paying more attention to a screen than your partner, friends or family
  6. Declining social skills
  7. Trouble sleeping or falling asleep
  8. Weight gain
  9. Mental fog
  10. Difficulty making decisions
  11. Lower energy levels
  12. Mood changes, such as stress, anxiety, irritability, and even depression
Multiple people staring into their phones

Effects of screen-related symptoms
Physical effects. Studies suggest our tears evaporate quicker when staring at a screen. Our dry eyes are strained, and that puts more burden on eye muscles that help keep things in focus. Research also reveals we blink 66% less often when looking at devices, which also causes tear evaporation. Eyes can get irritated, sting and get red.

Mental effects. Scrolling through Facebook, a newsfeed or TikTok provides repeated stimulation and immediate gratification for our brains. Pretty soon, our think center becomes accustomed to this frequent dose of stimulation, shifting our focus away from the real (and often less interesting) world. And when we become accustomed to such rapid and frequent stimulation, it’s hard to focus when things in the real world aren’t as mesmerizing.

There is also a chemical reaction happening that makes us crave to repeat and increase the behavior, in other words, addiction. Dopamine is a chemical produced by our brains that gets released when we experience something pleasurable—a bite of your favorite food, exercise, making connections on social media or watching a hilarious TikTok video. Dopamine rewards these behaviors we like and motivates our brain to repeat them. You can read a more in-depth explanation of the dopamine effect here.

Being so connected also means we often don’t use our brains to recall information when Google can call it up a lot faster. Scientific research is showing that we are using Google like an auxiliary brain. Over time, this causes new neural pathways and less memory ability.

Relationship problems
Many of us pay more attention to our devices than to the people and things going on around us. Go to pretty much any casual restaurant and you will find examples of this—couples or whole families heads down scrolling on their phones. Heck, my husband wasn’t even on social media until the pandemic—he considered it a waste of time. Now I find it irritating when he is cruising his news feed while I’m prepping dinner, instead of sharing about our day. According to research in Science Direct, there is a name for this—”phubbing,” which means snubbing someone by ignoring them with your phone, or “Pphubbing” if it’s your partner. We are also texting more than talking to each other. These digital behaviors can lead to increased conflict, reduced relationship satisfaction, and a higher incidence of depression.

Also, when we don’t engage in real life, our social skills decline. Talking to virtual friends is not the same as having a face-to-face conversation. Interestingly, those that spent some time engaging digitally were happier than those that were not online at all. However, according to research, those that spent the most amount of time on devices were the least happy. Similarly, those that overly depend on technology to build and maintain relationships can actually feel the most empty and alone.

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Combined issues
There is an area of physical and mental issues around screen time, and it has to do with screens and difficulty falling or staying asleep. A study published in the National Journal of Medicine correlates screen use at bedtime with poor sleep quality. Anytime sleep gets chronically shortened, results can mean weight gain, mental fog, lower energy levels and mood changes, such as stress, anxiety, irritability, and depression.

Also, we are more sedentary with too much screen time, which also affects body weight.

Making better digital choices
While researchers can’t agree on how much is too much screen time for adults, one thing is clear: what you are looking at matters. An in-depth article is more brain enriching than mindlessly scrolling through social media. Gathering on the couch with family or friends for movie night is an enriching, shared experience.

If you’re having any vision problems, start with a visit to an ophthalmologist. Then work on intentionally breaking bad digital habits. It may not be easy at first—I struggled to leave my iPad behind on a recent weekend getaway with my husband, but was glad I did once we were alone. 

Experts recommend: 

  • Limiting social media time to 30-60 minutes a day
  • Spending 3 to 4 hours daily with no screens  
  • Not having any devices in the bedroom, and stop using screens at least an hour before bed to improve sleep
  • Taking a break away from screens every 20 minutes for eye health
  • Making an effort to get out in nature (and leave your phone in your pocket or day pack) 
  • Meeting up with friends, or at least getting out in public now that we can 
  • Taking up a new nondigital hobby or sport
  • Setting even lower screen time goals for yourself if you are a parent to be a better model for your children and their digital device use
  • Setting up your office computer so your eyes have mid-distance and long distance viewing points, which shifts your focus from the screen to support eye health
  • Don’t use whitening eye drops, as they can dry your eyes further. Doctors recommend lubricating drops like Refresh, and using natural tear drops while working on a computer, like Blink

So how am I doing? I’m taking small steps—eye and medical check-ups, less non-work screen time, including none before bed. My activity level is coming up and my weight is going down. So, I’d say all good! 

The COVID-19 pandemic shifted our lives in myriad ways, including the time we spend glued to our devices. It’s not just kids that need limits on screen time, we adults need to set firm boundaries for the sake of our physical and mental health.

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