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A User's Guide to Your Eyes

What’s all that screentime doing to your vision? Read on for the eye-opening facts.

You know the scene: You’re watching a movie with your nose inches from your phone when one of your parents calls out, “You’re going to ruin your eyes!” You give yours a roll, then go back to your movie. But later your eyes are itchy and dry. Plus, you have a wicked headache. Could it be that annoying parental voice was . . . right?

While your mom or dad was probably being a bit dramatic, they are right to worry about the effect of all that screentime on your eyes. In fact, ophthalmologists (doctors who specialize in eye care) are noticing a rise in teen patients complaining of dry eyes, blurry vision, and headaches. And the problems may go beyond temporary discomfort: While experts say there’s not enough evidence yet to link irreversible eye damage with excessive screentime, studies have shown that too much “near work” (focusing on things near your face, like your phone) can lead to nearsightedness (the inability to clearly see things in the distance).

Unfortunately, thanks to Covid-19-related remote learning and social distancing, we’re doing more near work than ever these days. But don’t panic! Just turn the page to take a peek at the surprising answers to your most urgent questions about keeping your eyes clear and your vision sharp.

Q: Is it really bad for my eyes to watch TV or look at my phone in the dark?

A: Yes. Looking at a bright screen in the dark can cause your pupils to open wide to let in more light, and this puts strain on your retinas—the nerve cells at the back of your eyes that sense light and send signals to your brain. Looking at your phone or watching TV for a long time in a dark room won’t permanently damage your vision, but it can cause headaches and trouble focusing, explains ophthalmologist Stephanie Marioneaux.

Boost your eye-q: Try to have at least some light in the room when you look at a screen, ideally coming from behind you.

Q: Both my parents wear glasses. That means I’ll need them too, right? 

A: Maybe. Genetics definitely plays a role in your eyesight: For example, if both your parents are nearsighted, there’s a 40 percent chance you will be too. But even if your parents don’t wear glasses, you still might need them. “Becoming nearsighted or farsighted [meaning you easily see things far away but not up close] involves a complex interaction between genetic and environmental factors,” says ophthalmologist Natario Couser. Studies suggest that a gene for nearsightedness can be triggered if you exclusively look at objects that are close to you, because your brain starts to think you don’t need to see things in the distance.

Boost your eye-q: One study found that the more time kids spent outside, the less likely they were to be nearsighted, so spend your next screen break walking around the block.

Q: My eyes were itchy and my friend offered me some drops. Is it safe to share?

A: NO. It’s never a good idea to share anything that goes on or in your eyes. That includes eye drops, eye makeup applicators, and, obviously, contact lenses. Sharing can lead to infections like conjunctivitis (aka pink eye), a painful and extremely contagious condition. In fact, the virus that causes pink eye can live on surfaces for up to a month, so even your own fingers can give you an eye infection.

Boost your eye-q: Never share eye makeup or drops, and always wash your hands with soap and water before putting in or removing contacts.

Q: I’ve been seeing ads on social media for glasses that block the blue light from screens. Should I get a pair? 

A: NO. It’s true that blue light—a type of light that comes from the sun, as well as computer screens and LED lightbulbs—can damage eyes, but you actually get exposed to much more blue light from the sun than from screens, says Dr. Couser. Despite what the ads for the light-blocking glasses claim, no studies have shown that the amount of blue light exposure you get from screens is harmful.

Boost your eye-q: Instead of blue light blockers, invest in a good pair of shades. Check the label to be sure they block 100 percent of UVA and UVB rays.

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