How to Avoid Computer Eye Strain and Keep Your Eyes Healthy

Your eyes are important, and staring at a monitor all day does them no favors. There are a number of preventative measures you can take to avoid eyestrain organizing a functional workspace and modulating light exposure, for example. Let’s take a closer look.

The Basics of Eye Strain

Eyestrain is a symptom that manifests when you over-exert your eyes for an extended period of time. This can happen with any prolonged activity where you’re focused in at one distance for long enough, but is especially true when you’re viewing an electronically-lit screen.

Eyestrain can bring on any of the following symptoms:
  • Pain and tension around the eyes and/or temples (which can spread to the head, neck and back)
  • Eye dryness and/or redness
  • Fatigue
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Headache
  • Difficulty performing visual tasks
  • Blurred vision
  • Double vision
Eyestrain doesn’t typically lead to permanent damage of the visual system, but it’s unpleasant and can keep you from getting your work done. The causes of eyestrain vary for everybody, and can change over time. The three main types of causes of eyestrain are an inadequate workspace setup, inefficient lighting, and lack of proper eye care.

Let’s look at how to address all three to avoid eyestrain.

Modify Your Work Habits

Eyestrain may cause you a lot of strife, through painful headaches and blurred vision. But simply modifying a few of your work habits can go a long way to alleviating eyestrain.

Enlarge text: Your eyes have to strain to read small text, so keep text large to give your eyes a break. When working in text editors or viewing online materials, use the keyboard shortcut to magnify text as needed. (This is usually holding down the Ctrl or Command button on your keyboard and zooming with the mouse scroll wheel, or though a touchpad gesture.) For those webpage text areas that tend to be too cramped pull them over to your favorite text editor to have more space. Always magnify to a size that feels comfortable. If you have to move your head closer to the screen, squint, or don’t feel relaxed while reading , then the text is still too small (or your monitor is too far away). And while you’re at it, make sure your screen resolution is set high.

Read offline: Intense reading on a computer monitor isn’t ideal for productivity because eventually, your eyes will tire out. When you come across a long article or document, print it out (in large-enough print of course). Then read it at your own pace and in the right lighting. If you’d rather not use a printer and you happen to have an e-reader, with a screen that’s closer to paper text and doesn’t need a backlight, you can use a service like Send to Kindle to move it over to the other device. Note that reading text on a mobile LCD, like a phone or a conventional tablet, isn’t really any better than a computer monitor.

Work in spurts: Your computer is set up for virtually nonstop work, but you aren’t a machine. You need to take breaks to recharge, and so do your eyes. The 20-20-20 rule is easy to remember: take a 20-second break every 20 minutes, and look at something at least 20 feet away. If you work in an office and don’t want to look like you’re spacing out, take frequent but brief trips to the water cooler or restroom to give your eyes a break.

Re-position your monitor: When you stare at your computer monitor, you naturally blink less often. So your eyes don’t get naturally lubricated as often. This leads to eye dryness and redness. To reduce this effect, position your monitor slightly below eye-level. That way your eyes won’t have to be as open (and exposed) in order for you to see. The ideal ergonomic position for a monitor is to have your eye level approximately one third of the way from the top edge of the screen, but having it a little lower might help if you frequently feel your eyes tiring.

Relax: Work is important, but you need to be relaxed enough so that tension and stress don’t get in the way. Take frequent short breaks during the day, and longer breaks one to two times per day so that you can get your mind off work. Walks are good because you also get some exercise and fresh air. At your desk, you can do neck rolls, shoulder shrugs and arm swings to stretch out your neck and shoulders. Rub your temples to release any head tension. Give your eyes periods of darkness for rest by closing your eyes or cupping your palms over your eyes (preferably in a quiet environment).

Pay Attention to Lighting

Inadequate lighting is another major cause of eyestrain. Too much lighting overexposes and irritates the eye. Too little lighting causes the eye to strain in order to see. There are several ways to adjust the lighting in your environment to find what works best for you.

Adjust monitor brightness and contrast settings: Go to your monitor settings and decrease the brightness and contrast until you find the balance that’s easiest on your eyes. You’d be surprised how bright and contrasted the default settings are. Make sure that your desktop and color scheme aren’t agitating your eyes, either. Opt for neutral and darker-colored tones with minimal contrast until you find the right color balance. Additionally, pay attention to the brightness and contrast levels of different web pages and documents. If you’re having trouble reading a page of gray text on a black background, copy and paste into a new document with dark text on a white background.

Adjust other lights in the room: Even if your monitor and desktop settings are set for optimal use, light from your surroundings can irritate your eyes. If the room is too dark, that can affect the overall brightness of the monitor. If the room is too bright, it can create a glare on your monitor. Avoid glare that goes directly into your eyes. This often occurs when you’re facing an uncovered window. Avoid glare come from a light source directly behind you. Consider using an anti-glare screen if necessary. And position desk lights at an angle from behind, as lights that shine directly onto your reading surface (e.g. desk) are more harsh than light bouncing off the surface at a slight angle. 

A bias lighting strip can be an easy way to add enough light to see everything on your desk without shining a light directly into your eyes.

Wear sunglasses: When you’re not in front of your computer, you can still protect your eyes from incoming light. This helps them endure longer periods in front of the monitor. Wear sunglasses outdoors (or even indoors if necessary). Make sure that the lenses have UV protection. If they don’t, they’ll have the opposite effect and just tire out your eyes. (This is because the darker environment created by the tinted lenses will cause your irises to dilate and receive more light.) Polarized lenses (that also have UV protection) are ideal because they minimize glare. If you need corrective glasses to see text, your optometrist can make you a pair with an extra layer of UV protection added.

Keep Your Eyes Healthy

In addition to modifying your work habits and paying attention to lighting, follow these tips to keep your eyes healthy:
  • Have your eyes checked yearly.
  • If you wear corrective lenses, ask your optometrist if they’re a good fit for your degree of computer use.
  • If you wear contact lenses, keep a bottle of hydrating eye drops handy at work and at home. (The “watch pocket” in jeans and slacks is perfect for this.)
  • Get enough rest, maintain a healthy diet, and stay hydrated. This will give you an overall boost so you’re not tired or susceptible to extra stress or tension.
  • Exercise your eyes when you’re not working on the computer by focusing on a close object (within 6 inches) for a few seconds and then focusing on a far-away object. This contracts and expands your lenses.
  • Give your eyes a break after work-hours. Apply chilled tea bags or cucumber slices at the end of your day. And don’t overload on more stimulation that can tire out your eyes, by watching TV or reading a small-font book without the right magnification and lighting.
  • Try Out A Light Filter On Your Computer And Phone

In the last few years, Microsoft, Apple, and Google have all made some handy accommodations to help users keep eye stain at bay. The most dramatic of these is colloquially known as a “Night Light,” a software filter that lowers the blue and white light coming from a screen and boosts red light, putting less direct strain on your eyes.

  • In Windows 10, the feature is known as “Night Light.” 
  • In MacOS and iOS, it’s “Night Shift.” 
  • On Android, the feature is “Night Mode.” 
  • For Samsung phones, it’s called the “Blue Light Filter.” 

All of them allow you to set a daily schedule for turning the feature on and off, and adjusting the intensity of the effect higher or lower. And if you don’t find those features sufficient, you might want to try something like Flux, which is more customizable.
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