Eye Health

22 July 2011

Smartphones may be taxing your eyes

The combination of small fonts, phones held close to browse the Web, and text, can cause eyestrain and headaches, a study finds.


The combination of small fonts, phones held close to browse Web, and text, can cause eyestrain and headaches, a study finds.

People reading text messages or browsing the Internet on their smartphones tend to hold the devices closer than they would a book or newspaper, forcing their eyes to work harder than usual, new research shows.

This closer distance – plus the often tiny font sizes on smartphones – could put added strain on people who already wear glasses or contact lenses, according to the study, which appears in the issue of Optometry and Vision Science.

"The fact that people are holding the devices at close distances means that their eyes have to work that much harder to focus on the print and keep their eyes pointed in right direction," said study co-author Dr Mark Rosenfield, a professor at the SUNY State College of Optometry in New York City. "The fact that the eyes have to work harder means that people may get symptoms such as headaches and eye strain."

Computers damage the eyes
Texting and browsing the Web on smartphones can also result in dry eye, discomfort and blurred vision after prolonged use, the study authors point out. Previous studies have also found that up to 90% of people who use computers experience eye problems.

Rosenfield got the idea for the study while commuting to work on the train and noticing that people using smartphones seemed to be holding them very close to their eyes.

Given that more and more adults and children are using smartphones to write and receive messages or look up restaurant reviews, it made sense to measure exactly how close people were holding their phones.

The experiments were relatively simple ones. In the first, about 130 volunteers with an average age of 23.2 years were asked to hold their smartphone while reading an actual text message.

Research shows smartphones are held closer to the eye than books
In a different experiment, 100 participants, whose average age 24.9, were next asked to hold their smartphone when reading a web page.

The researchers then measured the distance between the device and the eyes, as well as the font size.

When reading printed text in newspapers, books and magazines, the average working distance is close to 16 inches from the eyes, but the study volunteers writing or sending text messages held their phones, on average, only about 14 inches away. In some people, it was as close as 7 inches, Rosenfield said.

When viewing a web page, the average working distance was 12.6 inches.

Increase font size and lessen strain on eyes
The font on text messages tended to be slightly larger, about 10%, on average than newspaper print, but web-page font was only 80% of the size of newspaper print and, in some cases, as small as 30%, Rosenfield said.

The findings hold messages for doctors and smartphone-users alike.

Given the ubiquitousness of these handheld devices, eye doctors might consider testing people's vision at closer distances and prescribing glasses for closer distances.

But there's a simple way for smartphone addicts to minimize eye strain. Increase the font size on your device, advised Dr Scott MacRae, a professor of ophthalmology and of visual science at the University of Rochester Medical Centre and an eye surgeon.

Computer users asked to use 12 point font
This is especially important for sustained reading, like reading a book on Kindle, he noted.

Font size on an e-book reader is usually pretty easy to do. For other handheld devices, MacRae said, "The problem is to figure out how to do it."

If you're a regular computer user, try using Verdana 12-point font, the only font designed specifically for computers, MacRae said.

The authors are now also assessing Kindles and IPads, but those results haven't been published.

(HealthDay, July 2011)

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Megan Goodman qualified as an optometrist from the University of Johannesburg and is currently practising at Tygerberg Academic Hospital in Cape Town. She has recently completed a Masters degree in Clinical Epidemiology at Stellenbosch University. She has a keen interest in ocular pathology and evidence based medicine as well as contact lenses.

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