The first month of 2017 has already whizzed by as we settle back in the office for another year of that all-too-familiar staring at computers and digital devices.
Information technologies – computers, smart phones and tablets - play such a major role in our lives today. In fact we've become so dependent on them that no longer can we engage in modern society without at least one of these marvels involved in one way or other.
And while the technology makes our lives and jobs more efficient, what effect is it having on our physical comfort and health, especially on our eyes?
I became aware of some of the effects last year when I began feeling frequent dry and sore eyes. Eventually I started experiencing headaches, mainly behind my eyes, which tended to feel worse at night especially when using my iPad.
The constant staring at monitors and screens for many hours each day and night was causing me to experience symptoms of digital eye strain – an uncomfortable condition that affects many users of electronic display devices.
Digital eye strain is the physical eye discomfort we feel after two or more hours in front of a light-emitting screen without a break. It occurs when the visual demands of viewing content on a screen exceeds our visual ability to comfortably do so. Symptoms can include eye strain, dry eyes, itchy eyes, blurred vision, headache and even neck, shoulder or back pain.
"We are clearly seeing an epidemic of dry eye - a modern day epidemic caused by people staring at screens for hours a day," says Annie Negrin MD, a board certified eye surgeon from New York.
"Whether it's your desktop, laptop, tablet or phone, certain changes happen in our eyes after constantly focusing on those screens."
For many of us, constantly checking our devices every day includes the last thing we do before sleep at night and the first thing we do when we wake in the morning.
According to a 2016 Ernst & Young digital study, Australians spend on average 10 hours a day on their devices. The research found that 30 percent "of smartphone and tablet users report that devices have a negative effect on their sleep or stress," while 69 percent say they "often multi-task while using a smartphone or a tablet."
And studies show our multi-tasking with many screens and devices is one of the main causes for increased digital eye fatigue.
A report by The Vision Council, USA showed that while 65 percent of digital device users report experiencing symptoms of eye strain, 75 percent report digital eye strain when using two or more devices simultaneously. This compares with only 53 percent of people who use just one device at a time.
Indeed our increased dependence on digital devices has optometrists worried about the increasing rates of eye strain they see in their patients.
A nationwide survey of Australian optometrists found that 99 percent of them say they are concerned about the number of people presenting with eye problems as a result of excessive digital device use. The survey found almost nine in 10 patients presented with eye strain while 78 percent of patients had dry eyes and 72 percent headaches.
And part of the responsibility for eye strain lies with our increased exposure to blue light. Studies suggest blue light, which digital display devices emit in significant amounts, can cause damage to retinal cells and lead to age-related macular degeneration.
For this reason users are often encouraged to get an eye examination by an optometrist or ophthalmologist if experiencing symptoms of eye discomfort or wear special computer glasses to reduce blue light penetration.
The following five tips have helped greatly to reduce my symptoms of eye strain. So you might like to give these simple techniques a try.
Limit time looking at screens
It's perhaps stating the obvious but effective for reducing symptoms of eye strain. Where possible try to limit your amount of time viewing the monitor or screen.
Take frequent breaks
Try the simple 20-20-20 rule: Take a 20 second break every 20 minutes to look away from your screen at something 20 feet away. This gives your eye muscles a chance to relax. A quick walk away from your desk can also do wonders for giving your eyes a much deserved rest.
Remember to blink
Blinking keeps the front surface of your eyes moist with a thin layer of tear. Remember to blink more frequently when using computers and digital devices.
Adjust computer and device settings
A simple adjustment is extend the monitor or screen at arms-length away (about 60 centimetres) so it isn't too close. You can also adjust the text size and screen brightness to a level you can see clearly and comfortably.
Try anti-glare screens
If possible decrease overhead lighting to minimise screen glare. Otherwise you can consider using a screen glare filter as these reduce the amount of light reflected from the screen.