Why staring at screens is making your eyeballs elongate – and how to stop it
“How close is the smartphone or laptop you’re reading this on from your eyes? Probably just a few inches. How long have you spent looking at a screen today? If you’re close to the average it’s likely to be over nine hours.
New research from ophthalmologists shows that our constant screen time is radically changing our eyes. Just like the rest of our bodies, the human eye is supposed to stop growing after our teens. Now it keeps growing.
When our eyes spend more time focusing on near objects, like phones, screens or even paperbacks, it makes our eyeballs elongate, which prevents the eye from bending light the way it should. This elongation increases nearsightedness, called myopia, which causes distant objects to appear blurred. Myopia affects half of young adults in the US, twice as many as 50 years ago and over 40% of the population.
For adults this might cause eye strains or speed up existing vision issues. But for kids, whose eyes are still developing, the situation is so dire that the American Academy of Optometry and American Academy of Ophthalmology both consider myopia an epidemic.
…“We can clinically measure the millimeter lengthening of the eyeball,” explains Dr Eric Chow, a Miami, Florida optometrist. “Studies have shown that the longer the axial length, the higher the risk of eye diseases like glaucoma, retinal detachment and cataracts.”
Straining vision introduces a host of eye-related health problems. And it’s more than just kids needing prescriptions. “People say ‘oh, it’s just glasses,’” says Dr Aaron Miller, a pediatric ophthalmologist at Houston Eye Associates. “The nearsighted have much higher chances of retina tears and glaucoma, bigger issues secondary to nearsightedness. It’s the long game we worry about.”
He adds: “The shape of the eye is round like a basketball,” he explains. “When an eye becomes nearsighted, myopic, the eye is longer, like a grape or olive. The retina – the coating – can get stretched and thinned. As we age, sometimes there can be breaks in the retina. Like cracks in wallpaper. When that occurs, these cracks cause fluid to enter in behind the wallpaper, that’s what we call retinal detachment which causes a lot of people to go blind.”
…Detection can help. Home approaches like GoCheckKids, an FDA-registered vision screening app allows any parent to take a photo of their child’s eyes to analyze how light refracts and measure their risks for near or farsightedness and other eye diseases.
Specialized contact lenses are another major tool, says Dr Michele Andrews, a vice-president of CooperVision, the company behind the FDA-approved MiSight contacts. “It’s a contact geared for children aged eight to 12 whose eyes are growing,” she explains, “Which slow down the progression of myopia and change the shape of the eyeball.”
…As myopia is typically most pronounced – and dangerous – as the eyes grow, this solution is geared for kids. But adults have hope too. “Spend more time outdoors,” recommends Chow, at least two hours daily. “Studies have shown that increased sunlight decreases myopia progression.”
Most important is taking breaks which help eyes rest, blink and lubricate. Then there’s the 20-20-20 model. “Every 20 minutes, look at a distance 20 feet away, for 20 seconds,” Hariharan advises. “Being on the computer for hours on end isn’t good for your health. Don’t break to play video games or pick up another screen. Go outside!””