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Seeing eye to eye

Why blue light from screens may be harming your eyes

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The average American adult spends over 11 hours a day looking at a screen. The average teen, around 9 hours. And it’s only on the rise.

This 21st-century fixation with technology can all be attributed to the technological revolution, which has birthed a myriad different types of devices. But the effects of this technological boom, while providing our society with a plethora of conveniences, don’t necessarily add up to a good equation — and it’s because of blue light. 

“Blue light is a type of light that is emitted from the sun, computers, tablets, and cellphones,” Ashley D. McCain, a doctor of optometry and clinical assistant professor of ophthalmology at UW Medicine, wrote in an email. “There is some concern that blue light may cause damage to the eyes due to the fact that our eyes are not able to filter out the light effectively.” 

This inability to properly filter out blue light can have negative consequences on the body if exposure to the eyes is too long, such as eye fatigue, eye strain, headaches — altogether known as Computer Vision Syndrome (or Digital Eye Strain)

Using less technology in a device-dependent society seems unlikely, so throughout the day, McCain suggests taking breaks when looking at a screen for extended periods of time. She recommends that people implement what’s known as the 20/20/20 rule. 

“The 20/20/20 rule is the rule stating that every 20 minutes people should look at something about 20 feet away for 20 seconds,” McCain said. “I also recommend to try and remember to take big blinks when using devices and/or use a preservative-free artificial tear throughout the day. Staring at something for extended periods of time — people tend to not blink frequently and this can lead to dry eye and further fatigue.”

But, most importantly, inadequate blue light filtration can cause disruptions to the circadian rhythm. 

“Blue light is very important in the circadian rhythm,” McCain said. “The sun naturally emits blue light [and] we need some amount of blue light. At night our devices emit this light and it causes our bodies to become confused and melatonin production is suppressed.” 

In an interview for MarthaStewart.com, Jay Neitz, a doctor of biopsychology and adjunct professor in the UW department of ophthalmology warned that blue light would not only disrupt sleeping patterns but would make getting up more difficult and the quality of sleep worse. 

"Light sets our internal clock,” Neitz said. “If your clock tells you it's time for bed, but you're still being exposed to a lot of light, your brain decides that it needs to reset your clock to a later time. This makes it harder to get up in the morning, and increasingly difficult to get good quality sleep if your clock is being constantly unnaturally delayed."

At night, McCain advocates using devices less, suggesting that screen usage be limited around three hours before going to bed, that nighttime mode is turned on, and to use glasses that have the ability to filter out blue light.

These blue light filtering frames include “a coating that blocks blue light for people that are using their computer/tablet or cellphone for extended periods of time,” McCain said. “These coatings — [which in the past made lenses look yellow] — are now available as a clear coating on the glasses. Anti-reflective coatings are also good at cutting down glare but you need to ask for a specific coating to block the blue light when purchasing glasses.”

But besides digital eye strain alleviation and working on “short term effects [like] dry eyes, eye fatigue, headaches,” optometrists like McCain are looking at the long term of the eye’s interaction with blue light — prevention of macular degeneration — or reduced eyesight in the center field of vision.

While too much blue light has not conclusively been linked to macular degeneration, it’s an issue McCain wants to prevent if proven correct. 

“There is some concern that blue light may lead to increased rates of macular degeneration,” McCain said. “[But] it is too soon to know what the long term side effects from using our devices will be.”

Reach writer Madison Morgan at wellness@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @madiannemorgan

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