Blue Light: Health Implications for Programmers

Many people think of computer programming as a relatively low risk field — there is virtually no physical labor involved, you can program from almost anywhere, and spend most of your time inside either at home or at coffee shops coding. However, spending countless hours every day, often times late into the night, staring at a screen that emits blue light can pose unforeseen risks with long term health consequences. Productivity aside, part of self care as a programmer involves mindfulness around these risks — your personal health is invaluable.

streaks of blue light on a black background
Photo by madeleine ragsdale on Unsplash

What is Blue Light?

Blue light is a color of light that occurs on the visible light spectrum, characterized by shorter wavelengths and higher energy level than other colors on the light spectrum. While our ancestors’ circadian rhythms were regulated by the sun, modern day technology and reliance on blue light-emitting devices such as tablets, smart phones and for programmers — computer screens — means that our exposure to blue light is higher than what our bodies are programmed to handle. While no color on the light spectrum is inherently “bad”, computer programmers are more likely to be exposed to higher than average levels of blue light due to the excessive amount of time spent in front of a computer screen.

Image description: Photo by Mahmudul Hasan Shaon on Unsplash

Blue Light and Melatonin Production

Melatonin is a sleep-regulating hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain. When nighttime falls and natural light decreases, optic nerves in the eyes send signals to the pineal gland, producing melatonin which is then released into the cerebrospinal fluid. This process signals to the body that it is time to sleep. Blue light disrupts this process by interfering with optic signals to the brain and suppressing melatonin production.

Health Implications

So what are the health implications for computer programmers who spend the majority of their time staring at a computer screen for hours and hours on end, often times late into the night? Some of the suggested long term health implications include an increased risk for depression, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular issues, and chronic insomnia. One study in India found that up to 30% of software engineers were more likely to suffer from chronic insomnia, strongly suggesting a causal link between long term blue light exposure and implications for programmers’ health.

Software engineers are more likely to develop irreversible chronic insomnia as a result of long-term blue light overexposure.

Another study conducted by Harvard researchers found that participants who were exposed to blue light experienced suppressed melatonin for twice as long as those exposed to green light with suggested health implications such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. Researchers found that increased exposure to blue light also affected leptin, an hormone that suppresses appetite and is highly linked to a circadian cycle, with normal levels increasing at nightfall and decreasing during daylight hours.

It should be noted that, while regulated amounts of blue light during the day are not necessarily harmful and can even be beneficial. The highest risk is posed with prolonged exposure, especially during night, which again is the time of day most likely to be disrupted by the circadian rhythm.

I code all day…what should I do?

One solution for programmers to filter blue light is special tinted orange glasses — while these may filter out blue light, orange tinted glasses also filter out other colors as well, making them not necessarily ideal. Special glasses that filter only blue light are also available but more costly, making regular orange glasses a more popular option but not necessarily as effective. Programmers can make an educated decision based on their personal budget and commitment.

While it may be difficult for some programmers, especially students, it is also recommended to avoid blue light exposure two to three hours before going to sleep to avoid disrupting the natural circadian rhythm. A suggestion for programmers who spend hours in front of their laptops is the 20–20–20 pattern, which suggests that for every 20 minutes spent in front of a screen, look at something 20 feet(6 meters) away for 20 minutes. Try looking out the window at a nearby building or tree, across a coffee shop — while it may seem insignificant, awareness of the impacts of blue light can help build small habits that protect programmers’ health.

Queer femme and software developer based in Austin, TX.

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