A year ago, no one would have been able to predict that a pandemic would have upended all of our lives and thrown the future of social gatherings and simply being with others into turmoil. And, after accepting that as the “new normal” and attempting to recreate the past by following our lives as regularly as we had previously been, constant video calls seemed the perfect answer. It was life as regular, and everything was normal, albeit online.
So, when schools, businesses and other stores and shops hailed as “non-essential” were closed to protect their workers and consumers, the telecommunication company Zoom arrived to save the day, allowing students and employees to attend classes and meetings remotely, away from the risk of the virus. The data at the time predicting when life would to return to normal was extremely generous – perhaps purposely playing into our hopes – and claimed that the pandemic wouldn’t last too long. And so, began the era of unfiltered, unending, continual staring at screens.
For the first week or so after I had started school via video conferencing sites such as Zoom and Google Meets, I had not noticed any discernible difference in my vision. Maybe my eyes were a little more tired than usual, or they were a bit more strained, all of which made sense, considering how much time I’d been spending looking at a computer. It was definitely upwards of eight hours a day, since all of the work, assignments and assessments I had to do were also online.
After the first week, however, my eyes were feeling more than just a little strained or tired. As someone with both nearsightedness and farsightedness who has glasses and contacts with a prescription, I began to notice that not only was I unable to focus at my computer screen or phone, but I was getting terrible headaches – migraines – every single day, to the point where I was unable to keep my eyes open, and all harsh light was bothering me. I was forced to take certain breaks during class and close my eyes, as I could not concentrate on anything and did not know how to handle migraines I’d never dealt with before. I bought a pair of blue-light glasses that were supposed to filter out the harmful UV rays from screens, as I was desperate to find anything that would alleviate my symptoms. I tried to call all the ophthalmologists I knew in my area, but due to the ban on all non-essential businesses, they were unable to see me, and unable to change my prescription via a telemedicine appointment.
As I had to learn the hard way, our eyes were not made for staring at screens. According to Harvard Medical School and Harvard-affiliated ophthalmologist Matthew Gardiner, “When you look at a screen, you’re so involved that you forget to blink. The blink rate goes from 15 times a minute to five or seven times per minute,” explains Dr. Gardiner. “But you need to blink to re-establish the tear film on the eyes — a thin layer of liquid that protects the surface of the eye. If you don’t blink enough, your eyes dry out, causing blurry vision and discomfort.”
Not only that but staring at screens can cause serious changes to your vision, and untreated nearsightedness or farsightedness can result in migraines. “The other main problem from staring at a screen too long is eyestrain.” Dr. Gardiner says one possible cause of this is the brightness or glare that comes from the electronic screen. “Bright light sources can feel uncomfortable, especially if you have cataracts,” Dr. Gardiner explains. Eyestrain can also result from focusing up close on a screen without the proper eyeglass prescription. “Any time you strain to see something, maybe because you need reading glasses and have resisted getting them, you can get a headache. You can exhaust your eyes’ ability to focus,” says Dr. Gardiner.
I wondered if I was the only one having these issues, and, as I had assumed, many others – mostly those who wear prescription glasses and contacts, both nearsighted and farsighted – were having many of the same troubles I was having, and were unable to see a doctor, both for their own safety and the safety of others. As a junior in high school, this is my most important year academically, and the one that colleges next year will place the most weight on when they look at my transcript, so not being able to see perfectly can affect my homework and assessments. Having to take and study for online SAT’s and AP Exams, an integral part of junior year, has become increasingly harder as my eyes get worse and I am unable to focus.
The question now becomes “How many hours on a screen is too many?” Obviously, this question was not considered when schools were forced to move to an entirely online format in such a short period of time. It is, however, a question that must be considered now, as more and more students are feeling the effects of increased screen time. The miracle of modern technology has been a saving grace in these times, through allowing us to continue learning remotely, but we must find alternatives alongside remote learning in an effort to save children’s eyes from life-long harm, allowing children to have plenty of time off-screen.
This piece was written by a student from the Greater MetroWest NJ community.
Samantha Rigante is a junior at Golda Och Academy in West Orange, N.J.