Does Looking at Electronic Devices Damage My Eyes?

More years ago than I care to admit, I was hired right out of high school by the school district to run their computer department. OK, I’ll admit that it was 40+ years ago which was a few years before the internet was available and many more years before smartphones and tablets. That’s when I began to stare at computer screens. Since then, I have had very few breaks from a variety of types of screens. Now I stare at the screen of my laptop, smartphone, and tablet.

Is the blue light from our electronic devices causing AMD?

Others have told me that they wonder if staring at screens is why they have AMD. This became a topic of conversation when articles started to claim that the blue light from modern electronic devices ‘caused’ macular degeneration.

My objectives are to give you answers to these 2 questions:

  1. Did staring at electronic device screens in the past damage my eyes?
  2. Is staring at electronic device screens now damaging OUR eyes?

Old computers and TVs emitted low level radiation

The first computer monitors were CRTs (Cathode Ray Tubes). They emitted a low level of X-ray radiation, but we were told not to worry about it. We were told the same thing about old TVs because they were CRTs, too. Did your parents tell you, “Don’t sit so close to the TV?” That was why. Did the radiation from these old CRT monitors and TVs damage our eyes? I can’t find a definitive answer, but we’re talking radiation, right? As a matter of fact, in the 1960s, General Electric (GE) sold color TVs that emitted as much as 100,000 times more radiation than was considered safe!1 They recalled them, thank goodness.

Blue light

Blue light from the sun has been shown to damage sensitive structures of our eyes, both the lens in the front and the macula in the back. The issue is: Does the blue light from electronic devices do the same thing?

I consulted several people much smarter than me and asked, “What past electronic screens (TV or computer monitor) emitted blue light?” Several of them said, “Any of the ones where the color blue was displayed or used to create another color.” That covers quite a few EXCEPT those that were ‘green screens’ or ‘amber screens.’ Modern devices that use e-ink (electronic ink; ink that reflects light as printed text does; no backlighting needed) do NOT emit blue light. The Kindle Paperwhite e-reader is one example, but that’s not the only one.

How the eye filters types of light

Without going into the details about the different wavelengths of light, I’ll simplify it by saying that some of the UVA and UVB rays of the sun which are invisible are filtered by the front of our eyes where there’s protective pigment made up of the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin. Blue light, however, goes all the way to the macula at the back of the eye. The macula also has pigment made up of lutein and zeaxanthin that helps to filter out blue light. The thicker it is, the better the filtering.

Blue light's contribution to macular degeneration

Damage to the pigment in the front of the eye contributes to the development of cataracts. Damage in the macula contributes to macular degeneration. That’s why there’s a big debate about how much blue light contributes to the development and progression of macular degeneration.

The blue light controversy

Since I read that first article in 2016 about the blue light controversy, I have tried to read everything about it that has come my way. Until recently, the discussion went something like, “Yes, it’s bad for your eyes,” to “No, there’s no problem,” with “Who knows?” in the middle.

Blue light from the sun greatly exceeds what any typical device can emit

I try to pay attention to the source of the information I read. I went to several organizations that I trust such as professional organizations for eye specialists. The consensus is best expressed on the website of the American Optometric Association (AOA):

“Karl Citek, O.D., Ph.D., Pacific University College of Optometry professor and member of the American National Standards Institute's Accredited Standards Committee for Ophthalmic Optics, says while there is a possibility that excessive blue light exposure can affect melatonin release and thus affect the sleep cycle, there is no new evidence to suggest that device-derived blue light exposure increases the risk of ocular damage. If anything, the evidence emphasizes the importance of wearing UV-A and UV-B blocking sunglasses when outdoors.

"The amount of blue light experienced from the sun outdoors greatly exceeds what any typical device can emit," Dr. Citek writes.”2

Digital eye strain

There is definitely one way that staring at a screen impacts our eyes. It’s called digital eye strain.

Symptoms

Do you have any of these symptoms on a day when you’ve been working with an electronic device?

AMD symptoms vs. digital eye strain

Did you notice that a few of those symptoms are also symptoms of macular degeneration? When people tell me that their visual acuity and blurriness ‘comes and goes,’ I ask how much they use electronic devices. The same with blurred vision. “Keep track of these symptoms and your device usage. See if they are related,” I tell them.

Causes

You may notice that on some screens there’s some flickering. That can contribute to the problem. It can also be because the screen is set too bright or there’s too much glare. Blue light from devices can also contribute to digital eye strain.

Preventing digital eye strain

If there’s glare, take a look at the lighting around you. Can you rearrange or refocus lamps? The other option is to get a non-glare film to put on the screen. Since blue light from devices can contribute to eye strain you might look for films to put on screens that both filter blue light and reduce glare. Some people wear blue light filtering glasses indoors. You don’t want to block out all blue light because we need it to keep our circadian rhythm in line.

The 20-20-20 rule

The American Academy of Ophthalmologists (AAO) advises us to give our eyes a break. “Take a break every 20 minutes by looking at an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Looking into the distance allows your eyes to relax.”3 That’s commonly referred to as the 20-20-20 rule.

Are electronic devices causing macular degeneration?

Did staring at electronic device screens in the PAST damage my eyes?
There’s no way of knowing. We were exposed to some radiation and blue light.  If there was damage, the extent would depend on what devices we used and how long we used them. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t keep track of that. Besides, the bottom line is that there is nothing we can do about the past.

Is staring at electronic device screens that emit blue light NOW damaging our eyes?
As I said above, sources that I trust say that there’s not enough blue light emitted by electronic devices to damage our eyes. We do know, however, that some amount of blue light is necessary to maintain normal cycles of sleep and wakefulness. For that reason, it’s best not to use our devices one or two hours before bed.

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