Eye Strain, You Strain, We All Strain for iStrain

A sea of MPub students were hidden behind their laptop screens before the start of class when Senior Lecturer Roberto Dosil asked, “How long do you all spend on your computers?” I peeked my head out and smiled guiltily, not able to think of a time when I was not in front of my computer. Some students were able to say that they made sure to shut it down a couple of hours before bed, or other random times in their day. But for me, the bus, lunch time, and even relaxing before sleep meant a screen. I said this and he nodded and shrugged. “Just wanted to make sure you were all aware.” Roberto asked this question with no judgement in his tone, but my guilt continued to haunt me. The negative stigma attached to being stuck behind a screen is abundant, especially for us early generation Y’s, who grew up with very little computer usage (socializing and computer class), and parents who were/are nags about our eyes frying from being too close to a screen. All of this while trying to catch up to the late generation Y’s who had more time to grow up with computers and screens of all sizes, and may be more employable. In the midst of figuring out where we belong, and honing in on computer efficiencies as we go, something else formed: headaches that result in optometry appointments. An eye exam revealed that I was in front of a computer screen too often and for too long. My eyes were doing the same thing that the rest of my body was doing: trying too hard, or straining. I walked out of Image Optometry with a pair of glasses to use when on the computer. Meaning, a pair of glasses glued to my head at every moment of the day, not including showers and sleep. I walked out of there knowing I had Computer Vision Syndrome—which includes symptoms such as eyestrain, headaches, blurred vision, dry eyes, and neck/shoulder pain.

And I am not the only person who has this. “Eyestrain is a common—and occasionally debilitating —effect of staring at screens”, says Mary Webster, author of Scientific American’s “Sitting Too Close to the Computer Screen Can Make You Go Blind”. My optometrist said that everywhere she goes she sees kids with iPhones in front of their faces and knows that she will soon be seeing them in her office. The National Eye Institute “released data showing a 66 percent increase in the prevalence of myopia in the 25 years since the advent of the personal computer” (Joyce). Such activity as staring at a screen over long periods of time can cause “eye exhaustion: burning, dryness, and muscle aches” says Mark Bullimore, Professor at Ohio State University College of Optometry (qtd. in Webster). Ophthalmologists, optometrists, and other eye professionals link “near work” to myopia, whether it is from reading a book (40 cm away) or from a computer screen (50 cm away) (Webster). Jeffrey Anshel, O.D., author of Visual Ergonomics in the Workplace says, “Your eyes are happiest when used for a variety of tasks utilizing a variety of focal distances with a variety of properly aligned light sources. Computer use provides none of the above” (qtd. in Joyce).

This situation does not bode well for the current directions that book and magazine publishers are going, especially now that my eyes are dry, burning, and so sore that even squeezing them shut does not alleviate the vibrations emanating from them. If I have to spend all day on the computer at work, at school, and then in the evening socializing online with friends, will I want to read on an e-reader? Will I want to read ill-formatted documents online? And, if not, will I want to buy comparatively expensive print books when I know that cheaper ones are out there? This could result in a slow-down of reading on all devices, including print: a further nightmare for publishers. Studies show that there is already a slow-down in e-book sales (although that may be due to a lack of big bestsellers like Fifty Shades of Grey and Hunger Games) (Milliot), but if computer usage remains a fixture of our time with the average North American adult spending 8.5 hours a day staring into screens (Alvarez), then readers may prefer short-form internet reading as opposed to long-form anything reading. Dun dun dun.

Fortunately though, people are out there looking to improve this problem. And I’m not talking about the readers. Readers should not have to stop engaging in one of their favourite pastimes in order to keep their eyes healthy. That said, there are many exercise options available to prevent CVS. These include the 20/20/20 rule (every twenty minutes of computer screen time, focus on something twenty feet away for twenty seconds), cup warm palms over your eyes for a few minutes, timed blinking, eye rolling, and so on. But the onus should not be on the reader to keep all book formats alive; it should be on the sellers. It should be in the design both for the publishers and the manufacturers.

One such person is screen-maker, Mary Lou Jepsen, head of Display Division at Google X, founder of Pixel Qi (“a manufacturer of high-performance, low-power sunlight-readable screens for mobile devices”), and co-founder of the One Laptop Per Child initiative (Mary Lou Jepsen).

