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Common sense at computer soothes eyes

| Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, 10:03 p.m.

We've all heard the complaint or something like it: “I've been staring at the screen all day. My eyes hurt.” But is it really the screen's fault? (And if so, is there any long- or short-term damage?) Would our eyes be any better off perusing printed pages all day?

Yes, you can blame the screen, but not for everything. Some of the same eye-care advice you'll hear for computer screens applies to bookworms, too.

Screen-induced eye strain has an official name, if not a surprising one: computer vision syndrome. The term emerged about 20 years ago and describes a host of bothersome symptoms, including eye fatigue, burning and itchy eyes, blurred vision and sensitivity to bright light. People who spend two or more continuous hours at a computer every day are at greatest risk for developing the syndrome, according to the American Optometric Association.

For most people, symptom treatment is enough — managing their reading position, taking rest breaks or using eye drops to relieve dry eyes. That said, dry and irritated eyes are associated with disorders of the cornea, the transparent layer at the front of the eye. See a doctor if you're putting drops in your eyes five or six times a day and still feel like they're dry, says James Salz, a University of Southern California eye doctor and spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Still, he adds, “there's no evidence that there's any long-term damage from reading on a screen.”

A small 2013 study found that when reading print on paper or e-ink (the technology that attempts to replicate as closely as possible the printed page experience, Kindle paperwhite in this study), the subjects — 12 men who read for at least an hour on each device — blinked more often when reading on paper or e-ink than they did when looking at an LCD screen (a tablet with its own light supply, the Kindle Fire here).

The good thing about electronic reading is that you can change so many things to make the experience more comfortable, such as increasing the size of the text and fiddling with the brightness, which can also help you keep the words at a distance. Salz says 18 inches is ideal.

Common sense goes a long way too, Salz says. “As soon as you feel fatigue, look away.”

Indeed, workplace advice for people who read on computers for a large part of their days, comes in the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds.

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