Taking a Look at Screen Time and Eye Strain
You've heard the same refrain over and over again: new health issues are appearing because of the impacts of COVID-19 – and I'm not talking about the virus itself. Many of us, confined to our houses and apartments, have joined the ranks of those who work from home. Because of all the time spent looking at screens while researching, typing, and attending Zoom meetings – not to mention leisure time spent scrolling through social media and watching Netflix – occurrences of eye strain are on the rise.
For gamers, this isn't a new phenomenon. We've been looking at screens for long periods of time since the glory days of arcades, when everyone would crowd around a cabinet in the hopes of getting a glimpse of a new high score. Though technological improvements like increases in screen refresh rates and the introduction of backlit screens have helped ease the strain on our eyes, the effects still linger in many players. Professional gamers and esports participants are at particular risk for additional strain, as their practice schedules demand that they spend tens of hours a week looking at a screen while practicing. Read on to learn a little about the causes of eye strain, symptoms to watch out for, and what you can do to ease the effects.
What is eye strain, and why does it happen?
What's commonly referred to as "eye strain" by players is actually known as computer vision syndrome by ophthalmologists. According to a paper published in Survey of Ophthalmology vol. 50 (June 2005), computer vision syndrome isn't a disease. It's a collection of effects and symptoms that are caused by high levels of computer screen use. (In this case, TV, phone, handheld, and other screens all fall under the category of "computer screens".) The most common symptoms are tired eyes, blurred vision, double vision, eye irritation, or a burning sensation in the eyes. Other symptoms include irritation for those who wear contact lenses and dry or sore eyes. If a person is experiencing one or more of these symptoms, they are considered to have computer vision syndrome.
These symptoms occur for a variety of reasons, most of them based on the environment in which the player views their screen and the quality of the screen can also affect eye strain. As previously mentioned, monitors have come a long way in terms of refresh rate, or the amount of times per minute the screen is "refreshed" to display a new image. If the refresh rate is too low, as is the case with many old arcade cabinets and CRT TVs, a game's graphics may appear to "flicker". Studies have noted that screens with more flicker tend to cause viewers fatigue and headaches; extremely high levels of flicker can even induce seizures in the photosensitive, though thankfully most modern screens are significantly above that refresh rate threshold. Glare from outside light sources can also make it more difficult for a player to view the screen, leading to increased strain.
...it's a misconception that blue light is universally bad; in fact, blue light is needed by the body to help regulate its circadian rhythm.
Within the body, there are also a number of elements that can cause computer vision syndrome. The most commonly-discussed one is the presence of blue light in screens. According to Prevent Blindness, it's a misconception that blue light is universally bad; in fact, blue light is needed by the body to help regulate its circadian rhythm (what helps you wake up when it's light and fall asleep when it's dark). Blue light also helps boost the body's alertness and elevate mood, probably because it's also found in sunlight, which is proven to help boost people's mood. The problem comes when the body is exposed to blue light when it normally wouldn't be – for example, from a phone or computer screen late at night after the sun has set.
The alertness boost that blue light gives during the day becomes disruptive at night – it tells the body to stay awake when it shouldn't, disrupting our circadian rhythm and making it more difficult to fall asleep. Spending a lot of time gaming after dark or late at night, particularly in bed or right before you go to sleep, can make it harder to doze off. Besides exposing us to blue light at inopportune times, screens can also cause us to blink less. Blinking moisturizes the eye; if a person blinks less, their eyes are more likely to become dry. Blink rates while viewing computer screens are "significantly less than normal" (256), which can contribute to a feeling of dry or burning eyes while playing.
These are just a few of the causes of computer vision syndrome and the effects it can have on players. It's very important to note that most studies show no relationship between significant amounts of gaming and permanent vision damage or reduction. The first time I told my eye doctor that I was concerned that all the gaming I was doing was damaging my eyes, he laughed and told me not to worry. All About Eyes notes that even if you do a lot of work or gaming in front of screens and you're suffering from computer vision syndrome, the effects will abate with rest and strain reduction for your eyes. It's important to note, however, that if you're experiencing severe pain, trouble seeing, or migraines, you should speak to your eye doctor. Those symptoms may be a sign of something more serious.
What you can do about eye strain
If you've been experiencing the effects of computer vision syndrome, you may be tired of having sore, burning eyes or headaches. You may be noticing a reduction in the quality of your gameplay or work. If you want to get back on top of your game again, here are a few things you can do to help relieve the symptoms.
Increase the amount of times you blink. As noted above, looking at screens typically makes us blink less. Reminding yourself to blink frequently, either by putting a sticky note next to your console or setting a reminder on your phone, can help moisturize your eyes and stave off dry eyes. If your eyes are significantly dry, you can also buy over-the-counter eye drops for extra relief.
Check the light sources in your room. Make sure you're playing or working in a well-lit room. The brightness of the light in the room should be slightly dimmer than the brightness of your monitor. Avoid angling light directly at your screen or monitor – avoiding glare on the screen helps ease the strain on your eyes.
Rearrange your monitor on your desk. According to CNN, your monitor or screen should be seated about 18-30 inches away from you and tilted slightly up. Experts note that looking down, as you do when you're reading a book, keeps more of you eye covered by the eyelid, which increases moisture. Try to avoid positioning your monitor in a way that makes you look up at it. If you're using a computer monitor, the top of the monitor should be in line with your eyes.
Avoid blue light at night or just before bed. Blue light-blocking glasses have become increasingly popular over the last few years. If you don't want to invest in glasses, try a program like f.lux, a free tool that automatically reduces the blue light emitted by your computer monitor depending on when you go to bed and wake up in the morning.
A note about screen time
If gaming consistently brings up negative emotions, whether it's jealousy directed at those on a leaderboard or anger at losing a competitive match, it may be time to take a break or reevaluate your playing habits.
While significant amounts of time spent in front of screens isn't permanently damaging to physical health, it can have much more significant effects on mental health. Time notes that asking how much time we spend with screens isn't as important as asking ourselves what we're doing while we use those screens. Be mindful of what you're playing, watching, and consuming while you're in front of a monitor or TV. Consider the way that what you're playing makes you feel. If gaming consistently brings up negative emotions, whether it's jealousy directed at those on a leaderboard or anger at losing a competitive match, it may be time to take a break or reevaluate your playing habits.
For every 20 minutes spent looking at a screen, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
Gamers have come a long way since our moms were telling us to eat carrots to improve our vision and to stop spending so much time in front of our "Nintendos". (My thoughts go out to all those kids who were Sega owners but still had to listen to their family call their Genesis a Nintendo.) Despite growing up and getting a life (so to speak), paying attention to how we feel physically and mentally while gaming is still extremely important. Computer vision syndrome can knock you off your game and make it harder to concentrate while playing, but following the tips above and speaking to your eye doctor about your own habits should help keep everything in balance. More comfort and better health while gaming starts with paying attention to your eyes!