Banishing the unwelcome tag-along of digital life: digital eye strain
Strategies and tips for combatting inevitable eye strain from long hours in front of a computer.
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As so many people have started working remotely, and as so many businesses have moved their operations online, computer screens have filled our days as never before.
This spike in screen time has brought with it the natural companion to digital life: eye strain.
Staring at a computer all day is hard on the eyes for a number of reasons:
- The letters on a computer or mobile screen are not as sharply defined.
- The level of contrast is reduced between letters and the page’s background (compared to paper).
- Screen glare and reflections can obscure what you’re trying to read.
- The viewing distance between person and screen, or the line of sight from eyes to screen might not be quite right.
- The bright shine of white-background word processors and websites cause irritation and fatigue.
The American Optometric Association warns that long periods of computer use can cause what they call “Computer Vision Syndrome” or "digital eye strain”. You may have experienced a bit of CVS yourself if you’ve battled with eye strain, headaches, blurred vision, dry eyes, or tense muscles in your neck or shoulders.
Ten simple ways to reduce eye strain
Thankfully, though, we’re not doomed to live in fear of our rectangular masters. Here are some simple ways to fight back.
1. Warm up the colours
The angry bright light from your computer is exhausting for your eyes. But you can combat this with some automated apps that warm up your computer’s light.
Flux is free, and is available for pretty much any type of computer or mobile device. I use it on my Mac. It adds a warm reddish tint which calms down the white-hot sheen from so many websites and apps.
Or if you want a fancier solution with all sorts of bells and whistles, there is Iris for Mac, from Iris Tech. The configurational possibilities seem almost endless. For a small monthly fee, you can take charge of your screen shine.
2. Up the text size
Squinting to read small text just isn’t something you should have to do when viewing a digital screen. Internet browsers and word processors make it easy to increase the zoom. Or just increase the font size while you’re working on something. Sorry, but font size 11 is just too small. Pump it up to 18 and relax.
For heaven’s sake, you probably work from home anyway! It’s not like Myron from marketing is going to peek at your screen and think you’re weird! Be kind to yourself. Who cares about Myron anyway?
3. Look away!
Your eyes are working really hard when looking at a screen, constantly refocusing on a video, back to text, compensating for sudden bright animations, and so on.
You can give your eyes a break by following the 20-20-20 rule:
Every 20 minutes, look away from your screen for 20 seconds at a fixed point 20 feet away.
It’s like an exhale for your eyes.
4. Invert your screen
One of the most effective ways to combat eye strain is to invert your screen. Instead of staring at a bright white screen with dark text, my screen is dark with light text. This almost entirely removes my screen’s angry blue light.
On a Mac, you can set up a keyboard shortcut
- Head into “System Preferences”.
- Click into “Keyboard”, and then click on the “Shortcuts” tab.
- Click on “Accessibility” in the side menu, and there you’ll find all sorts of special features you can access with keyboard shortcuts. You can set up a custom keyboard shortcut to make it easy to turn “invert colors” on and off.
My shortcut is
control+option+command+8. I probably hit those keys 80 times per day.
Inverting your screen is possible on Windows as well.
5. Use a dark-theme plugin in your browser
A lot of websites don't offer a dark theme. So despite your best efforts to diminish screen glare, some websites will still shine angrily at you. This is easily remedied with dark theme plugins for your desktop browser, such as Dark Reader (available for most major browsers).
If you don't like the idea of inverting your computer's whole OS, then using a dark theme plugin is a great way to dark-theme-ize bright, shiny websites.
In some cases, you might need to play around with the plugin's contrast. In my experience, Dark Reader's rendering of Google Docs and Sheets makes cell boundaries and page margins a bit hard to see. But if you decrease the contrast, it becomes a lot more readable. But for the majority of websites, Dark Reader gets it bang on.
6. Keep your work area in lower light
The simple equation is: the brighter the work area the brighter the screen. By darkening your work area, your screen won't need to be nearly so bright. In my office, I keep the main lights off and use a couple of lamps and a string of Christmas lights. This gives the room a gentle glow instead of blazing white light, and allows me to keep the screen's brightness at a minimum.
