New Delhi: It’s a lockdown reality you are probably experiencing too. Spending long hours on your computer as you participate in virtual meetings and WhatsApp conversations to maintain a smooth flow of work. Exhausted by the end of your shift, all you want to do is unwind with a TV series or movie on any of the multiple streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, or your XBox. Obviously, through this all, you weave in and out of your social media profiles.
By the time you hit the sack, a nagging discomfort you have tried hard to overlook through the day hits home with a vengeance. Your eyes feel tired. They are burning, even paining, and watery. They are probably swollen too.
It’s no different if you are a student, what with classes moving online to tide over the lockdown lull.
The deep dependence on technology brought on by the Covid-19 lockdown, which has forced many jobs to move online, is taking a toll on our eyes. The impact is such that one doctor described the series of webinars, online chats and video calls spawned by the lockdown as a “pandemic” in their own right.
This reality looks unlikely to go away for good anytime soon, but there is no reason for alarm. Doctors say there are steps you can take to protect your eyes from this assault.
Going all-in online
Over-the-top (OTT) platforms like Netflix, Amazon and Disney Hotstar, among others, have reportedly registered an 82 per cent spurt in daily time spent during the pandemic.
Work meetings are now taking place online through portals such as Zoom and Google Hangout, and the coordination that was usually managed through quick chats with colleagues in office is now being attempted through WhatsApp and the like.
Even school students are being asked to keep up with the curriculum through internet classes as institutes remain shut.
Mumbai-based eye surgeon Dr S. Natarajan told ThePrint that the number of patients approaching him for teleconsultations — remote consultations — has gone up during the lockdown period.
Common complaints include irritation, pain and swelling, he said, adding that he had coined a name for this new affliction. “For communication, people have become dependent on WhatsApp as it is a very easy platform to use. But this is affecting the eyes very badly and I call it the ‘WhatsApp Vision Syndrome’.”
The frequency of webinars on every possible subject is such that Dr Namrata Sharma, the general secretary of the New Delhi-based All India Ophthalmological Society, calls them a “pandemic” of their own kind.
The eyes, she said, don’t only get affected by mobile phones and laptops but also from the summer heat. “There is a pandemic of prolonged Zoom meetings and webinars. The way people are using the internet would not only harm their eyes but they might suffer from pain in their shoulders, neck and other body parts as well,” she added.
Kazim Rizvi, the head of a Delhi-based think-tank The Dialogue, cited telecom ministry data to point out that internet use in India has gone up by 13 per cent during the lockdown.
Quoting a consumer survey by Hammerkopf, the tech market research firm, Rizvi said social media consumption has seen a rise of 87 per cent during the lockdown.
Headaches, dry eyes
Shahnawaz Kadir, whose daughter studies in class 2 at the CBSE-affiliated Cambridge School in Delhi’s New Friends Colony, said online lessons meant more computer time for children.
“My daughter has to sit before the system for a long time. Online education is affecting her eyes,” he added, noting that students are getting addicted to the internet and laptops.
Zainab Ahmed, a graduate teaching assistant in the Gene Siskel Film Center at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, US, said she was using her “laptop and phone more than ever”.
“And my eyes do hurt at times. Plus, my therapist thinks my insomnia has been triggered by my increased screen time,” she added.
Daya Sagar, a journalist with Gaon Connection, told ThePrint that the increased phone and laptop time was leaving him with headaches and painful eyes.
Asked about these problems, Dr Natarajan said, “When we look at a screen for a long time, we forget to blink and this leads to dry eyes.”
Dry eyes are a condition where the eyes fail to produce enough tears, and it’s a growing problem in a world increasingly dependent on screens for just about everything, from work to leisure and shopping. If left untreated, they can make one more vulnerable to eye infections, among other things. Common symptoms include stinging, redness and blurry vision.
Prolonged screen time, say medical experts, can lead to ‘Digital Vision Syndrome’, whose symptoms include dry eyes, headaches and blurred vision.
One of the reasons behind this, experts claim, is the blue light from gadget screens.
According to a survey conducted by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in 2017, of the 5,000 patients treated at its ophthalmic OPD, 50 per cent suffered from dry eyes.
Dr Jeewan Singh Titiyal, who oversaw the AIIMS survey, said the current scenario is a 50-50 game. He noted that pollution is a big factor in eye-related diseases and it has gone down “substantially” after the lockdown, but the impact of screens is worrying. The focus on Covid has affected data collection and treatment of every other disease, including eye-related problems, he said, but added that the impact of screen time on eyes cannot be ignored.
Suggesting some precautions, he said, “If you are using a screen continuously, you should take a break every 20-30 minutes and look outside at some greenery if you can find it around.”
If one has dry eyes, he added, they should use eye drops and never rub them if they experience irritation — a precaution all the more important amid the Covid-19 pandemic. If your eyes feel irritated, washing them with cold water is the best option, he added.
He also suggested regular sanitisation of the devices being used, adding that, in case of an emergency, one should go for teleconsultations. “If your eyes are red for a long period of time or if you have prolonged blurred vision or pain in the eyes, you should go for teleconsultation,” he said.
Many asymptomatic patients of Covid-19, he said, had got the infection through their eyes. “So, in case anyone has prolonged problems in the eyes, the person must go for a Covid-19 test as one of the symptoms of the disease is red/pink eyes with pain,” he added.