Author Archives: cthompson

Blink and you’ll miss it: Computer vision syndrome and managing eye health in a new era of online learning and teaching

Dr Simon Cassidy

Computer vision syndrome? You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of it or are tempted to pull a wry smile at the term. In fact, it’s a recognised disorder.

‘If you suffer from dry, itchy, sore or tired eyes, blurred vision or headaches, you could be experiencing the symptoms of computer vision syndrome, or ‘digital eye strain’. ‘

It may be caused by a tendency to reduce the number of times we blink, blink frequency, when we are looking at a computer or other digital device’s screen.

Blinking is something we do automatically, imperceptibly. It’s a natural, instinctive reflex. You’re not likely to pay much attention to whether you’re blinking or not or when to blink or how often you’re blinking. That’s unless you’re having a staring competition or you’re a movie actor trying to make the most of your close-up. After all, why would you? 

‘Blinking is critical to maintaining the health and functioning of your eyes.‘

Photo by Perchek Industrie on Unsplash

When we blink, tear film consisting of layers of water, oil, and mucus produced by the tear (lacrimal) glands, which are located inside the eye lids, passes over the eye, removing small dust particles and moistening the eye. This protects the eye by removing debris and lubricating the cornea, the protective layer covering the eye. Blinking also delivers protein (via the secretory mucin MUC5AC), nutrients, anti-bacterial agents, enzymes, and oxygen to the eye, which doesn’t have its own blood supply, reduces the risk of eye infections and provides an opportunity to ‘rest the brain’ and refocus attention. 

We blink on average around 15 to 18 times a minute. 

‘Reports suggests that blink frequency decrease by 66% when we are looking at a screen.

This is partly explained by the fact that we blink less when we are concentrating and processing information, known as cognitive demand.  We blink less when we’re watching a film and tend to blink at the end of a sentence when we are reading. Poorer quality blinks, known as incomplete blinks, are also more evident during screen viewing, resulting in less effective lubrication because the tear film is not spread evenly over the entire eye. 

Blink frequency studies comparing printed page (books etc.) with computer screens are often small and inconclusive. So there is some disagreement as to whether there is a real difference in how often we blink under these two conditions. But symptoms of computer vision syndrome were much worse after sustained computer use compared to working from printed pages. Incomplete blinking (poor quality blinking) then, rather than blink frequency, may be the key to explaining why we suffer the effects of long periods working at a screen. 

‘A major growth in the adoption of educational learning technology pre-pandemic has ‘surged’ since the advent of COVID 19.

Pre-pandemic surveys suggested that we spend seven hours a day using screens. 

‘COVID 19 brought a new emphasis to digital technology and a widely reported increase in screen usage, particularly in 16–24-year-olds.’ 

For students and teachers having to learn and teach exclusively online, relying on computer screens of varying quality and working in makeshift ‘offices’, the risk to eye health and exposure to computer vision syndrome has increased. And while we are moving to a more balanced blended approach as we emerge from the full impact of the pandemic, there is likely to continue to be increased emphasis on online learning. Studies conducted pre-pandemic report a high prevalence of computer vision syndrome, including severe eye strain, in university students. One large scale study conducted with medical students found that 95% reported symptoms of computer vision syndrome, with major risk factors identified as long periods of study at the computer screen, distance from the screen and brightness and contrast of the screen. Post-pandemic studies, with students’ increased reliance on computer screens, are likely to report similar or worse outcomes. 

‘One suggestion to help mitigate the effects of long periods working at a screen is the 20-20-20 rule.’

When you’re working at a computer, every 20 minutes look up for 20 seconds and focus on an object 20 feet away. Other suggestions include being more aware and making a conscious effort to blink and blink completely, reducing screen glare by adjusting lighting, screen position or using a screen filter, using eye drops, adjusting screen contrast and brightness to avoid straining your eyes, limiting screen time in the evening when lighting can be poorer and you are more likely to be tired. There’s even a downloadable app that uses a camera to detect and monitor your blinks while you are working, reminds you to blink and offers blink training exercises. 

‘We should all have a self-care plan to maintain our wellbeing, make sure you don’t ‘overlook’ your eyes.’ 

Looking after your eyes will help protect your vision. It’s increasingly important that we do this routinely as part of how we adapt to more of our daily lives spent looking at screens to help us function in and out of work. The ‘BIG (Blinking IGreat) is Beautiful’ life hack for healthy eyes is worth remembering. 

News and Events

David Beevers (PhD Student) Chairs session at the School of Science, Engineering, and Environment IPGRC Conference

On 6th April 2022 David attended the International Postgraduate Research Conference hosted by the School of Science, Engineering, and Environment. The theme of the conference was ‘Resilience in Research and Practice’ and David submitted a proposal towards the end of 2021 to Chair a session titled “Exploring the psychological impact of design”. The four speakers approached the topic from very different angles and David did a great job coordinating and Chairing the session (particularly as this was a hybrid event and whilst the speakers were all online, David and most of the audience attended in-person!). David has since written about the session on the Perception + Space webpage.

PhD Student, David Beevers, publishes in the BPS Cognitive Bulletin

We are very excited to announce that David has published an overview of the work he completed on an EPS New Graduate Research Bursary in the Spring 2022 issue of the Cognitive Bulletin. David worked on the project with Dr Catherine Thompson during the summer of 2021 before starting his PhD. Details of the Cognitive Bulletin can be found here.

ESRC Festival of Social Science November 2021 – Cognitive Restoration: The effects of the environment on thinking

In November 2021 members of our group organised an event as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science. We had originally planned to host a face-to-face event at a local museum to showcase the effects of nature environments on thinking, however due to the Covid-19 lockdowns we opted to host an online museum experience using Gather. The team (Dr Catherine Thompson, David Beevers, Eve Bent, and Dr Michael Lomas) created the museum event with expert help from Sam Royle, and we also worked with a fantastic student from Animation (Arkadiusz Jakubowski) to create a short video about cognitive restoration.

Seeing into the future – Research Showcase

The Visual Cognition group presented some of their research projects and expertise in an online research showcase in July 2021. This was a great way to communicate our work to those outside of Psychology and it was really nice to see colleagues from other disciplines interested in our research.

Entry to the APA PsycShorts 2019 competition

In March 2019 the Visual Cognition group was very excited to put together a video that briefly explains visuomotor priming for entry into the APA PsycShorts competition. Sadly, our video did not win one of the 12 prizes, but it was a great (and new!) experience. We also faced some tough competition with around 200 entries to the competition. You can see each of the winning videos here.    

Industry 4.0 

Group members Dr Adam Galpin, Dr Maria Panagiotidi, and Dr Catherine Thompson presented the work of the Visual Cognition research group at the Industry 4.0 event, part of the annual Festival of Research. The audience was very different to that of the workshop in which we demonstrated the equipment, and it is great to share research with a wide range of individuals. 

Want to know what I’m thinking? Look into my eyes 

As part of the
University of Salford’s Festival of Research in the summer of 2019 the Visual Cognition group invited students and colleagues from across the University to our labs to demonstrate some of the unique and interesting equipment that we use within psychology. If you were not able to attend the workshop you can find a short video that captured the event here.