These eyes: Is all the screen time hurting our peepers?

With most of us spending even more time on our screens, do we have anything to worry about?

Nicholas Sokic 4 minute read May 9, 2020
man looking hard at computer screen

As if there wasn’t already enough to worry about in the world, maybe we’re not blinking enough.

In the Before Times, excessive screen time was already a point of conversation among worried adults and parents concerned about eye health. With quarantine, we’ve got all our usual sources of screen time — television, video games, phones — as well as the relentless drip of COVID-19 news and for many of us, a shift to a wholly online school and work environment.

While there are a host of issues surrounding our screen time, including the lack of physical activity, the artificiality of online social interaction, the effects that spending so much time at home has on our mental health and our posture, it doesn’t seem that there are any long-term effects on our eyesight.

“I think we all as children were told, ‘Don’t spend a lot of time reading you’re going to hurt your eyes,’ that kind of old wives tale,” says Yvonne Buys, the president of the Canadian Opthalmological Society (COS). “There is no detrimental effect to using your eyes, so its not going to cause any long lasting damage to your eyes, using them excessively be it reading a book or using it on screens like watching television.”

That doesn’t mean nothing will happen either. In the short-term, we tend to blink less when using our screens, which can lead to dry eyes, one of the most common complaints brought to the COS. That’s a general term for when your eyes are itching or have a burning sensation. Other symptoms can include blurred vision, eye fatigue or redness in your eyes. Sometimes your eyes will start to tear in order to compensate for the dryness.

Dry eyes can also result from aging, eye surgery, certain medications or environmental factors like smoky or windy conditions.

A joint policy statement from the COS and the Canadian Association of Optometrists (CAO), written pre-pandemic, reads, “The prevalence of electronic screen-related ocular symptoms is estimated as high as 50 to 90 per cent in adult electronic screen users.” Due to a lack of research, the number for children is unknown.

A 2016 study found “Temporary acute acquired comitant esotropia (inward turning of the eye) was noted in 12 students between the ages of seven to 12 years old in South Korea who used a smartphone within 30 cm from their eyes more than four hours a day for over four months.”

In terms of dry eye prevention, the guideline to follow is known as the 20/20/20 rule. For every twenty minutes of screen time, one should take at least a twenty second break and look at something at least twenty feet away, probably out your window. This will help relax your eye muscles and avoid strain.

“Other things you can be doing include putting a humidifier in the room you’re working in,” says Buys. “There’s always over the counter lubricating eye drops, known as artificial tear drops, which you can use to moisture the front of the eye and help with those symptoms. Putting a warm compress on your eye is another opportunity.”

The rules for screen time are the same regardless of the screen you’re using or your demographic, says Buys, whether that’s a TV versus a tablet, or if you’re comparing the effects on a child as opposed to an adult. Sometimes, if you’re on your phone and feeling strain, it can actually be better to get closer to the screen in order to magnify what you’re seeing.

While dry eyes might not be the biggest threat, vision health shouldn’t be ignored. May is Vision Health Month in Canada. About 5.59 million, or one in seven Canadians have eye conditions that put them at significant risk of losing their vision, while 1.5 million have an eye condition that impacts their day-to-day quality of life.

Fighting Blindness Canada (FBC), the largest charitable fund of vision research in the country is teaming up with the eye health business Bausch and Lomb Canada. For the entire month, any time someone uses the hashtag #WhyEyeCare on social media platforms, Bausch and Lomb will donate a dollar to FBC. | @Sokic_

Nicholas Sokic is a reporter at

Don’t miss the latest on COVID-19, reopening and life. Subscribe to Healthing’s daily newsletter COVID Life


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our community guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.