how we live now

What Has the Pandemic Done to Our Eyes?

Photo: Tero Vesalainen/Getty Images/iStockphoto

I was trying to assess whether, after almost a year of social distancing and increased indoor time, after all the days hunched over my laptop and the nights watching movies and bad reality shows on my TV, if I could see the same as I did before the COVID era. I stood on one end of my living room and looked at a can of Wendy’s Baconator Pringles that was resting on the mantle above the fireplace at the other end. Both the Pringles logo and the Wendy’s logo were visible, but the word “Baconator” was blurry, almost unreadable if I didn’t already know what it said. After briefly reflecting on just how foul Wendy’s Baconator Pringles taste, I took this makeshift vision test as a sign to make an appointment with an optometrist.

I am not alone in suspecting that my eyes have suffered due to increased screen time. “Reading and looking at a screen has never been a problem, until now,” Scott French, a 28-year-old who works for a wellness company in Reno, Nevada, told me. “I was experiencing headaches and dizziness. I couldn’t read for more than a few minutes without severe eye strain. When I finally went to an optometrist, I was prescribed corrective lenses for the first time in my life.”

“I can no longer read almost anything without reading glasses,” said Sue Constantine, a 43-year-old executive assistant at an investment bank, who lives in Amesbury, Massachusetts. “It got bad quickly and I have to carry glasses with me everywhere for the first time in my life.”

Our culture has long been screen-centric, but has this past year specifically been harder on our eyes?

“A lot of my patients have been complaining because they are working from home, they are working longer hours than normal, which is increasing screen time for most of these people,” said Dr. Saniya Shoaib, an optometrist who founded Sunny Eye Shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “It’s a lot of strain looking at something so close. Our eyes were meant to be looking at the horizon.”

Shoaib has observed that many of her nearsighted patients are becoming more myopic due to increased screen time. She’s also had patients who didn’t realize they were farsighted are having issues seeing up close. Indeed, an analysis of myopia studies published in the American Journal of Ophthalmology last year found that myopia “could potentially be aggravated during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak period.” A study published in JAMA Ophthalmology this month tested the vision of 123,535 children in Feicheng, China, over the course of five years: It found myopia became 1.4 to three times more prevalent in their subjects in 2020, and ultimately concluded that “home confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to be associated with a significant myopic shift for children aged 6 to 8 years.”

Dr. Thomas Aller, a San Bruno, California, ophthalmologist, was concerned about what effect the pandemic would have on his myopic patients. (To clarify our terms real quick — myopia, or nearsightedness, means you can’t see far away, while farsightedness means you can’t see up close. If you think this is confusing, Aller agrees with you.) He explained that hundreds of years of observational studies have suggested that “occupations that involve very close and detailed work tends to create nearsighted people.” In other words, if you spend a lot of time reading and looking at your computer, it could ruin your eyes’ ability to clearly see objects in the distance. Other studies have disputed this — the human body is an enigma — but the latest research, per Aller, suggests that the closer you hold the object you are looking at to your face, and the longer you look at it, the chances of you becoming myopic increases.

So once the pandemic hit, Aller suspected that his school-age patients would experience “excess myopia progression” due to remote learning, and living in a world where going outside is generally discouraged. He conducted a survey of 65 of his myopia patients, all of whom were children and were being actively treated for myopia. Comparing their progression before and after the pandemic hit, Aller told me, “I concluded that either these kids were very well protected during the remote learning and lockdown with their various myopia treatments, or remote learning was somehow less likely to trigger myopia progression than conventional schooling.”

A month or so after the Pringles incident, I made an appointment with Dr. Jason Bolenbaker, an optometrist in Reno, Nevada, where I live, to see if my eyesight was deteriorating as much as I suspected it was. I last had my eyes checked in February 2020, right before the pandemic hit, and I was excited to compare my before-and-after prescriptions. Bolenbaker informed me that only my left eye had gotten worse, my prescription increasing by -0.25. He told me that this amount of deterioration wasn’t unusually rapid. I’ve been getting new glasses every two years since I was a young teenager and my prescription has become about -0.5 stronger in both eyes each time, so if anything, my right eye is actually doing better than ever.

It remains unclear whether increased screen time over the past year has meaningfully affected our eyesight. Still, every expert I spoke to agrees that eye strain occurs when you spend too much time looking at screens. “Everybody who spends a lot of time working on computers and digital devices is at major risk of developing dry eyes, which may sound trivial,” Aller said. “In reality, most dry eye conditions are caused by gland atrophy in the lids.” Your lid glands, which provide your eyes the moisture they desperately need, atrophy if you don’t use them enough. Bolenbaker told me that while he used to see gland atrophy only in older patients, he is increasingly seeing it in his teenage patients. When you look at screens, you don’t blink as much as you would when looking elsewhere. So please, for the love of God, blink. Do it right now.

If you’re like me — tied to a computer for work and tied to the television for fun — you’re not a lost cause: You just have to start doing blinking exercises. Every hour, you should take a break to look far away from your screen. “Blink five purposeful blinks with complete closures,” Aller recommended. “On your final blink, you squeeze and hold for a little while.”

Since I learned this information, I have put my paranoia about my eyesight rapidly deteriorating on ice and shifted my focus to blinking. I am a blink evangelist. I’ve reached out to my family, friends, and my editor, imploring them to blink. And now, I’m asking you to do the same. Give yourself a break from working, from Instagram, from obsessively reading about all the terrible and upsetting things happening in the world. Take a minute every hour to look away and close your eyes. Somehow in the darkness, with your eyeballs moist and safe, everything feels just a little bit better.

What Has the Pandemic Done to Our Eyes?