Health

How Bad Is It for Your Eyes to Stare at Your Phone All Day?

iphone 6s is looking at your phone bad for you
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

The iPhone is now as familiar an extension as any natural appendage. In fact, it's better, because people used to be restricted to staring at their fingernails when bored. Now you're probably reading this instead.

But do you ever wonder what staring at that tiny screen for so long is doing to your eyes? Do those old sitcom-mom warnings about going blind from staring at a TV for too long apply to smartphones? As with most of life's unanswered questions, this subject is being researched as you scroll.
 

Could smartphones be making people more nearsighted?

Not in a metaphorical sense, but in the traditional "can't see objects far away" sense. Apparently, nearsightedness is on the rise, especially in young people, and no one can really figure out why. One study found that by 2050, HALF of the world's population will have some form of myopia, as opposed to the 23% now. That's a lot of new pairs of glasses, and a lot more awkward middle-school yearbook photos.

There's not a great explanation for why this is happening, but what's remarkable is that the prevalence of nearsightedness is increasing rapidly among the young. What the paper does say is that lifestyle factors are likely to blame: some theories are that no one spends enough time outside, people eat shitty food, and -- here it is -- "excessive use of near electronic devices." In other words, while there's no direct evidence, it kind of makes sense that you'd be nearsighted if you never have to look farther away than your phone or computer.

staring at iphone
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

You could get the eyeball equivalent of carpal tunnel

On top of that, there's at least one (semi-)legit health concern linking your eyes and screens. It's basically the eyeball analog of carpal tunnel syndrome: staring at any screen for extended periods exhausts your eye muscles, but switching from screen to screen (e.g., iPhone to laptop) is especially culpable in causing what's called asthenopia, which is a sort of catch-all medical term for worn-out eyes; its nonspecific symptoms include headaches, a feeling of fatigue or pain in (or near) the eyes, and blurry or double vision.

Interestingly, upwards of 90% of computer users are said to experience "computer vision syndrome," and while there's not yet "iPhone vision syndrome," you can imagine that staring at a smaller screen might cause similar problems.

Not everyone thinks there's any cause for long-term concern, though. Dr. Nicholas P. Marsico, an LA-based ophthalmologist who specializes in refractive surgery and the treatment of corneal diseases, says that short-term vision problems are common, but emphasizes that these are not unique to phones, but rather, "They can be seen with any prolonged near-visual tasks such as reading a book or newspaper, working on the computer, or looking at cellphones. These symptoms can be alleviated by taking frequent breaks from near-vision tasks and instilling artificial tears to combat dryness."
 

It's not like your phone is going to blind you

But what about those hysterical articles warning you that iPhones could cause blindness? Like this one from The Daily Mail, which suggests that using your iPhone at night could cause your retinas to suddenly detach.

"I know of no published studies demonstrating long-term visual deficits resulting from the use of [iPhone] screens," says Dr. Marsico. And while the story claims scientists have seen rates of retinal detachment rise, it's not clear which scientists are saying that.

Moreover, the causes of myopia are not well established, and scientists frequently produce contradictory results. It is true that severe myopia is a significant risk factor for retinal detachment, but there's no present evidence that iPhone-induced myopia has ever caused retinal detachment.  
 

There are even some eye doctors who argue iPhones improve your vision

According to Dr. Vance Thompson, an ophthalmologist based in Sioux Falls, SD, looking at your smartphone actually increases your eyes' elasticity, and thereby helps to prevent your vision from worsening as you age; the eyes of older people often become more rigid and lose the ability to nimbly adjust from looking from one thing to another. This stiffening of the eye is one of the reasons our eyesight deteriorates as we age.

The important thing to remember is that doctors frequently have differences in opinion, and being health-conscious means knowing what risks are worth worrying about, and being generally attentive to your well-being. Any ophthalmologist will tell you to take a break if your eyes hurt from looking at your phone so much. So if you're feeling the strain, it might be a good idea to get up, go outside, and look at objects more than an arm's length away from your face.

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John Marshall is a writer based in New York who often wonders about the fate of Jerry Orbach's eyes. Follow him down alleyways, or @brunodionmarsh.