Are we looking at our phones too much?

In the past 10 days, Danny Latu has averaged seven hours and thirty minutes of screen time on his smartphone.

“That’s a lot more than I’d probably say I’d want it to be,” he said, with a laugh.

That is a long time to be looking at a phone, especially since it doesn’t paint the entire picture of the Robbinsdale Cooper High School senior’s screen use in any given day: he spends a few hours a week playing video games, another three to four hours at his laptop for distance learning, and additional screen time for his homework, which is all digital except for one class.

Latu’s habits are not extreme. Research in 2019 by Common Sense Media (and often cited by publications like the Washington Post) put Latu’s screen time at the average for his age group. Not including homework, the study found the average teen spends seven hours and 22 minutes using screen media. For ages 8-12, the average daily screen time hovers at four hours and 44 minutes.

The blue light debacle

Since last spring’s shift into virtual working and learning, screen time and its effects on the eyes has been one of the biggest concerns that optometrist Andrea Rossow has heard from her patients.

Rossow, who works for West Metro Opthalmology in Plymouth and Buffalo, said she has the conversation “multiple times a day.”

“The main concern has been about the level of blue light entering the eye with screen use,” Rossow said.

While the blue light can have physical effects, it doesn’t damage your eye, she explained. “It is a small fraction compared to the levels of light we are exposed to when we are outside, and looking at a screen even for 8-plus hours a day does not put you at higher risk of permanently damaging your vision.”

A person’s sleeping patterns have the most to lose from a hefty intake of blue light.

“Blue light blocks the formation of melatonin, a hormone that helps us fall asleep and regulate moods,” Rossow said. “So, using screens before bed can make it harder to fall asleep and decrease the quality of our sleep.”

Latu said he knew the time he spent on screens for leisure had gone up since the onset of the pandemic, something he struggles with because he’d prefer to hang out with friends in person. However, between pandemic restrictions, a part-time job and online school, it is easiest to fill in his in-between gaps of time on his phone.

Latu said he didn’t feel affected by screen usage, but admitted to a general “fatigue” in his everyday life, and often after back-to-back classes. He attributed the feeling to his odd sleep schedule; some days he starts class at 7:20 a.m., and other days at 8:45 a.m. He has the day off on Wednesday and tends to sleep in.

“When I was going to school, I got into that routine,” he said. “Your body gets used to it. Now I’m not actually going to school, I’m sitting in my living room. It definitely affects how you feel about school, it’s easier and harder at the same time. And all the while, as you’re sitting at home, your phone’s right there.”

The 20/20/20 rule

Though not caused by blue light, short-term side effects can occur after looking at a screen for an extended period of time. The secret is in what your eyes do (or don’t do) when trained on an electronic device: blink.

“We tend to blink less frequently and will often only partially blink,” said Rossow. “This causes our eyes to dry out, can make them feel uncomfortable and make our vision blurry.”

Common indicators that your eyes are becoming too transfixed on a screen are eyestrain, headaches and intermittently blurred vision. Those symptoms can be intensified or bring on others if you are working with poor posture, a screen that doesn’t match the brightness of your surroundings or a device too close to your face.

If you are showing signs of screen fatigue, Rossow suggests the 20/20/20 rule.

“Every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away, for 20 seconds. Better yet, get up and walk around!” she said. “This gives our focusing system a break, helps us to blink fully and readjusts our posture.”

Latu said his school gives frequent tips on how to set up a productive workspace but hasn’t sent any emails to students about screen overuse. He added that his teachers typically welcome breaks if students feel they need them to grab a snack, use the restroom or stand up and stretch.

He was shocked by Rossow’s suggestion that older children should only receive a maximum of two hours of non-education screen activities (like television, video games and social media) per day.

“I go way over that,” he said. “Just the time I spend on Tik Tok per day might be two hours in itself.”

A healthy approach to an unavoidable habit

Rossow said she did not believe that students were damaging their eyes more with virtual schooling than they were with in-person school. Rather, the culprit is likely the time spent on phones and other devices in those spaces between and after class.

“For most of us screentime cannot be avoided for work, school, communicating with friends and family, etcetera,” she said. “For younger children, the biggest screen time to watch is non-educational screen time.”

To combat blue light’s effects on sleep, stay away from devices two hours before bed so your brain can settle into an ideal cycle. If that’s not possible, consider switching apps to “night mode,” or turn down your brightness–your device’s auto-brightness setting tends to overcompensate in the evening.

Above all, Rossow said that now is as important as ever to get your annual exam.

“It remains very important to keep up with routine eye care to be able to detect ocular disease and prevent vision loss from other issues,” she said. “Making sure your glasses and contact lenses are up to date can also reduce eyestrain and headaches.”

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