Click to view a PDF of Soaring Screen Time.

Long before COVID-19 turned our world upside-down, concerns over too much screen time and the rise of Digital Eye Strain (DES) were already escalating. But it’s safe to say the COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating the situation for people everywhere, and especially for children who have multiplied their time on-screen—using digital devices for both virtual education and recreational down-time.

While more time at home has been good for slowing the spread of COVID-19, it’s forcing many people’s eyes to suffer. Our new reliance on digital devices for work, school and entertainment is more all-encompassing than ever.

Majority of Americans Suffering from Screen Fatigue
A new survey of 2,000 Americans found 53% of respondents are feeling burnt out on screens over the last few months.

The survey, conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Foster Grant, found nearly six in 10 respondents said they often get screen-related aches and pains, with the average respondent getting about three per week. According to the results, 57% of Americans say the pandemic has caused them to suffer from more “screenaches” than ever before.

The study also showed that before the COVID-19 pandemic, the average American surveyed was getting about four hours of screen time per day. Since the quarantine started, that number has jumped up to over six hours—and their eyes are paying the price.

Survey Says: 64% of ECPs Notice Issues from Increased Screen Time
In Jobson’s recent Coronavirus survey, 64% of eyecare professional (ECP) respondents noticed more patients having issues due to increased screen time; and 68% of those said the issues affected both adults and children.

Even Before COVID: 71% of Parents Were Concerned About Screen Time
Even before the coronavirus, research from the Pew Research Center illuminated parents’ concern about the effects of too much screen time for their children.

Altogether, 71% of parents of a child under the age of 12 stated that they were at least somewhat concerned their child might spend too much time in front of screens, including 31% who were very concerned about this.

It’s important to note that this survey was fielded before the COVID-19 outbreak closed many schools and led to widespread shutdowns and stay-at-home orders throughout the country. Today’s numbers are likely much higher.

Why Screen Time Is Reaching Record Highs
For years, excessive screen time has been a growing problem that takes a toll on adults of all ages, including young adults, mobile users, office workers, tech developers, 40-50-somethings and aging 60-70-year-olds, too.

Today, we’re faced with a new reality where most of what we do, and what our children do, involves some kind of screen time. That means soaring screen time now affects everyone—no age group is immune, and children with developing eyes are especially at risk.

The reality is, humans have never spent this much time with screens in history and there are several reasons for this.

Working from Home Extends the Workday
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone is working in new ways—many of which are reliant on digital screens. With more people working from home, face-to-face meetings in the office have been replaced by virtual meetings on a desktop PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype and other online collaboration tools.

Informal work hours and lack of commute time means lunch breaks are now spent over the laptop, and it’s harder to end the workday at a reasonable hour. People are checking work email early in the morning and late into the evening—with real-time notifications keeping people connected long after they should have “turned off” for the day. Without distractions like coffee breaks and conversations with colleagues, it’s never been easier to spend 11 hours a day on screen. No commuting in the evening also gives people even more time to binge-watch video content on their TVs or tablets.

Remote Education Keeps Children Connected Longer
With an estimated 55 million U.S. elementary and secondary students completing the 2020-21 academic year online, the number of hours spent in front of digital devices has increased to a staggering number. School hours that used to be spent in real classrooms, in libraries and on the playground are now spent in front of a PC or laptop, which means children of all ages are on screen like never before. And parents who normally limit screen time for younger children can’t pull the plug on virtual education—it’s a necessity—so their hands are somewhat tied.

Social Distancing Increases Recreational Screen Time
With COVID-19 still a real concern, many states continue to encourage social distancing. This means no large gatherings, no going out to eat, and a whole lot more staying inside at home. So what are families and children doing in their leisure time? A lot of it is digital entertainment—gaming, movies and binge-watching TV—which means there’s no break in the screen time.

Recent statistics convey the extent of the growth.
Streaming giant Netflix has seen record-setting viewer growth since the onset of COVID-19—adding an unprecedented 25.86 million subscribers in the first six months of 2020, nearly as many as it added in all of 2019. People are consuming, not just Netflix, but all kinds of home-based video content at extraordinary levels.

Since the pandemic, online gaming has also surged. Digital game distributors, such as Steam, reported a considerable increase in the number of daily users in the spring—reaching a record high in April.

Between work, school, TV content, movies, online gaming and social media, people could conceivably be online (in one form or another) nearly all day.

The Prevalence of Digital Eye Strain

Even pre-COVID, Digital Eye Strain (DES) was a growing issue. According to 2018 research from The Vision Council, about 80 percent of American adults reported using digital devices for more than two hours per day with nearly 67 percent using two or more devices simultaneously, and 59 percent reported experiencing symptoms of digital eye strain.

At the time of the survey (before the pandemic), Americans reported experiencing the following symptoms of digital eye strain:

• 32.4 percent report experiencing eye strain
• 27.2 percent report experiencing dry eyes
• 27.7 percent report experiencing headaches
• 27.9 percent report experiencing blurred vision
• 35 percent report experiencing neck and shoulder pain

Additionally, close to 80 percent reported using digital devices, including TV, in the hour before going to sleep, with almost 55 percent in the first hour they are awake.

Considering the enormous ramifications of the COVID-19 quarantine “lockdown” and subsequent remote working/learning scenarios, the actual numbers have likely changed—and probably not for the better.

Contributing to the Problem: Blue Light
It’s well known that blue light exposure from LED lights, televisions, computer monitors, smartphones and tablet screens is small compared to the amount of exposure people get from the sun. However, there’s plenty of concern over the long-term effects of screen exposure, due to the close proximity of the screens and the length of time most people spend looking at them.

Short-term effects of blue light from digital devices are common and include eyestrain and eye fatigue, dry eyes, blurry vision, neck and shoulder pain, and even increased frequency of headaches. Blue light may also affect sleep quality.

Fortunately, eyewear is available with lenses featuring anti-reflective and blue light-filtering capabilities, as well as select contact lenses, to help reduce the symptoms of digital eye strain.

How ECPs Are Addressing the Need

1. They’re getting social.

Many ECPs are boosting awareness of digital eye strain and blue light, promoting eye exams and helping to educate patients through social media campaigns.

2. They’re promoting behavior change.
ECPs are also offering free resources to educate parents, including how to set up virtual learning spaces at home, and how to make rules to manage screen time.

3. They’re prescribing smart solutions.

With the rise in screen time, increased exposure to harmful blue light and growing prevalence of digital eye strain, the industry offers an ever-growing number of vision solutions to help. ECPs are doing their part by having focused conversations and accessing an expanded offering to protect patients’ vision, including:

• Glasses, frames and contacts
• Blue light blocking solutions
• Supplements and vitamins

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