Darn Those Tiny Screens!

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If you regularly use a Blackberry or other small electronic gadget, you may suffer from "computer vision syndrome," a cluster of symptoms including headaches or neck aches, dry, irritated eyes, sensitivity to light, and blurred or double vision.

The syndrome was first identified in the early '90s, but the proliferation of teeny-weeny screens has "terrific potential to make small problems worse," says Kent Daum, associate professor of optometry at the University of Alabama- Birmingham. With their tiny type and screens that fade out in bright sunlight, electronic gadgets can accelerate the onset of computer-related vision problems, says Jeffrey Anshel, an optometrist in Encinitas, California, who consults with companies like 3M, American Airlines, and Starbucks on visual ergonomics.

At its worst, the syndrome can cause serious -- though temporary -- vision problems. After extended periods of close work like reading, writing, or text messaging, a small number of people experience a sort of muscle spasm in their eyes that makes it impossible to focus on faraway objects. Until these computer users give their eyes a rest-a good night's sleep is usually enough-they can't focus at a distance. "The fact is, their eyes are so burned out at the end of the day," says Anshel, "that they have pseudo myopia or transient-induced myopia due to tired, overstressed eyes."

Fortunately, most people experience only the more benign symptoms, such as dry eyes, headaches, or a strain or ache inside the eye. But even such easy-to-ignore symptoms can eat away at your comfort and affect your job performance, says Stephen Glasser, a Washington, D.C., optometrist, resulting in "decreased efficiency, comprehension problems, and interpretation problems." PDA devotees know the symptoms. "If I use my PDA for more than 10 or 15 minutes, I need to put on my glasses or else my eyes get strained and things start getting blurry," says Bruce Miller, 55, of Seattle, Washington, a webmaster for a trade association.

The fact that Miller is over 40 probably contributes to his eyestrain. The combination of presbyopia, an age-related vision problem, and the excessive use of computers and PDAs can exacerbate eyestrain in the over-40 set. But teenagers, with their hand-held games and incessant text messaging, are also at risk. "Because they're younger, they're more resilient, but they don't know when to stop," says Glasser. A few simple measures can help old and young gadget-users alike avoid trouble:

Follow the 20-20-20 rule. Studies show that people using computers tend to blink less frequently, which can contribute to dry eyes. Resting your eyes helps them stay moist, while focusing far away prevents them from locking into a close-up. "Every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and focus on something 20 feet away," says Anshel.

Look down. It's easier to focus on reading material below eye level, so keep your PDAs and cell phones low, and make sure your computer monitor is set slightly below eye level.

Sharpen the image. If the screen's itty-bitty type makes you squint, don't bring it closer to your eyes. Instead, increase the font size, and consider antiglare films. Reducing glare can make the overall reading experience easier and may help more than larger type.

Check your glasses. Make sure your prescription is up to date. "If your glasses are off by just a little bit, that is much more likely to cause eye problems than you might guess," says Daum.

While most of these guidelines seem like simple common sense, the tricky part is remembering to follow them-or persuading your teenager to.

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