Your mom warned you sitting too close to the TV wasn’t a good idea. It turns out she wasn’t entirely off the mark.

Digital eye strain” is now a real condition, defined as the physical eye discomfort felt after two or more hours in front of a digital screen. As screen time increases - at home and in the office - so do symptoms like blurred vision, burning eyes, headaches and disrupted sleep. In total, nearly two thirds of American adults now experience symptoms of digital eye strain due to prolonged use of electronic devices like computers, tablets and cell phones.

It’s not hard to see why. For many of us, the glow of a phone’s screen is the first thing we see when we wake and the last thing we see before sleep. In between, we fill the hours bathed in LED light, staring first at documents and emails, then Facebook updates and Netflix. One of the biggest eye-burn culprits, not surprisingly, is the office, where being planted in front of a screen is often a requirement of the job. Our bodies and eyes just weren’t designed for modern digital lifestyles and workplaces.

I’ve spent my career in the optical industry, following these trends. Along the way, I’ve seen mountains of studies and reports and also tracked the efforts of doctors and scientists trying to fight what may be a hidden epidemic. The harm we’re doing to our vision, it turns out, could be very real and may even be getting worse. But it is preventable.

Online, all the time

Technology has completely transformed the demands on our eyes. TV is no longer the main culprit (though household viewing hours have more than doubled since the 1950s). Screen time is expanding far more quickly outside the living room. Ratings agency Nielsen reports Americans aged 18 and older now spend 11 hours per day in total using electronic media like TV, smartphones, and computers.

 Always on: Americans spend 11 hours a day looking at screens
Image: REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

Modern workplaces are piling onto this trend. We’ve grown accustomed to mobile devices that push emails to us everywhere. Now apps like Slack and Facebook at Work are opening up entirely new avenues to communicate digitally. Physical facetime has given way to Apple Facetime and virtual group chats. The trend only stands to get worse: Citrix reports that by 2020, employees will access their work using an average of six different computing devices per day.

Not so easy on the eyes

All that time in front of computers, phones and tablets is affecting people’s health. The majority of Americans now report symptoms of digital eye strain, including neck, shoulder and back pain (36%), eye strain (35%), headaches (25%), blurred vision (25%) and dry eyes (24%). Worryingly, the percentage of sufferers is greater among young people. Some 73% of adults under 30 now experience these symptoms, suggesting a generational trend.

One growing source of potential concern is the kind of light most digital devices emit. We all know about the invisible dangers of ultraviolet or UV light, but fewer people are aware of the potential risks of high energy light that we can see: blue light. Light on the blue end of the visual light spectrum contains more energy than warm colours like oranges and reds, and is known as high energy visual light (HEV).

 Rainbow over Tokyo
Light brings both pleasure and peril
Image: REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Blue light is everywhere, including in sunlight. However, digital screens and fluorescent and LED office lighting have drastically increased our exposure. It’s not all bad - blue light’s abundance in daylight boosts alertness. But when we’re bathing ourselves in HEV light constantly, the sustained exposure may well add up, preventing our bodies from settling into healthy sleep.

And unlike with UV light, human eyes do a poor job of filtering out blue light. Most worryingly, recent studies suggest HEV light can contribute to retinal damage and macular degeneration - an irreversible loss of vision. Research on this subject is just beginning, but early signs point to an association between long-term exposure and serious consequences.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Thankfully, there are ways to reduce the harm from our digital lifestyles. The challenge, however, is getting people to pay attention and actually change their ways - on the job and off.

Simple lifestyle adjustments - while decidedly low-tech - can make a dramatic difference. The easiest fix is to just take a break. I actively promote the 20-20-20 rule in our office at Clearly: take a 20-second break every 20 minutes to look at something 20 feet away. It’s also worth reminding yourself to blink more often (sounds silly, but actually makes a difference). Staring at screens often reduces how often people blink, making their eyes drier. You can also adjust the size of the type or the brightness of your display and sit farther from your screen.

Then there are technological solutions. Mobile devices running recent versions of Apple’s iOS have a feature called Night Shift, which shifts the display colors towards the warmer end of the visual spectrum. F.lux is a downloadable app available on many platforms that does this too.

Specialized eyewear is also starting to catch up to the threat, though many people are still unaware of their options. Anti-reflective lenses decrease reflection from overhead lights and improve contrast. The latest generation of lenses can even block out blue light. We recently partnered with social media startup Hootsuite to provide their hundreds of employees with glasses featuring KODAK’s BlueReflect lenses, which have a special coating that selectively absorbs part of the blue light, preventing it from entering the cornea and reaching the back of the eye. Results thus far have been positive, with workers reporting fewer headaches, irritated eyes and other symptoms of digital eye strain.

Technology has irreversibly changed how people live and work. But vision health has lagged dangerously behind. For today’s digital workforce, awareness of dangers - and solutions - is critical. Technology may be evolving rapidly, but we still only get one set of eyes.

Roy Hessel is president and CEO of Clearly and Coastal.