Computer Vision Syndrome and Digital Eye Strain: Mitigating the Damage

Full disclosure – I am addicted to my iPhone. This morning I drove my daughter to school as I do most days. We stopped at Starbucks for a special treat, and while waiting in line, I reflexively reached for my phone to check whether I had received any texts or emails in the last few minutes.

Not there.

The phone was forgotten at home, sitting on the kitchen counter. Maybe I have Digital Eye strain Computer Vision Syndrome from looking at it so my over the prior week and didn’t see it on my way out? I didn’t panic, but I did continue to reach for the phone every couple of minutes despite being fully aware that it was not in my pocket. I was away from my phone for half an hour, max, but thought about it nearly every three minutes over that time period. It has become as natural as breathing to look at my smart phone, regardless of what else is going on in the “real world”.iphone-eye-strain

Like the repetitive strain injuries that became prevalent with the rise of the industrial age, we are now finding that there is a cost to pay for the unremitting prevalence of digital screens. A majority of Americans, 83%, report using digital devices of some sort for more than two hours per day.[ii] A significant percentage of those people also report experiencing Computer Vision Syndrome, which is eye strain resulting from prolonged use of digital devices and screens.

It would be easy to rail against the unyielding onslaught of the digital world here, and slam those (like me) who have all but succumbed to our smart phone habits, but realistically digital devices aren’t going away. Smart use and awareness of how to protect our eyes from strain in the digital age is key to maintaining eye health.

According to studies, Americans across all age groups check their phone an average of 46 times per day. Not surprisingly, younger users check nearly twice that often, and slightly older users (between the ages of 35 and 44) a bit less at 35 times a day.[i] Most people use phones for alarm clocks, look at them as soon as they wake in the morning, and until right before going to sleep at night.

Beyond just communication, the truth is most people are using phones, computers and other digital devices throughout the day for work, to complete financial transactions, maintain calendars, obtain maps and directions, for shopping, and of course social media. Digital devices, habitual use notwithstanding, have become the portal through which most of us manage our entire lives.

Digital Eye Strain Causes and Symptoms

“Don’t read in the dark… it’ll ruin your eyesight!”

Who doesn’t remember hearing this from their parents at some point or another growing up while reading under the covers with a flashlight? Turns out, reading in dim light does not harm your vision; it may cause eye fatigue, but will not result in long-term damage. Digital screens present a different challenge to eyesight than the printed word.

Without getting overly technical, the sun contains ultraviolet rays in a range of colors depending upon the wavelength of the rays that when combined, create white light or sunlight. Blue light — the end of the visible light spectrum with the shortest wavelengths and highest energy — has both benefits and hazards.

Man-made blue light is emitted in fluorescent and LED lighting. Smart phones, tablets, laptop computers and digital devices release a fraction of the blue light produced by the sun, but because of increased exposure, there can be significant effects on eyesight and even bodily rhythms surrounding natural wakefulness and sleep cycles.[iii] Blue light is not the sole cause of digital eye strain, but can be a contributing factor. The important thing to remember is that prolonged exposure to digital screens can strain eyesight and result in unpleasant symptoms that may seem unrelated to vision at first glance.

Computer Vision Syndrome

Some common symptoms of Computer Vision Syndrome:

  • Eye fatigue and irritation
  • Headache
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Dry eyes
  • Neck and shoulder pain
  • Nausea

Screen contrast, flicker, glare, distance and visual adjustment are factors that contribute to and can exacerbate symptoms of CVS. Obviously repeated and protracted exposure to any medium can be problematic, especially one that requires concentration and visual acuity. If the demands on someone’s vision outstrip the eyes’ ability to focus on the task, that’s when symptoms of eye strain can arise.

Eye Care and Treatment

Fortunately for those of us who are not in a position to give up our digital screens anytime soon, CVS is easily alleviated and can be eliminated entirely in many cases. The first thing that should happen after being diagnosed with CVS is a complete eye exam and vision test. Sometimes digital eye strain is aggravated by poor vision or undiagnosed astigmatism that can be corrected with a prescription for glasses or contacts. Ruling out an unrelated health issue is important.

In some cases, special glasses can be prescribed that are designed for use with digital screens. Lenses designed to reduce glare and filter out harmful blue light are readily available; check with your optometrist for recommendations.

Other adjustments that can be made include viewing posture. It might seem silly to talk about how far your chair is from your desk in the same breath as eye fatigue, but in reality, distance from the screen, angle of viewing, and body positioning can all be related to CVS.[iv] The closer you are to the screen the more the cornea has to flex, so making sure that you treat your eyes with the same care that you would oft-used, sore muscles is a crucial element in avoiding digital eye strain.[v]

Additional positioning considerations

  • Use a document holder next to screen to prevent neck strain and constant eye adjustment.
  • Avoid glare on screen by closing blinds or dimming overhead lights.
  • Chairs should be ergonomically adjusted so that back is flat and feet can rest on the floor.

One easy way to remedy digital eye strain is the 20-20-20 rule[vi]: take a 20 second break from your screen every 20 minutes, and look at something that is about 20 feet away in order to rest your eyes and prevent eye strain. There are free software programs and apps to with reminders about the 20-20-20 rule.

Like most things in life, excessive exposure to digital screens can be detrimental – no big revelation there. The vital thing to remember is that there are measures we can take to be healthier in terms of our viewing habits, and just healthier in general. One could consider preventative eye strain tips as a reminder that it’s a big world out there. Stand up and stretch, drink some water, take a walk outside… maybe even read a book or write in a journal from time to time.

We can all stand to be reminded that there is life beyond the screen worth looking at every now and again.




[i] Eadiciccio, Lisa. (15 Dec 2016). Americans Check Their Phones 8 Billion Times a Day. Time.

[ii] The Vision Council. (n.d.). Digital Eye Strain.

[iii] Heiting, Gary. (n.d.). Blue Light: It’s Both Good and Bad for You. All About Vision.

[iv] American Optometric Association. (n.d.). Computer Vision Syndrome. Web.

[v] Digital Eye Strain is Destroying Your Eyes. (n.d.). The Mission. Web.

[vi] American Optometric Association. (23 October 2016). Most Americans Experience Digital Eyestrain from Overexposure to Computers. Web.


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About Daria Costello

Costello has a background in counseling and education. She is Director of Corporate Relations and IMPACT Projects at UC Davis. Her B.A. is in Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles.