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Blinding lights: Could your mobile phone be damaging your eyes?

A young woman smiles as her face is lit up by her mobile phone screen

Could using your mobile phone be damaging your eyes?

A young woman smiles as her face is lit up by her mobile phone screen

There is growing concern that the blue light emissions from electronic devices, like smartphones and tablets, might be having a long-term impact on our vision - and even our sleep cycles. What can be done to reduce the impact of bright lights so that our eyeballs don't suffer?

The use of mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones, has increased beyond all expectations over the last decade. There are now more mobile devices on the planet than people and we’re using these devices for longer periods – some reports suggest as much as 10 hours per day.

But, what are the long-term effects of this sort of extended use? This is unexplored territory for most experts, meaning that the level of intensity of our phone use, and therefore our exposure to LED or blue light emissions, is unprecedented.

There are several problems with prolonged small-screen use, as we often have to squint to read information because the fonts are tiny. Flashing and blinking icons can cause headaches and dizziness.

In addition to the immediate effects of eye strain, our levels of exposure to blue light are also a cause for concern.

Credit: nib health insurance

What is blue light?

High energy visible light (HEV) light, or blue light, is part of the visible light spectrum that can be seen by the human eye. It has the shortest wavelength of all coloured light and produces the highest level of energy. While blue light is found everywhere in the natural environment, a major source of blue light exposure is found in emissions from the electronic devices we use every day. Modern devices use LED backlighting to enhance clarity and brightness, and this technology relies on very strong blue light waves.

Blue light can help elevate your mood and affect your ability to concentrate. Chronic exposure, particularly at night - when you are probably scrolling through social media feeds or sending a Snapchat – can disrupt your circadian rhythms by lowering the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep.

The lack of a regular good night's sleep has been blamed for increased levels of some illnesses, including types of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity, and an increased risk of depression.

To protect against disrupted sleep cycles, experts recommend you shut down or turn off devices (mobile phones, computers and laptops) at least two hours before bedtime.

Credit: HuffPost

Over-use of small screens

The widespread use of small-screen devices among the younger generation is a growing cause for concern. Digital eyestrain, or computer vision syndrome, can be caused by short-term, measurable effects of extended use. Symptoms include blurry vision, difficulty focusing, dry and irritated eyes, and headaches.

Children are consuming electronic media at a greater rate than ever before, and there are concerns about the impact of blue light on their eyes – which are not yet fully developed. This is one of the reasons for widespread screen-time recommendations by health organisations which warn parents to supervise their children and limit their screen time to around two hours each day.

Our screen use is subjecting our eyes to temporary eye fatigue and strain which could lead to permanent eye damage or macular degeneration

What does the future look like?

We simply don’t know what the effects of our collective screen use may be.

Experts warn that, at the very least, we are subjecting our eyes to temporary eye fatigue and strain which could lead to permanent eye damage or macular degeneration – a disease of the retina that causes loss of vision and impedes the ability to read, drive and recognise faces.

To protect against eye strain, disrupted sleep and damaged eyesight in the future, it's important to take precautions. Regular screen breaks are essential for those who use them intensively, as is extended time out from scrolling on our phones. Dim the brightness on these devices if you need to keep using them – new apps and filters can help reduce blue light and glare, and timer apps can encourage you to turn off your phone late at night.

If you need to work for long hours on a computer, it might be worth investing in glasses that have been treated with a blue-light reducing anti-reflective coating – most optometrists offer this service as standard. It's worth remembering that blue light is in the environment and you should wear sunglasses on bright sunny days to protect your eyes from damaging UV rays. nib offers a number of policies with benefits for prescription glasses, to find out whether you’re covered, visit Online Services.

Mobile devices are a large and permanent part of the way we work and live, but there are ways to protect against the long-term eye damage that blue light can cause. It’s important to have your eyes tested by an optometrist at least every two years, and more regularly if you notice any eye problems.

There are nib EyeCare Centres located across Sydney, Newcastle and Melbourne – book an appointment here.

Alternatively, if you do not live near a nib Eye Care Centre you could visit nib's First Choice network to help you to search for local optometrists; it's our community of specially selected health providers, who have promised they will deliver quality care and value for money.

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