The Blue Light From Our Screens May Not Be Harming Our Eyes After All

But it does have other health effects.

Photograph from Unsplash.

Headlines about technology’s impact on our health seem to be ever-present on the internet. Are my AirPods making me deaf? Can microwaves cause cancer? What about my cell phone?

Another popular topic: the debate about blue light’s effect on eyes. Do a Google search and you’ll get plenty of articles saying that the blue light emanating from our tablets, phones, and laptop screens is damaging our vision. Companies such as Warby Parker, Felix Gray, and MVMT are offering trendy blue-light glasses for close to $100 a pop, and iPhones now come with settings that allow you to shift your screen’s tones to a warmer setting at night or limit screen time in general.

Sure, the argument is, ahem, eye-catching in its science-fiction qualities (The real enemy is in your back pocket! The phones are out to get us!), but is the concern legit?

Probably not, says ophthalmologist Leah Fuchs of Eye Consultants of Northern Virginia: “I think a lot of what people are hearing about blue light is not necessarily true. We don’t have any evidence that in everyday life, using technology that emits blue light is harmful to the eyes. It’s a lot of hype.”

Much of that hype can be traced to a study conducted last year by the University of Toledo, says Fuchs. Researchers found that blue light causes a molecule in the eye called retinal to create harmful chemicals that kill eye cells and can lead to conditions such as macular degeneration. Cue the eyeball-clutching headlines.

But Fuchs says the study took its findings out of context: “They’re not studying [the cells] in the same situations as real life. You can’t take one cell in isolation and do a study and say that’s the same as everyday life.”

To give you the SparkNotes version: The study exposed retinal—as opposed to actual retina cells from human eyes—to blue light, and the cells in the study weren’t exposed to the light in the same way an eye would be in a natural setting. So, says Fuchs, outside the lab you can’t plausibly make the leap to claiming blue light is proven to be harmful.

There is one way blue light has been proven to affect our health, though: It disrupts circadian rhythms and sleep cycles, which is why you shouldn’t putz around on Twitter before bed—at least not without filtering out blue light.

That isn’t to say staring at screens won’t damage your eyes in other ways. According to the American Optometric Association, the average US employee clocks seven hours on the computer daily, and 58 percent of American adults say they’ve suffered from eye strain and other vision problems as a result of looking at screens.

But that’s more a result of prolonged, up-close staring than an effect of the screens, counters Fuchs, who’s seeing more eye strain among patients. So although you’re staring at screens from sunup to sundown as you check Instagram and send e-mail and watch Food Network, eye problems have more to do with not blinking enough and straining your vision while staring at such things than with the screens themselves.

The dry eyes, blurry vision, and end-of-day fatigue associated with strain aren’t limited to adults, according to pediatric ophthalmologist Salma Chaudhri of Arlington/Loudoun Pediatric Ophthalmology. “I do feel like it’s become more prevalent over time,” she says, citing the tablets and iPads many schools now use and the parents who come in worried about their children’s bloodshot eyes after a Fortnite marathon.

Because kids’ eyes are still developing, staring at close objects can affect them differently than it does adults. “In children, we’re seeing a little bit more of that change into becoming nearsighted sooner than we used to,” Chaudhri says. “I don’t see a lot of adults who have high changes in their prescriptions because of screen time, where I do see that more in children.”

So what to do? Fuchs is a fan of the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes, take a break from gazing at your screen and look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds, which will relax your eyes and give them a break from that close-up staring.

For kids, Chaudhri recommends they place a paper clip between chapters of a book as a reminder to give their eyes a break, as well as setting a 20-minute timer for electronic use.

If you have symptoms of eye strain that persist, medicated eye drops are always an option, Fuchs says, as are reading glasses. As for blue-light specs? An ophthalmologist probably won’t recommend forking over money for a pair, says Fuchs, who considers them a marketing ploy.

Yet optometrist Jennifer Luckie has seen some patients benefit from the glasses. “I recommend them if taking breaks hasn’t helped [and neither has] cutting down the glare and the screen time,” says Luckie, who prescribes five to ten pairs of the glasses a month. “But I don’t think there’s enough definitive evidence to say everybody needs blue-light glasses all of a sudden.”

Unlike Fuchs, Luckie does think the glare from phones and laptops can cause strain. Blue-light glasses can help reduce the glare, and thus the strain, she believes—though she’s quick to add she’s speaking from her own experience with patients.

While the research is still out, most doctors seem to agree that setting down the phone, iPad, or laptop is never a bad idea.

“I tell all my patients: When you get home from work, put your phone down. Don’t use it, don’t get on the computer,” says Luckie. “It’s really about limiting the amount of time we’re on our screens. Anything just to give ourselves a break.”

This article appears in the July 2019 issue of Washingtonian.

Mimi Montgomery Washingtonian
Home & Features Editor

Mimi Montgomery joined Washingtonian in 2018. She’s written for The Washington Post, Garden & Gun, Outside Magazine, Washington City Paper, DCist, and PoPVille. Originally from North Carolina, she now lives in Del Ray.