How to Reduce Digital Eye Strain From Staring at Screens All Day

Your dry, itchy eyes will thank you.

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If a long day of screen time makes the world look blurry and leaves your eyeballs feeling as if they’ve been rolled in sand, you might be suffering from computer vision syndrome, says Adam Ramsey, O.D., an optometrist in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, who specializes in dry eyes.

Detail Shot Of Human Eye With Lashes
Detail Shot Of Human Eye With Lashes. Caelan Stulken / EyeEm Premium / Getty Images

What is digital eye strain?

According to the American Optometric Association, digital eye strain—or computer vision syndrome—is used to describe a variety of common eye strain and vision-related issues that are a direct result of prolonged or excessive digital screen use, including cell phones, tablets, and computers.

Reading on a digital screen is often different from and more straining on the eyes than reading printed text, because "the letters on the computer or handheld device are not as precise or sharply defined, the level of contrast of the letters to the background is reduced, and the presence of glare and reflections on the screen may make viewing difficult," AOA explains.

What causes digital eye strain?

Screen-emitted light.

Screens—TVs, iPads, phones, laptops—emit a lot of stimulating light for our eyes to absorb and process. This harsh blue light can be the main culprit behind computer vision issues for some people, Dr. Ramsey says. These folks may try blue-light blocking glasses, a screen filter or protector, or the blue-light setting on the devices themselves to avoid too much light exposure from screens.

Looking at something close-up for too long.

But for others, it's the actual act of looking closely at something for a long time that's behind it all (unless it's a combination of both!). Looking at something closely requires our eyes, or really your brain, to converge, or come together. If you cover one eye and look at your nose, for example, what you see will look different through one eye versus the other. "But with both eyes open, you see one, singular nose, so your brain is converging," Dr. Ramsey explains.

It's extremely cool and what your eyes are meant to do, of course—but just not all the time.

"When you're looking at something close, your eyes have to actually converge, [and they have to] converge quite a bit to be on the computer," he says. "Each eye sees the screen individually, and the brain [makes] those two images into one. Some people have a difficulty with converging for an extended period."

Not blinking frequently enough.

Another problem? We tend not to blink as much while we're screen-gazing—or focusing hard on anything. "Tears are produced in the eyes from the actual blinking," Dr. Ramsey says. "When looking at something intensely, which most people do when they're looking at a computer, they're concentrating and not going to blink as much." The obvious result: dry eyes.

Digital Eye Strain Prevention and Solutions

Reading and focusing under these digital-specific conditions (often for hours at a time) is really taxing on the eyes and our entire vision system—which are already working hard every minute of every day. It's no wonder you might experience symptoms like serious eye strain, dry eyes, headaches, blurry vision, dizziness, and even upper back, shoulder, or neck pain at the end of each day.

To combat this irritating issue, Dr. Ramsey recommends three strategies for preventing and relieving digital eye strain.

Follow the 20-20-20 Rule

You already know that taking regular breaks throughout the day is good for both your physical health and mental health. Do it for your eye health, too. In order to give your peepers a rest from having to converge—come together to look at something close-up—for too long, Dr. Ramsey recommends sticking to the 20-20-20 rule throughout the day: “Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This helps your eyes relax.”

Adam Ramsey, O.D.

"Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.”

— Adam Ramsey, O.D.

Make sure your ergonomic setup is comfortable.

Ergonomic workplace posture is not about looking uptight and proper—it's about positioning your body as naturally, comfortably, and functionally as possible. “Sit upright with your feet on the floor, back against the chair,” says Dr. Ramsey. When we’re not properly supported in our seat, we may use the wrong muscle groups to compensate and keep us upright, which adds to discomfort. “And keep your screen at or beneath eye level,” he adds. “Looking up puts a strain on the eyes.”

Try eye drops.

To offset the dryness and irritation from less-frequent blinking during screen time, Dr. Ramsey suggests grabbing some over-the-counter, preservative-free rewetting drops.

Still not getting relief you need? See an eye care provider, he says, who can suggest solutions such as prescription drops or glasses, or investigate other possible causes for your eye strain or vision concerns.

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