Technology Awareness: Digital Eye Strain and Text Neck

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STORY BY CINDY WHITEHEAD, NAVY ERGONOMICS PROGRAM MANAGER

Living in the modern digital age certainly has its benefits. How did we ever live without the endless amounts of information, instant results and ability to interact and communicate, all at our fingertips? We all enjoy the conveniences electronic technology offers, especially our mobile handheld devices. However, with all the advantages we gain from mobile technology comes the risk of serious and permanent health problems. According to the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of U.S. adults owned a smartphone in 2015. That’s almost double mid-2011 numbers! With new products hitting shelves every day, the market for digital devices continues to grow. This means more time spent looking at electronic screens and digital content.

The intention of spending five minutes checking your email can easily turn into an hour browsing the web on your smartphone. Your eyes become dry and irritated, your vision blurred. Your thumb, wrist, and neck have been held in the same unnatural position the entire time. Before long, your thumbs have been typing in an awkward position and they start hurting. Your wrists have been bent over and tendinitis can set in. Your neck aches from looking down at your phone for a long time. Many Americans average six to nine hours a day in front of digital devices; 76 percent of us are still looking at our devices the hour before we sleep!

Since it’s unlikely that we’ll unplug any time soon, awareness is one way to fight the onset of lasting eye strains and muscle sprains.

An average person checks the phone every 6.5 minutes in a 16-hour waking cycle (Nokia, 2012)

An average person checks the phone every 6.5 minutes in a 16-hour waking cycle (Nokia, 2012)

Digital Eye Strain

Digital eye strain is now a common repetitive strain injury among workers, surpassing rates for carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis. Eye redness or irritation from staring at the bright backlight of screens for long periods, dry eyes due to reduced blinking, blurred vision and general fatigue from staring at screens and straining to see small fonts and images are all symptoms of digital eye strain. The percentage of people experiencing digital eye strain increases with the number of devices used simultaneously. Headaches may occur from repeated eye strain.

While irritation and discomfort can be temporary, there is potential for long-term effects such as age-related macular degeneration or cataracts. Studies show that long-term due to overexposure to blue light, or high-energy visible (HEV) light could damage the retina, the part of the eye that brings objects into focus.

Strain is often caused by the distance between the eyes and a digital screen. Our eyes are designed for near vision and far vision rather than the

Only 7 percent of U.S. adults have tried computer glasses to reduce digital eye strain.

Only 7 percent of U.S. adults have tried computer glasses to reduce digital eye strain.

mid-range viewing distance needed to focus on words and images on laptops and desktop screens. As many as 90 percent of patients don’t discuss their digital viewing habits with their eye doctors. Computer eyewear is designed for the mid-range viewing distance of reading a computer screen. Lens technology can cut glare, block HEV, and decrease brightness with or without a prescription. Talk to your eye care provider about your digital viewing habits to determine what options are best for you.

Strain can also occur when overhead and surrounding light compete with your device’s screen, flooding your eyes with blue light. Viewing in total darkness is just as bad, forcing your eyes to constantly adjust to lighting levels. Balance the light in the room with your primary viewing device for best results. Adjust the brightness of your device, or the size of the text, as necessary.

Give your eyes a break. Follow the 20-20-20 rule to avoid dry, tired eyes. Every 20 minutes, take a 20 second break and view something 20 feet away in the distance. Blink more often to rehydrate your eyes. Keep your screen clean to make text and images clearer and easier to read.

Text Neck

We are exposed to devices that cause “text neck” the majority of the day, almost every day!

People of all ages spend countless hours daily hunched over numerous types of handheld devices with their heads flexed forward. They are all in constant danger and at risk of developing “text neck.” For every inch of forward head posture, the weight of the head increases force on the spine by an additional 10 pounds. Among the chief complaints associated with text neck are neck, shoulder, back, arm, finger, hand, wrist and elbow pain, as well as headaches and numbness and tingling of the upper extremities. A Mayo Clinic study found that long term forward neck posture leads to “long term muscle strain, disc herniation and pinched nerves.”

PDA Image

Leaning over any object, not just smartphones and tablets, for an extended period of time (a sink full of dishes or caring for a newborn baby, for instance) can strain joints, muscles, and soft tissues causing pain. Is your home television mounted high above the fireplace or have you read your phone while lying on a couch or bed? Have you checked text messages under a table at a meeting or read a tablet in an economy airplane seat? This is not how we would set up our desk space at work, yet we may spend another few hours on our devices when we leave the office.

Try the same principles as if you were in an office:

  • Sit in a neutral position. Try resting your arms on your desk as you work.
  • Hold your smartphone a little higher to decrease the amount of stress on the neck (so you don’t have to look down as much).
  • Give your neck a rest by looking up and bending sideways. Stretch every five to ten minutes.
  • Switch to a telephone call or your laptop if the texting (or web surfing) session starts getting too long.

If adults are suffering from neck problems after only a few years of texting and cell phoning, imagine what’s in store for our kids, who may start having physical problems much younger than we are. Do your kids slump at the computer, hang their necks as they look down on their cellphones and tilt their heads to the side as they hold the phone between their neck and their ear as they type? You can tell them to sit up straight, use a headset or speakerphone, and they’ll roll their eyes like when your parents told you to stop slouching.

Most of us see our personal electronic devices as electronic security blankets, keeping us safe and ever-connected. But there is such a thing as being too connected — especially when a little bundle of glass, electronic circuitry, and plastic has the power to cause undue pain.


Cindy Whitehead is a human systems engineer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia focusing on human-centered design of the operation and maintenance of systems in Defense acquisition lifecycle and is the Program Manager for the Navy Ergonomics Program.