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Originally published Sunday, September 15, 2013 at 5:06 AM

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Holding smartphones close makes eyes work overtime

Most people hold their smartphones close. But optometrists say holding them closer than 16 inches may not be good for the eyes, which work harder to focus on nearby objects.

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The biggest knock on smartphones is that all the apps, emails, videos and text messages drive us to distraction, if not off the road.

Spending half the day staring into a 4-inch screen may also wreck one’s eyesight, new research suggests. And the devices may not be to blame so much as how we hold them.

David Allamby, an eye surgeon and the founder of Focus Clinics in London, recently coined the term “screen sightedness” and pointed out that according to his research, there has been a 35 percent increase in the number of people with advancing myopia since smartphones launched in 1997.

Nearsightedness, or myopia, is a condition caused by a combination of hereditary factors and environment, says Shlomit Schaal, an eye surgeon and assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of Louisville. It affects more than 30 percent of the population of the U.S. The environmental factors that contribute include “close work,” or stress on the eye caused by reading or otherwise focusing on a near object.

Using a smartphone strains the eyes in much the same way reading a book or staring at a computer monitor does, with one exception — the distance between the eye and the object. When a phone or other device is held close to one’s face, it forces the eye to work harder than usual to focus on text, says Mark Rosenfield, an optometrist who published research on the topic in The Journal of the American Academy of Optometry. The discomfort can eventually result in fatigue.

People tend to hold smartphones considerably closer to their faces than they would a book or newspaper, even as close as 7 or 8 inches, Rosenfield says. And since smartphones have such a small screen, the incidents of peering closely at them tend to be higher than for other devices.

Since myopia is linked to heredity, there is no known way to prevent it or even to slow it down. Glasses and contact lenses don’t affect its progression, Schaal says. The greatest shifts in myopia happen before age 25.

Holding a smartphone farther away (but still using it the same amount) won’t necessarily prevent myopia entirely, Schaal said. But holding the phone at least 16 inches away from the face during use can be beneficial, Rosenfield says.

He also suggests taking breaks from using the phone. During those breaks, it is helpful to look into the distance, which relaxes the eye as it focuses on faraway detail instead of what is close.

When individuals are already affected by myopia, there are some ways tablets and other devices can even help, the doctors said.

Patients, especially those with age-related macular degeneration, have benefited from being able to view larger fonts and increased contrast on handheld devices such as an iPad or Kindle, Schaal said.

“In the past, these patients might have had to use a magnifying lens or very strong glasses to read the material, but now they can enlarge the print and read it with a more normal prescription,” Rosenfield said in a note.

Young children’s eyes may be spared early damage by limiting smartphone and tablet use, doctors say. Spending hours playing games or otherwise intently viewing a screen causes children’s eyes to exert effort for long periods. In the past, children focused on larger objects like blocks or toys, rather than such fine detail. They should be encouraged to engage in a variety of activities with different focusing targets of both near and faraway objects, Schaal says.

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