Digital Device Overload: How to Prevent Screen Fatigue 

UPDATED: July 2, 2024
PUBLISHED: July 2, 2024
Black teenager feeling screen fatigue, rubbing irritated eyes, sitting at desk with laptop

Though eyestrain is nothing new, the condition spiked during the pandemic as employees pivoted to working on screens from their homes and using Zoom nonstop to participate in meetings. Now the pandemic is over, yet remote work isn’t going anywhere. Enter the age of screen fatigue.

Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., MBA, and director of the Media Psychology Research Center, professor emerita of media psychology at Fielding Graduate University and a researcher and consultant focusing on how media influences identity and well-being, says that the increase of digital device use during COVID-19 reset our habits. Because of this, clearly seeing its toll on our well-being is paramount.

To recognize screen fatigue, often referred to as computer vision syndrome, Rutledge advises frequently checking in with yourself and responding to any body fatigue.

While vision is central, the ripple effects are enormous since the body operates as a whole. “Our bodies are one system. It isn’t like the eyes don’t ever talk to the rest of it. … When your body feels stressed, it feels stressed everywhere,” Rutledge says.

Besides tired eyes, be aware of tight shoulders and shallow breathing. And don’t ignore emotional symptoms. Heightened irritability, for example, is another way the body communicates fatigue and distress.

Tips to reduce screen fatigue

Listen to your body—and take a break when you need to, Rutledge says. One simple approach is the 20-20-20 rule: Stand up every 20 minutes and focus on an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds.

Rutledge also advises going a step further than this: “Take that 20 seconds to breathe deeply [or] to appreciate something around you. Do things that really reset not just your eyes but your brain [as well].”

She adds that deep breathing relaxes the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps release stress. You can also take a quiet moment to meditate on what you’re grateful for—this boosts positive emotions.

Breaks don’t need to be long. While Rutledge says that “taking a half-hour walk in a beautiful forest would be dandy” since nature is inherently relaxing, it’s less realistic than opening a window for fresh air and watching birds for 20 seconds. Frequency matters more than length.

Besides adjusting your screen’s brightness and font to improve visual processing, you can have your eyes tested and fitted for computer glasses if necessary. Because pixels hamper focus and cause us to stare and blink less, Rutledge suggests using eye drops or writing sticky notes with “blink” reminders, especially for contact lens wearers. Warm compresses over the eyes also soothe and encourage tear production. Since heat relaxes the body, you can also make some hot tea to keep you hydrated at the same time.

Bottom line: Rutledge believes in finding what helps you “step away and exhale”—and then making it a habit.

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