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In a world rocked by coronavirus, social distancing and isolation can lead to a whole lot more screen time. What effect is this having on our eye health?

It’s 4pm and you’ve been squinting at the tiny laptop screen in your poorly-lit bedroom for eight hours. A dull ache drums in your temples. You’ve forgotten to blink for a few minutes – and when you do, the eyelids scratch over your retinas like nails on a chalkboard. 

Welcome to working from home during coronavirus lockdown; a time in which daily screen time is multiplied, but screen size often severely cut down. 

For those of us working from home, the portability of laptops and smart phones, coupled with a lack of space for large office screens in the family home, means we are spending a lot more time squinting at smaller screens than optometrists might like us to. And experts say this could be doing serious damage to our long-term eye health.

Eye surgeons were years ago doing surgery under blue light microscopes. They discovered very quickly that these lights were burning holes in people’s retinas. They fixed that by putting blue light filters in the microscopes. Lo and behold – no more retina problems.

Dr Jim Kokkinakis, The Eye Practice

Small screens causing big problems

“Focusing on a close-up screen all day has the same effect on your eyes as standing in a slight squat all day would for your legs,” explains Dr Jim Kokkinakis, an optometrist of more than 35 years and the Optometric Director at The Eye Practice in Sydney.

“The muscles in your eye become tensed, holding a focus at short distance all day, and that’s where eye strain comes from. The smaller the screen, the smaller the font, and the harder the muscles have to work.” 

Kokkinakis explains that being a lawyer is “one of the worst professions for eye health” because of the huge amount of close reading that lawyers are required to do. Many end up suffering myopia – commonly known as short-sightedness.

While short-sightedness has long been a side effect of poring over textbooks and court judgments, Kokkinakis explains why modern lawyers – who work mostly on screens – risk doing more serious damage to their vision.

“Screens are worse because they reduce the amount of times you blink by up to 80 per cent,” says Kokkinakis. “You get what’s called a ‘dumb computer stare’. This causes dry eyes and adds to the strain and stretch on your retinas.”

Kokkinakis warns that the generation who “were born with an iPad in their hands” may suffer the unseen damage of this extra screen time in years to come.

“What will be the effect on our children and their children’s eyes? We will know the answer in 20 years,” he says.

“The analogy I make is with tobacco. 100 years ago doctors were telling us to smoke because it was good for mental health – it was relaxing, and everyone should be smoking. Only now do we know how lethal it can be.”

The effects of blue light

Blue light – the light emitted from computers, televisions and phone screens – has come under fire in recent years due to its range of potentially damaging effects on our eyes and general health. Harvard researchers in 2018 found blue light can suppress melatonin and interrupt our sleep cycles, hormones, and even negatively impact mental health. 

At this stage, the jury is out as to whether blue light increases our risk of macular degeneration, an age-related condition that can cause blurry vision and blindness. But Kokkinakis says we should not take the risk lightly.

“Blue light is high frequency energy,” he explains. “The next step up from blue light is ultra-violet light, and we all know how bad UV light is for our eyes. 

“The piece of information that really made me pay attention to this issue was when I learned that ophthalmologists – eye surgeons – were years ago doing surgery under blue light microscopes. They discovered very quickly that these lights were burning holes in people’s retinas. They fixed that by putting blue light filters in the microscopes. Lo and behold – no more retina problems.”

The increase in research and warnings about blue light prompted Matt Whyte, owner and CEO of popular Australian sunglasses brand Carve, to begin manufacturing inexpensive, non-prescription blue-light glasses to add to Carve’s range in 2020. 

“So much research is coming out about how blue light can increase eye strain, cause headaches and blurry vision, and potentially do serious damage to our long-term eye health,” Whyte says. 

“We wear sunglasses to protect our eyes from UV light – even when many professional working people rarely see the sun as they spend most of their time indoors. If you wear sunglasses outdoors, why not do your eyes the same favour indoors?”

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Simple ways to protect your eyes

Both Kokkinakis and Whyte recommend asking your optometrist to put a blue-light filter in your prescription glasses. Or, if you don’t wear prescription glasses, you can order a pair of Carve blue-light lenses on for less than $60, including free shipping. 

“I wear them while in the office or at home working. My family and I wear them while watching TV. My kids wear them doing their school homework which is either on laptops or iPads,” says Whyte.

“Blue light brain stimulation before sleeping is like having a coffee. I find the glasses reduce the strain and headaches I used to feel after a day squinting at my laptop screen. I also fall asleep easily now, where I used to to take hours some nights.”

Eyes have muscles that require exercise just like other parts of the body, and while it may seem obvious, Kokkinakis says getting outdoors, away from screens, is one of the best ways to maintain healthy vision. Outdoor sport and exercise (which are allowed under social distancing rules as long they are kept within the household unit) force eyes to focus on objects that are further away and use their three-dimensional capabilities.

Kokkinakis also recommends lawyers follow the “20-20-20 rule” for visual hygiene during the workday. Every 20 minutes, stand up and look out a window to focus on something in the distance, count 20 seconds and blink 20 times. This will refresh your tears and relax the muscles in your eyes – reducing eye strain over time.  

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