No doubt about it, we’re well into the digital age. More people than ever have computers, smartphones, and tablets, which are increasingly connected to the internet. In many ways, this is a positive development – computers can increase connectivity and productivity, they allow people to communicate more easily than ever, and they put an enormous amount of creative freedom in the hands of artists and designers.
But this unprecedented rate of digital device usage has its downsides as well. All that screen time can cause a wide range of health problems, many of which we’re only just starting to see emerge. As time passes, these trends are only likely to increase, but they’re at pretty earth-shattering levels right now. Today, we’ll run through a few of the more mind-blowing statistics and maybe make you think twice about how much time you spend with digital devices.
Digital Devices are Everywhere
The 2013 government census shed some light on just how many of us have computers. Fully 83 percent of households had a computer of some kind, 78.5 percent had a desktop or laptop, while 63.6 percent had a handheld device. Those numbers become even more impressive when you consider the fact that Americans over 65 have a much lower relative rate of ownership. Among surveyed households with people aged 15-44, the percentage of computer ownership shoots up to 92.3 percent.
And a staggering number of those computers can connect to the internet. A total of 74.4 percent households surveyed had access to some form of internet, almost all of which (73.3 percent) was broadband… though it’s not exactly shocking to see dial-up usage plummeting.
Compare those numbers to those taken just 15 years prior in 1997. The census taken that year found that only 18% of Americans had home computers. The incredible growth necessary to reach modern numbers gives some insight into just how quick Americans have been to turn to computers.
We Use Them More Than Ever Before
Even back in 2011, computers dominated our economy. At that time, 62 percent of all survey respondents said that they considered the internet integral to their work. On top of that, a full 96 percent used digital devices in at least some capacity at work. Clearly, unless you’ve managed to find a job completely off the grid, you’re going to be using the internet at work.
And that’s just work. Consider that your average American now uses a computer for work, socialization, entertainment, and even education. Basically every facet of life can now take place at least in part on the web. Even television, that last bastion of non-computer leisure time, is falling.
“Cord cutting” is a growing phenomenon across the U.S. While the percentage of TV viewers who rely on the internet to deliver video content is still relatively low, more and more find themselves ditching cable and satellite with each year that passes.
All those different channels add up. Dramatically so. Recent estimates have found that the average American adult spends roughly nine hours per day staring at a digital device. And if anything, that number’s on the low end. If the estimates are narrowed to focus on younger, more consistently online users, they’d likely find that screen time only increases.
Smartphones Hit the Scene
But if those numbers are dramatic, they’re nothing compared to what we’ve learned about how the average American uses mobile technology. A couple years ago, a report by the Pew Institute found that 58 percent of all Americans would have a smartphone by January 2014.
Inside that larger percentage are some much quirkier ones. Pew found that “67 percent of cell owners find themselves checking their phone for messages, alerts, or calls — even when they don’t notice their phone ringing or vibrating.” Phantom text syndrome has also entered our lexicon, occurring when consistent phone users feel vibrations from an alert that hasn’t actually arrived.
Even more telling, 29 percent of respondents in Pew’s study said that they would describe their phones as “something they can’t imagine living without.”
Effects of Screen Time on Eyes
Of course, there are some consequences to all this time spent gazing at digital devices. A study by the Vision Council targeted at smartphone users found that 61 percent of respondents reported feeling eye strain. The effect was also especially pronounced in younger users, with nearly 70 percent of Millennials reporting symptoms of digital eye strain, compared to 57 percent of Baby Boomers and 63 percent of Gen Xers.
That eye strain is one of the telltale signs of a nation suffering from chronic Computer Vision Syndrome, or CVS. CVS is a frequent bugbear for computer users and manifests in strained, dry eyes, dizziness, fatigue, and headache. It’s disruptive and incredibly widespread, with an estimated 50 to 90 percent of all consistent computer users experiencing symptoms. This adds up to some enormous costs to the working nation, with approximately 10 million eye exams being scheduled for reasons related to the disorder.
Smartphones have also added some new problems to the roster. Not only do they exacerbate problems already caused by CVS – smaller screens encourage closer viewing distances, which in turn are more likely to strain eye muscles – but they have some of their own unique challenges. While research has yet to establish links between usage and concrete eye disorders, a full 55 percent of surveyed users felt that their own vision was affected by high rates of smartphone use.
Moving forward, it’s also important to realize that these problems aren’t about to go away. Quite the opposite, actually, since more Americans continue to buy new cell phones and mobile devices every day. Actually understanding the effects of these changes on vision health represents a great challenge to the U.S. at large – stay tuned, there’s sure to be more information on the subject soon.