7. Blue light glasses
Grabbing a pair of blue light blocking glasses can help immensely. My wife uses a pair from DefenderShield, and they block 99.9% of the blue light emitted by screens, giving her significant relief.
Those 99.9% glasses have a heavy orange tint, so they might be a bit awkward if your work involves a lot of pixel-perfect design. But if you are working mostly with word processing, email, or anything that doesn't require close attention to colour hues, then blue light glasses are an inexpensive way to take away most of your eye strain.
Making your computer read to you is beneficial in a few ways:
- You can close your eyes for a moment as you listen to a block of text instead of having to scan it with your eyes.
- It’s a helpful form of proof reading, which will help you avoid typos before you submit a draft or send an email. When we read something we have written, quite often we will hear what we intended to write, but not what is actually on the page. Computers are too stupid to do this, so they’ll just read back exactly what you’ve written with no cheer or sympathy.
On Mac, you can set up a keyboard shortcut:
- Head into “System Preferences”.
- Click into “Accessibility”, and then click on “Speech” from the side menu.
- Check the box for “Speak selected text when the key is pressed.”
- Press the “Change key” button to set your keyboard shortcut.
My shortcut is
command+esc. I simply highlight a portion of text, hit my shortcut, and listen to the computer read it.
Five years ago, computer voices sounded like they were trying to finish a sentence while falling down the stairs. But they have improved a lot! I was surprised (and almost creeped out) a few years ago to realize that my Mac’s “Alex” voice breathes! I had wondered why the voice sounded so natural. Listening more closely, I realized the voice took a quick “breath” at the start of a new sentence. Maybe that’s a weird thing for an artificial voice to do, but it certainly makes for easier listening, since we’re all naturally accustomed to mouth-breathers :)
Speech-to-text in the web browser
Some browsers come equipped with “Reader View”, which removes all the design elements from a page and shows you just the title and text of an article. This is helpful for reading without clutter.
Firefox takes this a step further by also providing read-back controls, allowing you to make Firefox read the article to you.
(Safari offers “Reader View” but lacks read-back controls. Chrome offers neither “Reader View” nor read-back controls. But by installing some browser extensions, you can emulate similar functionality.)
Dictation is the other side of speech-to-text. For myself, I find I write differently if I am typing or speaking. Sometimes, depending on the subject, it is easier to say it out loud than trying to put it into carefully written form. In these cases, it is handy to be able to dictate to your computer.
Dictation takes a bit of practice, because you have to get used to providing vocal cues for punctuation, so it sounds pretty strange to anyone in earshot: “Hey Myron exclamation mark Quit looking at my screen comma you creep exclamation mark”
But once you get the hang of it, dictating your emails or even some of your formal writing can provide some relief to tired eyes. Unless you have extremely precise keyboard control, typing is very visually involved. You watch the letters hit the page, and make adjustments for inaccurate key taps.
With dictation, you can put your head back and close your eyes, like the High King Peter sending an official challenge to Narnian Userper Miraz, and let it flow.
On Mac, you can set up a keyboard shortcut to enable dictation:
- Head into "System Preferences".
- Click into "Keyboard" and click into the "Dictation" tab.
- There you can set dictation to "On", and can set a shortcut.
My shortcut is hitting
10. Stay hydrated
As those strange non-carbon-based lifeforms on Star Trek once said, we humans are "ugly giant bags of mostly water."
Our eyes are gushy little pots of liquid, so make sure you take frequent water breaks throughout the day to give your body a chance to keep its hydration levels up.
Be kind to yourself.
Until we experience some sort of earth-shaking revolution in artificial intelligence that brings us computers like they have on Star Trek, we will be sitting in front of computer screens for some years to come. So it is best to be kind to yourself and take action each day that reduces the strain you experience.
After all, nobody wants to be totally fried at the end of a work day so that you’re battling a headache and neck pain all evening when your excited kids are ready to play.
I’d be glad to hear what other solutions have been working for you!