The distance between the Christmas holidays, spent high on the frivolity of the festive season, and the return to work in grey, gloomy January can feel like a chasm. If you are struggling to readjust to your routine and are plagued by digital fatigue, a lack of energy and a foggy head, chances are those inevitable back-to-back Zooms aren’t helping. According to research carried out by Data Reportal, people aged between 16 to 64 rack up an average six hours and 37 minutes of screen time each day. The impact of this on our physical and mental health is something we’re increasingly aware of – another study by the University of Leeds found that 59 per cent of participants consider screen time to have a negative effect on their health, with younger people and women being impacted the most. “Screens are the new sugar,” explains Peep Club founder and optometrist Nicola Alexander-Cross. “They’re a part of our everyday life now. What we have to do is learn to live with them better.” Here’s how to swerve digital fatigue and start your year feeling fully switched on.
One of the main reasons you feel digital fatigue after a day spent staring at screens is the impact on your eyes. “Anything over six hours of screen use per day now has a proven association with all sorts of eye health issues: eye strain, headaches, dry eyes and of course, declining vision,” says Alexander-Cross. The reason for these issues is layered. As well as the unnatural brightness of a screen compared to the environment around you, you blink on average six to eight times less while looking at a screen than when you aren’t. This means eyes are not only less lubricated, as blinking delivers moisture, but they’re more vulnerable, as it also protects the eyes from external irritants.
“Make sure you’re always using good lighting,” advises Alexander-Cross. “A simple rule I tell my patients is to match the brightness of the room to the brightness of your screen. Doom scrolling in the dark before bed is when you really tend to induce eye strain, [so] keep good overhead lighting on whenever you’re using a screen.” She adds: “Daily use of a gentle, preservative-free dry eye drop or spray will help offset the dryness caused by not blinking.” Alexander-Cross also recommends adding good quality omega 3s to your diet, increasing your water intake and using a hot compress eye mask. Go one better and make it a ritual to savour with Peep Club’s Heated Eye Wand.
Re-fix your focus
As well as too much straining and staring, the type of focus you use when looking at a screen is also a cause for concern when it comes to digital fatigue. While staring at a two dimensional object (whether it’s a phone screen, tablet or desktop computer), your eyes go into focal vision mode. When this happens your eyeballs rotate inwards towards your nose to allow your focus to narrow, so you can concentrate solely on what’s in front of you without any other visual distraction.
Although it is a natural reaction, this high-focus mode is also associated with elevated stress levels, as it triggers the body’s sympathetic nervous system. That means being in it for too long can be detrimental. If screens are an integral part of your job you might not be able to escape this altogether, but the good news is that you can minimise it. Although it takes a little practice, it is possible to control your visual field and consciously divert away from this high-stress visual state and force your eyes into panoramic, or peripheral, vision instead. To do this, actively avert your gaze from your screen and keep your eyes pointed at a fixed point a few feet in front of you. This increases your field of vision which allows your brain to receive as much of your visual environment as possible. If you work near a window all the better as it gives you a broader vista to work with. If you let out a big sigh or experience tearing eyes as you do this, it’s a sign that your parasympathetic nervous system has been activated and you’re entering into a more relaxed state.
If you’re on your screen for hours on end, you’re most likely to be indoors, either sitting at your desk, slumped on the sofa or on a train carriage heading to or from work. Which is another part of the digital fatigue problem. “Recent research has shown that natural light stimulates dopamine release from the retina (the nerve bed at the back of the eye), and that this prevents myopia (becoming short sighted),” explains Alexander-Cross. “More time spent indoors on screens is contributing to very high rates of short-sightedness.”
One way to reduce the damage is by getting outside more. As well as improving your eye health and your overall physical health, the serotonin that exposure to fresh oxygen triggers is a natural mood booster. Being outdoors also helps your cognitive function, which is important when too much screen time leaves you feeling groggy. According to a study carried out in the wake of the pandemic, brain scans of participants who spent time outdoors versus those who didn’t revealed a positive impact on the right dorsolateral-prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain involved in the planning and regulation of actions.