In Jepsen’s presentation at O’Reilly’s “Books in Browsers: 2011”, she states, “It’s difficult [due to] eyestrain to read a long-form book on a tablet [but] … we are the people of the screens … I think it’s important for people to read better off of screens and make screens more useful.”

In this talk, Jepsen produced statistics on eye discomfort caused by reading on a screen: “between 2/3 and 90% of us get discomfort” and “the main reasons have to do with attributes of the screen and the lighting of the screen. The number one issue is the lighting of the screen and the glare, but also the resolution, the contrast, the fonts, the layout, and so forth.” According to Jepsen, brightness surrounded by darkness (what Miles Tinker calls “hygienic vision”) is causing the eyestrain many of us are experiencing.

Because of the effect of screens on our eyes, Jepsen has produced and is continuing to produce screens that get better and better from an optical perspective. Jepsen’s studies say that reading on paper is the best for the eyes, then e-ink (close reproduction of printed paper), and finally LCD (tablet with its own light supply). So “what we need are screens where we can dig in and read long-form and also scan because we have the interactivity with the screens but it’s not so comfortable to read in long-form”. She said that the printed page has higher resolution, and the screen needs the same.

What is her solution for screen builders? Use the screen’s unnecessary margin space (a publisher problem), increase the contrast ratio and resolution (pixel per inch), decrease the screen brightness, decrease the glare (which brings the contrast ratio to nearly zero), and make a shiny screen (people’s preference) that offers the option to transform to matte when reading. An example of a laptop screen such as this can be found in Jepsen’s One Laptop Per Child product; it is sunlight-readable, there are 200 pixels per inch, and it is the lowest-power laptop ever made.

If “the future of reading is screens” and the “future of screens is reading”, as Jepsen stated in the 2012 “Books in Browsers” conference, then screens must be improved to protect our eyes. Jepsen is receiving fan mail every day from people who can now read on screens because they can turn the backlight off on her products.

Other inventions are surfacing as well, like the “Advanced Computer Eyewear” by Gunnar Optiks, which are “designed to relieve Advanced Computer Syndrome” (Huff).

These developers are building mechanisms that will prevent eyestrain. And there is still so much more room in the industry for innovations to save our eyes so that we want to continue reading. There is no evidence that publishers are doing anything to improve reading. And we can’t hope that everyone will sit back, take breaks, and remember to blink periodically. And we can’t just let CVS make us give up on reading altogether. Let’s think outside of the box: build computers into the floor (it’s easier on eyes to read at a downward angle because less of our eye surface is exposed due to our lids being lowered), create chairs/desks/computers that give no choice but to sit properly, or market more treadmill desks (distance and posture).

Recent studies have shown that reading rates are dropping. Steve Jobs agreed: “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore”, he said in reference to e-book readers and the Amazon Kindle. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore” (qtd. in Hon). The National Endowment for the Arts reported that 40% of people in the U.S. do not read books anymore and only “47% of adults read [any kind of] work of literature” (Hon). While declining literacy rates may be due to a number of factors, I am willing to bet that a few of those reasons come from CVS.

In closing: all I want to do is grab Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale off the shelf (a paperback given to me as a gift by someone who knows I can’t afford to pay $20 and don’t own a tablet or iPad), and give the dense book a good read. But after a day at school? With eyes burning and tired? I’d rather do anything else.


Works Cited

Alvarez, Mark. “The Average American Adult Spends 8 ½ Hours a Day Staring Into Screens.” Atelier Group. 31 Mar. 2009. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.

Hon, Adrian. “The Long Decline of Reading.” Mssv. 28 Dec. 2008. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.

Huff, Steve. “Reading This May Blind You: The Perils of Computer Vision Syndrome.” Betabeat. 24 Feb. 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.

Jepsen, Mary Lou. “Readers and Accessibility” Books in Browsers: 2011, O’Reilly. 31 Oct. 2011. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

Joyce, Robert. “Overworked Eyes: Will Your Computer Make You Go Blind?” Huffpost. 5 July 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.

“Mary Lou Jepsen.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 17 Feb. 2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.

Milliot, Jim. “A Mixed Blessing in Slowing E-book Sales.” Publisher’s Weekly. 15 Nov. 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.

Webster, Mary. “Sitting Too Close to the Computer Screen Can Make You Go Blind.” Scientific American. 8 Nov. 2007. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.