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Debunked: Does reading in low light or staring at a screen damage your eyesight?

“Turn off that feckin’ laptop and go to sleep, Séan, your eyes will fall out of your head by the time you’re thirty” can now be swiftly met with “Eh, Mam, about that…”.

This man's eyes are clearly very tired from reading all night, but he'll be okay.
This man's eyes are clearly very tired from reading all night, but he'll be okay.
Image: sidewalk flying/Neal via Flickr/Creative Commons

IN THIS SERIES, TheJournal.ie takes a look at an urban myth, old wives’ tale, or something that your mammy told you years ago to see if there’s any truth in it.

Do you remember being told by a concerned parent to stop reading by the dim light of your bedside lamp, because it would cause irreversible damage to your eyesight?

The same warning now applies to staring at the harsh light of a smartphone, laptop, or tablet in a pitch dark room before you nod off to sleep, marking a quick change in the habits of different generations.

Regardless of whether it’s a book, a smartphone, or even a computer or television screen, it all boils down to the idea that staring at a small area at a moderate to very close distance for an extended period of time, without adequate lighting, will strain your eyes and cause your eyesight to deteriorate faster than it normally would.

It doesn’t take long to feel the effects of any of these activities. Your eyes will become strained, and could become dry as well.

No harm at all

Will this short term pain cause lasting damage? The Irish College of Ophthalmologists (Optha-wha? Eye doctors) has the answer, with council member Dr Garry Treacy explaining that whatever eye strain you encounter is doing absolutely no harm to your eyes.

image

If you were this close to the screen when looking at pictures of fish, it wouldn’t do much harm. (Image Credit: shutterstock.com)

Dr Treacy told TheJournal.ie that the myth is grounded in attempts to get children to go to sleep, and because we grew up hearing it, it became a fact. Saying that looking at the screen of a smartphone, television, or laptop in the dark is bad for your eyes is simply the modern version.

Engaging in these activities will not cause you to become long-sighted or short-sighted, and as well as it not doing any other damage, your eyes can actually get used to it and become stronger. Dr Treacy said it’s like any other exercise.

Saying that reading is bad for your eyes is like saying that walking is bad for your legs.

“As you get older, you will always find reading harder. It’s because of how your eyes see the contrast between black and white. Younger eyes are better at doing this with less light, but as they grow old, more and more light is needed to make a clear distinction between black and white.”

Dr Treacy also said that there is “no evidence” to show that computers are bad for your eyes.

“If your eyes become dry and tired after spending a day working on a computer in your office,” he said “it’s more than likely due to the air conditioning or central heating drying out your eyes. If you find that this happens frequently, eye drops might help.”

If you stare at anything for too long, your eyes will naturally become a little sore. This will happen quicker if you are excessively close to your book or screen.

Chance of damage from computer games

However, now that you know years of reading under the covers isn’t the reason you need glasses, and that reading TheJournal.ie late at night on your smartphone isn’t going to cause you to need glasses in the future, that doesn’t mean it’s completely without hazard — at least for young children.

Dr Treacy noted that children staring a screen for an extended period time without blinking, for example when playing a fast-paced game, can be detrimental to the health of their eyes, and is something which should be avoided.

Is there a myth you’d like debunked? Email nicky@thejournal.ie

Hat-tip to TheJournal.ie’s own Michelle “Actually, I do find that my eyes get dry in the office, but eye drops help” Hennessy who suggested this week’s topic.

Debunked: Does sugar make children hyperactive? >

Read: Blind man walks 140km from Longford to Dublin to help wheelchair users >

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