Is It Dangerous to Sit Too Close to Screen?

There’s been an uptick in the number of movies and TV shows that have warnings about watching while reading or other kinds of distractions. Not a big deal. A little distraction here, a little distraction there, but we should expect that such elements might be included in projects that require a concentration that comes easily when you’re away from the screen.

Why no warning about sitting too close to the TV? At least the effect of texting is less striking than any reflection on someone staring at the monitor or TV screen with everything on.

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Is It Harmful to My Eyes to Sit Close to Screen?

We’re all probably guilty of sitting a little too close to our screens, whether you’re a gamer and your monitor is too big for your desk, or you spend hours a day with a VR headset strapped to your noggin, or if you were just yelled at by your mom by having your face practically smushed against the TV while you’re watching Saturday morning cartoons.

The television today has become like a drug for everyone’s eyeballs. We’re surrounded by screen after screen of mindless entertainment, each crushing concentration on a single, tiny little thing our eyes.

But What Exactly Qualifies as Too Close?

I mean, sure you don’t want to sit so close where you’re making out individual pixels, but can sitting really close the screen actually damage your vision? As the public is commonly believed?

To help us answer, we spoke with ophthalmology fellow and Cornell Medical School graduate Dr. Daniel Agarwal. So a big part of the reason people worry about whether sitting too close can hurt their eyes is that many of us feel eyestrain when we’re staring at something for far too long. Eyestrain is a natural consequence of attempting to focus on just one thing for long periods of time. Studies show that if you’re looking at a screen for very long, your peripheral vision becomes worse. In addition, we often get headaches from long periods of staring at something for too long.

And if you’re sitting close to a screen, chances are you’re hyper-focused on whatever it is you’re looking at. Say a tense moment in a sporting event or an angry message from a soon to be an ex-lover. The only remedy is to take some time to stop focusing.

But Why Does Focusing on Something for a Long Time Make Your Eyes Hurt?

It turns out that the mechanism for this isn’t completely understood, but it’s thought that because your eyes are trying to intensely maintain their focus for so long, it ends up overworking your ciliary muscles.

These are the muscles that control the shape and curvature of the crystalline lens and near the front of your eye so that they can adequately focus — looking at something close by causes them to contract. So it’s natural that they might tire out.

Just think about how sore your other muscles get after a hard day at the gym. However, the good news is that this has never been demonstrated to cause permanent eye damage in adults. And if you’re worried about brightness, that’s probably not a big deal either.

As everyday electronic screens simply don’t appear to get bright enough to cause retinal damage, although it might be unpleasant to use a phone at full brightness in a dark room. I know that annoys me. It’s nowhere close to saying, staring at the sun like an idiot or doing something stupid with a laser pointer.

But if you’re a teenager or you have children, or you’re a teenager with children, keep in mind some studies have suggested that excessively focusing on objects too close to you can cause nearsightedness or myopia later in life because your eye is still growing at that age. And this isn’t limited to sitting too close to electronic screens, even if you’re spending too much time with your nose in a book that can cause problems, too. So make sure you’re resting your eyes enough if you’re one of our younger viewers.

Eyestrain Is Annoying

Of course, eyestrain is still annoying, even if it isn’t actually harmful to adults in the long term. So if you’re suffering from tired eyes after yet another hour playing League of Legends, give your eyes a break and maybe go outside where you’ll probably be paying attention to objects that are more distant from you.

Another good idea is to use a reputable brand of artificial tears, not el-cheapo eyedrops. Since when you’re focusing on things close to you for long periods, your eyes tend to dry out because you’re not blinking as much. That’s really all there is to it. If you’re an adult, there are far more significant health concerns from staring at a screen all day, like maintaining poor posture or ending up like Dr. Robotnik because you never bother to get up from your racing chair.

When Things Starts to Get Worse

It’s when you watch while browsing that things get much more intense. Visual distraction is a major contributing factor to the problems associated with internet addiction. In fact, I have a good friend who has been diagnosed with an “Internet Addiction Disorder” by a physician. He now suffers from chronic back pain that is due to the discomfort inflicted on his back by sitting for hours while he browses through social media and elsewhere.

It would be nice if physicians would just spell this out and let people know what to look for. But it would also be nice if other professions, such as teachers, could warn those charged with keeping youngsters from going far too far, and that warnings about visual distraction would apply to them, too.

Seeing things too closely could mean the difference between needing to cut back on one’s activity or dropping completely. Because such visual distraction is so addictive — all it really needs is more of it — we need to recognize it more than we do. And we need to make it clear to people who are young and new to the problems that are linked to visual distraction, what they are facing.

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