A person's hands hold a smartphone, which shows a dry desert on the screen.

Are Smartphones Linked to Dry Eye in Young People?

With so many young people using smartphones, it is natural to wonder if staring at a small screen for long periods of time is having an effect on their eyes. In a national survey of eye care professionals, 90 percent believed that everyday screen time is responsible for a rise in cases of chronic dry eye. Even more striking, more than 75 percent of eye doctors saw an increase of people with chronic dry eye between the ages of 18 and 34 compared to rates from 10 years ago.1

Without long-term clinical studies, it is hard to prove if this increase in dry eye among younger people is actually due to the rise of smartphones. However, surveys from around the world make this connection hard to ignore.

Dry eye increasing in young adults

In 2013, a National Health and Wellness survey estimated that more than 16 million adults have been diagnosed with chronic dry eye. Although rates of dry eye were 3 times higher in people above the age of 50, a significant amount of young adults had also been diagnosed with dry eye. This confirms doctors’ belief that dry eye is on the rise.2

Even more concerning, these estimates may have been an undercount – only people who had been officially diagnosed with dry eye made the cut. People who did not have health insurance were less likely to go to the eye doctor for their dry eye symptoms.2

Kids’ smartphone use is on the rise

But what about even younger people? A recent study showed that 97 percent of American kids under the age of 4 are exposed to screens, like smartphones or tablets. However, parents might not be aware of the effects on their childrens’ eyes.3

To learn more about how screens might affect the eyes of children and teens, interesting information has come out of Korea, where up to 90 percent of kids use smartphones. In a study that compared kids who use smartphones to kids who do not, 8.3 percent of kids who used smartphones were diagnosed with chronic dry eye. Only 2.8 percent of non-users received the same diagnosis.4

The researchers observed that the children who had smartphones were more likely to live in cities and spend less time outdoors. The kids who did not have smartphones? You guessed it: They tended to live in the country and spent more time outdoors.4 So for kids who log in a lot of screen time, being in nature may have a protective effect on their eyes.4

Ban screentime? Not so fast

It is clear that screen time is a necessary evil for a lot of kids – and their parents. It is also a social and educational lifeline for many young adults, not to mention essential for work. To protect young eyes, moderation may be key.

If your eyes or your child’s eyes become uncomfortable, put down the phone and take a walk outside. Also know that most dry eye symptoms are reversible. They will likely improve or go away after you turn off (or hide) the phone. If that does not help, make an appointment with an eye doctor and let them know your concerns.4

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