How the coronavirus pandemic may be hurting your eyes

People have also been spending more time on top social media apps.
People have also been spending more time on top social media apps.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

NEW YORK • When Ms Allyn Morrison was furloughed from her job as a barista at The Perk in Fort Worth, Texas, the 25-year-old actor decided to spend the lockdown streaming shows like Unorthodox (2020) and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2013 to present).

She was not goofing off, she explained - she was just trying to sharpen her acting skills.

In the United States, the combination of 30 million Americans out of work and tens of millions more working from home increased the number of hours people have been glued to a screen.

Indeed, streaming jumped by 20 per cent when coronavirus shutdowns first began back in March.

With US infections out of control in some states and death rates rising, new restrictions are being put in place and more schools are planning on remote learning.

In other words, the pandemic spike in television, streaming and even social media "doomscrolling" may be here for awhile. And all that additional screen-time? Well, it could be bad for you.

The LED light emitted from most screens exposes your eyes to high levels of "blue light," which can disrupt sleep patterns and lead to "computer vision syndrome", associated with headaches and eyestrain, said ophthalmologist Robert Weinstock.

And while he acknowledges that it may be hard for people to reduce the amount of time they are spending in front of screens these days, there are ways to make it safer.

Investing in screen covers that filter out harsher light from laptops and phones is one option, and, of course, you can turn down the screen brightness or look away for 20 seconds every once in a while.

But while many workplaces have sought to mitigate employee eyestrain over the years, the unprecedented effect of the pandemic - given the mass migration to home environments that can be less eye-friendly - has yet to fully manifest itself.

In the first months of lockdowns, people spent almost an hour more on their desktop devices, according to an analysis of 14,000 users tracked by software company RescueTime.

Communications tools drove the shift - with video-chat time surging 350 per cent, social media up 200 per cent and entertainment platforms like Netflix and YouTube rising 200 per cent.

Comcast said it saw Internet traffic on its network spike by as much as 60 per cent in some areas as the pandemic set in.

People have also been spending more time on top social media apps: The total time on seven of the biggest, including Twitter and Facebook, is higher this year than last, based on data from app analysis company Apptopia.

"The saying goes, 'rising tides raise all ships', and that was the case for television and digital screen-based media overall," Mr Peter Katsingris, senior vice-president of audience insights at marketing research company Nielsen, wrote in an e-mail.

But it comes with a price. Sleep deprivation is a common problem associated with an uptick in screen time. Exposure to blue light before bedtime can make it harder to get to sleep, possibly through suppressing the production of melatonin.

This is especially the case for close-proximity devices such as laptops and mobile phones. Dry eye can also be a problem.

The Mayo Clinic suggests adding moisture to the air, taking breaks during longer tasks, positioning your computer screen below eye level and using artificial tears. Experts remain divided on whether blue light glasses are effective.

The best way to cut time in front of your phone is to designate a time or day that is screen-free, according to Dr Adam Alter, author of the book, Irresistible: The Rise Of Addictive Technology And The Business Of Keeping Us Hooked.

That can mean putting it in a locked drawer during dinner, stopping an hour before going to bed, or turning it on airplane mode for large chunks of the weekend.

"You just have to be mindful and purposeful, and to cultivate the habit of leaving your phone as far away from where you are as possible," Dr Alter wrote in an e-mail.

But time away from a screen is not feasible for Americans working from home. For now at least, Americans are stuck between a screen and a pandemic.

Some seem to think screen time may recede - Netflix, which added more than 25 million paying subscribers in the first half of the year, forecasts lower subscription growth for the third quarter.

But Mr Katsingris is not so sure.

"It's such an unpredictable time as states and businesses across the country are all at different stages of opening and closing," he wrote.

"Whether schools reopen or remain closed in the autumn is a factor to keep an eye on in regards to media consumption."

So it is really up to individuals to regulate themselves.

Ms Morrison tried to monitor how much time she was looking at a screen and take breaks. Now she is back at work at The Perk, and no longer stuck at home all day.

"It's great to just go somewhere and not have to be here," she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2020, with the headline 'How the coronavirus pandemic may be hurting your eyes'. Print Edition | Subscribe