Howard University’s Charlotte Young is lounging on her bed, wrapped up in a fleece blanket. She is listening to her iPod, eyes glued to the screen of her Dell laptop. As a freshman, Young spends endless hours on her computer doing everything from browsing through Google for a research paper to sending instant messages to friends back home. When bored, she plays online games or updates her Facebook profile.
For college students like Young, long hours in front of the computer screen for business and pleasure are an everyday occurrence. A 2002 study conducted by Dr. Margaretha Hsu, a professor in the Information Management and Analysis Department at Shippensburg University, found that college students spend an average of 5.94 hours a day on the computer for leisure and an average of 2.7 hours a day in front of the screen doing schoolwork. But, eye health experts say that all this screen time could be hurting their eyes.
“I’ll be reading one spot and out of nowhere it’ll just turn into a big blur of words-It seems like my eyes are straining to see what’s going on,” said Emmanuel Boima Johnson Jr., a sophomore at Montgomery Community College in Takoma Park, Md.
Unknown to him, Johnson’s eye problems were most likely the result of computer vision syndrome (CVS). The American Optometric Association defines the syndrome as the “complex of eye and vision problems-which are experienced during or related to computer use.”
Vision problems associated with CVS include blurred vision, double vision, changes in color perception, and glare. Eyestrain, itching and burning, and dry eyes are also signs of the disease.
The optometrists’ association estimates that 70 to 75 percent of computer users suffer from the disease. A 1992 study conducted by Dr. James E. Sheedy, founder of the Video Display Terminal Eye Clinic in Berkeley, Calif., showed that 14 percent of optometrists’ patients, roughly 10 million people, had eye discomfort or vision problems associated with computer use.
Saba Liaqat Khan, a senior at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said that she has experienced some of the symptoms of CVS after being on the computer for two or three hours at a time. “One night when I was doing homework on my laptop, it started to get late and I was replying back to an email,” she said. “My email inbox is blue, and my eyes started to not be able to focus because there was too much blue in the background. It took me a minute before I could get my train of thought back.”
WebMD Medical News writer Jennifer Warner revealed, “The more people squint at a computer screen, the less they blink, and the more they reported symptoms like eyestrain, dryness, irritation, and tearing,” according to a new study published in Optometry and Vision Science.
“If I sit at the computer for about 45 minutes or more, my eyes do get blurry, and I start to squint,” said Johnson. Khan also admitted to squinting at the computer screen more than blinking. By not blinking as often, Johnson, Khan, and thousands of other computer users are disrupting the normal spread of tears across the eyes, which protects and lubricates the eyes to maintain clear vision.
Squinting increases the risk of developing dry eye syndrome. Dry eye syndrome can cause eyes to sting, burn, or feel like something is in them. It can make wearing contact lenses very difficult, and eyes may become more easily irritated by smoke and wind.
Dry eye syndrome caused by computer usage is easily treatable. Using lubricating eye drops before any eye irritation begins and making a conscious effort to frequently blink should prevent most problems.
Other CVS symptoms can be prevented by taking breaks every 45 minutes while on the computer and positioning the screen 20 to 26 inches away from the eyes and four to nine inches below eye level, according to an American Optometric Association press release.
Senior Veronica Brailsford from Morgan State University in Baltimore feels that anti-glare equipment and the ability to adjust display settings on computer screens can also help cut down on eye problems associated with CVS.
The American Optometric Association does not believe computer users should be overly worried about CVS. Although an inconvenience, the eye problems linked to CVS are usually temporary and go away after taking a break from looking at the computer screen.
Khan will not let the inconvenience of CVS stop her from logging on, saying, “Our eyes getting irritated is just a risk and situation we have to adapt to while using the computer.” She continued, “It isn’t going to get any more comfortable so we have to adjust our lifestyle to it.”