Take a look around, and it’s not hard to spot people of all ages staring relentlessly at smartphones or tablets in pursuit of information and entertainment. However, that endless scrolling can cause infrequent and incomplete blinks, which can negatively affect the health of your eyes.
An increase in children with dry eye symptoms being treated at the University Eye Institute (University of Houston College of Optometry) has UH optometrists encouraging parents to set boundaries on technology use and screen time. Teens are spending more than eight hours a day consuming media according to a study from the nonprofit group Common Sense Media. The statistics are just as startling for children ages eight to 12—they are getting six hours of screen time each day. Dr. Amber Gaume Giannoni is an optometrist and director of the institute’s Dry Eye Center. She recently treated a 10-year-old girl with severe dry eye symptoms.
“We believe some of this increase stems from the chronic use of digital devices from the time our children are very young,” said Gaume Giannoni. “Less than 2 percent of children typically have dry eye complaints, but we’re starting to encounter it much more often.”
July is national Dry Eye Awareness Month. UH eye experts encourage our device-happy society to follow the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes, take a 20 second break, look 20 feet away from your screen and make several full, complete blinks.
“We’re designed to blink, but the way we use our devices has changed our behavior, and it changes the rate at which we blink. That can drastically change the dynamics in the ocular surface,” said Dr. Lucy Kehinde, clinical assistant professor.
Over 20 million people in the United States suffer from dry eye disease, a chronic inflammation of the ocular surface, which can happen when the eye doesn’t produce the right quantity or quality of tears. It is chronic and progressive, which means there is no cure. The prevalence of dry eye increases with age.
Symptoms of dry eye may include fluctuating vision, uncomfortable contact lenses, burning, stinging, gritty sensations, sensitivity to light and even pain. There are many causes of dry eye, including pre-existing conditions like arthritis and diabetes. Other triggers can include allergies, air conditioning and heating systems, hormonal changes, including menopause and use of birth control pills, as well as side effects from other medications. However, the possible link between symptoms and technology, including computer use, is a rising concern.
“Kids just lock in on those devices and they don’t blink, so we’re starting to see a shift. More 20-something’s are coming in with really reduced tear function, and a lot of that is probably related to screen time,” said Dr. Anita Ticak, clinical assistant professor.
Experts recommend patients consult with an eye care professional before purchasing over-the-counter eye drops. In many cases, these drops worsen the condition and even hide the signs of disease, which makes it more difficult for the doctor to determine the problem.
“We have technology at the Dry Eye Center on both the diagnostic and treatment side that a lot of practices don’t have. It enables us to take a bit of a deeper dive with patients who come in with complaints,” said Gaume Giannoni.
The goal of the Dry Eye Center is to create a customized treatment plan, specific to each patient. Therapy may include prescribing medication, minor surgical procedures, custom protective contact lenses or performing in-office lid procedures using advanced state-of-the-art technology like LipiFlow, Mibo Thermoflo, or BlephEx,.
Simple daily steps can help protect your vision. Individuals should wear sunglasses outside, drink plenty of water and avoid excess caffeine, quit smoking, turn off ceiling fans at night and re-direct air vents. And of course, say experts, take frequent breaks when using computers or other electronic devices.