Dry Eye and Screen Use

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on December 03, 2021
3 min read

If you’re like many people, your eyes are on a screen throughout the day: You spend time staring at a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone at work, and on your own time. Nearly 60% of Americans use a digital device for at least 5 hours a day. Seventy percent use more than one at a time. All that screen time can result in dryness and eye irritation.

Eyes need to stay moist to stay healthy. Normally, people blink every 10 seconds or so. When you blink, your eyes release a “tear film” that soothes and coats your eyes. But you don’t blink as often when you’re on a tablet, computer, or watching TV. Less blinking means drier eyes.

There’s more to your tears than just water. Oil and mucus are in them, too. You need all three substances to keep your eyes moist and comfortable.

Working on computers for a long time may even change the balance of your tears. A 2014 study in Japan found that people who spent hours on their computers had a lower amount of mucus in their tears. Nearly 1 in 10 workers in the study definitely had dry eye, and more than half had probable cases.

While the chances of getting dry eye go up with age, a 2016 study found that children who spent more time on their smartphones -- and less time outside -- had more symptoms of dry eye.

If you need to keep looking at a screen, you should:

Follow the 20/20/20 rule. Take a 20-second break from your digital device every 20 minutes and look at something 20 feet away. Set an alarm on your smartphone as a reminder.

Use a humidifier. It adds moisture to dry indoor air so your eyes won’t dry out as quickly.

Don’t stare. Make an effort to blink frequently, especially when you’re using a screen for a long stretch.

Keep screens at arm’s length. Most people hold their smartphones and small devices 8 to 12 inches from their face. That close distance slows down blink rates. It’s better to hold your device at least 20 inches from your eyes.

Make text bigger. You may lean into your computer screen if the type is too small. Bump up the size of the font, so you can comfortably read from a farther distance.

Shed the right light. Put your computer in a place to avoid glare -- especially from overhead lights or windows. Close the blinds or curtains. Replace light bulbs with lower-wattage ones. If those things don't help, get a screen glare filter. It can lessen the amount of light reflected from the screen.

Try eye drops. Using artificial tears on occasion can keep your eyes moist.

Drink water. Aim for 8 to 10 glasses a day to avoid dehydration.

Don’t smoke. If you smoke, you now have another reason to quit. Cigarette smoke irritates dry eyes even more.