Blinding Blue Light: Are digital devices making us go blind faster?

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - From desks at work, to living room couches, to the handy device in pockets and handbags, digital devices and their screens are everywhere -  and with them, the inevitable blue light in front of eyes.

"It could literally be a full 12-hour day," said Parker Luke, who is a law student working toward his MBA and runs a photography and videography business, Parker Pix.

Luke admits his desire to do what he loves and finish projects can lead him to be in front of screens for long periods of time.

"I spend…sometimes five, six, seven hours in a row; I'm tempted to! A wedding film can take 30-40 hours to edit at a time, and I'm tempted to get started and continue going," said Luke.

But all the blue light from digital devices and being in the sun can turn the molecules in the eye's retina into cell killers. That can lead to blindness, according to a new study from chemists out of the University of Toledo.

Dr. Ajith Karunarathne, assistant professor in the UT Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, said, "Blue light is harmful. If you can avoid excessive blue light exposure, that’ll be helpful, but we are not making a comment on what sources of blue light."

The sun and tanning beds are huge sources of blue light, said Dr. Karunarathne, adding his research is in the beginning stages. Macular degeneration, an incurable eye disease resulting in significant vision loss starting on average in a person’s 50s or 60s, is the death of photoreceptor cells in the retina. Those cells need molecules called retinal to sense light and trigger a cascade of signaling to the brain.

For Luke, being in front of screens for long periods of time can affect him.

"I have to tell myself, You need to take a break, look at an actual physical piece of paper, do some reading, go on a walk and change distances. If I don't do that, I get a headache," said Luke.

There are ways you can combat the blue light coming from digital devices, including wearing a pair of blue light-blocking glasses.

Dr. Richard Martin, who has been practicing optometry for more than 20 years, has other suggestions, too.

"Go by the 20/20/20 rule. Not 20/20, but 20/20/20: For every 20 minutes you're staring at a computer, you should take a 20-second break and look past 20 feet. That gives the eyes a rest from fatigue and reboots the system," said Dr. Martin.

Another way to help eyes fight blue light is with proper nutrition. Dr. Martin recommended omega 3 fatty acids to keep eyes healthy.

Through his years of practice, Dr. Martin said he has seen a new trend when it comes to how blue light can affect eyes.

"Right now we're seeing more and more patients who are having eye fatigue, headaches, eye strain, blurred vision, even double vision, but the main thing is dry eye. It's constant and every day," said Dr. Martin.

He added those who are suffering from it are getting younger. Teenagers are coming into his practice with dry eye, when it used to be people in their 60s or 70s. Dr. Martin added they are seeing teenagers coming in with dry eye because teens are hooked up to their phones constantly. Dry eye should be taken seriously.

"Dry eye - if it's bad enough - can lead to blindness, corneal scarring," said Dr. Martin. "It can be very very debilitating in a lot of people, especially the older people. And that's my concern with younger people having dry eye now. What are we going to see when they turn 40 or 50?"

This leads back to the research Dr. Karunrathne hopes to continue and find answers. He is hoping to get enough funding to continue his research, which is becoming incredibly popular.

"We want to see what intensity of blue light are required, what specific range of blue lights are triggering these toxic reactions?" said Dr. Karunrathne.

Until further notice, though, Luke said regardless of whether he's doing school work or finishing up images for a client, he will continue to do what he can to prevent getting eye strains and headaches.

"Whenever I start feeling as if I have been going a little long - I can tell and I can feel it - I go and splash my face with water. I walk the dog. I switch from a digital screen to paper a lot. And make sure I'm looking far distances away," Luke said.