Limit the (blue) light
Even if you’ve spent your whole day in the same sedentary position, excessive screen time can leave you feeling exhausted and completely drained of energy—also known as digital fatigue. While much of that is due to the constant strain on your eyes and subconsciously holding extra tension in your head, neck and shoulders, overexposure to screens is associated with irregular cortisol levels, while the blue light they emit causes a disruption to normal hormone production, including of melatonin, which is essential for good quality sleep. “Melatonin is the hormone behind your bedtime [and its] secretion occurs in response to darkness,” says Hannah Alderson, a nutritionist and founder of the Positive Method.
Depleted melatonin levels not only means poorer sleep cues, but also the disruption of the circadian rhythm, both of which have a knock-on effect on energy levels and mood the next day. Regular poor quality sleep can even contribute to a compromised immune system and an increase in the risk of chronic diseases. “The blue light emitted from smartphones and screens hits your pineal gland and can confuse the body into thinking it is in a different stage of the day, particularly if you doom scroll in the evening,” says Alderson. “Your body is only ever as good as the clues that you give it (such as daylight), so it could think it’s in a completely different time zone if you’re sat in front of a screen in the evening for long periods of time.”
While blue light glasses go some way towards reducing the impact of excessive screen time, the best course of action is to avoid all screens at least two hours before you start winding down for bed. You should also schedule in regular breaks throughout the day. The general consensus is that shorter breaks taken more often are more beneficial than longer ones taken less frequently. Aim for a five to 10 minute screen break every hour if you can. Adopting a healthier approach in the morning is sensible too, as how we feel when we wake has an impact on how well we’re likely to sleep later. “Stay away from your screens for the first 30 mins of your morning to support your cortisol awakening response (CAR),” explains Alderson. “Supporting your CAR is a wonderful place to start, as a good night’s sleep is made in the morning. Your cortisol awakening response is a method to naturally take you from a state of sleep to a state of alert.” The American Optometric Association recommends the 20-20-20 rule: take a 20-second break to view something 20 feet away every 20 minutes. “Keep your laptop or computer near a window or at least not facing a wall, so that when you look up for a break you can use your distance vision,” adds Alexander-Cross.
Opt out and ease up
Added stress also comes from the lack of physical social connection that screens facilitate. Talking over Zoom eliminates the nuances in body language that can be easily identified during in-person meetings. As well as having to constantly monitor both verbal and non-verbal cues, we also need to be seen to make direct eye contact all the time. Being constantly glued to devices also means that stopping cues, the signals that subconsciously tell us to end one activity and begin another, are virtually nonexistent. As well as setting boundaries between work and home life, the fact that we can transition seamlessly from working on our desktop in the office to working on our phones on the train home can leave us feeling completely mentally depleted. Even if much of your day demands screen usage, setting boundaries for that usage is possible and important. Opt out of what is not necessary. Whether it’s subscriptions, news alerts or social media notifications, reducing the amount of non-essential notifications as ruthlessly as you can will immediately bring down your overall digital interaction and have a positive impact.
There are other, less conventional approaches to help reverse digital fatigue. Research to back up the efficacy of grounding, or earthing, is still lacking, but many swear by its ability to lower stress levels, improve blood flow and promote better sleep. In other words, undo much of the damage caused by screens. Working by physically and electrically connecting you with the earth, grounding is thought to help offset the build-up of positive electrons inside our bodies by connecting it with the earth’s negative charge, in theory, taking us back to a neutral state. Although grounding mats and even grounding mouse mats are options, if that sounds a little out there for you, consider the benefits of the basic principles of grounding instead. Whether you opt to go barefoot or not, taking time to stand, sit or just be silent in the stillness of nature might just be the perfect antidote to the furious and frenzied pace of the online world.
This story was originally published on British Vogue.