Digital Natives: An entire generation at risk for digital device use symptoms

young woman wearing headphones and smiling at a tablet.

At some point during the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly everyone had a day (perhaps a few days) when they took a step back and thought, "I'm spending way too much time on my devices." In your practice, you may have spoken with adults concerned about their own device use and parents worried about the impact the exponential increase in screen time over the last two years was having on their child's eyesight. Individuals like K-12 teachers who never experienced the dry eyes, headaches, or blurred vision characteristic of digital eye strain may have stopped by your office for the first time with these complaints.1   

It might surprise you to know that even before COVID-19 changed how, why, and where we use our digital devices for work and leisure, an entire generation was living much of their lives in digital environments. This generation, the so-called "digital natives," do not remember life without the internet, social networks, and smartphone technology.2

In this ECP Viewpoints post, we will cover the characteristics of this generation to help you better understand this group of patients.

Defining digital devices

To understand who digital natives are, it is first helpful to define digital devices. Desktop and laptop computers, smartphones, tablets, gaming devices and e-readers all fall under the umbrella of digital devices, with wide-ranging use from work and education through to social media, TV and news content, gaming and, increasingly, video communication.

Digital natives:  teens, college-age and young adults

The oldest individuals who can be considered digital natives are part of Generation Z or Gen Z. They are young adults in their 20s who have graduated college and are entering the workforce.2-4  This cohort was born after 1995 but before 2015.2-4

Digital life means always connected

This young generation lives much of their lives digitally and is therefore always connected somehow. Most digital natives of all ages (98%) have smartphones.5 These patients got their first smartphones at a much earlier age than previous generations.4

You may have heard digital natives called the "mobile-only generation" because of their propensity for doing everything possible on their phones.5,6  Nearly all have access to a computer at home and spend a lot of time online during the day.5 In fact, more than 40% of digital natives report that they are "almost constantly" on the internet and that they go online several times a day.6 A majority of individuals in this age group play video games.5

Many young adults who make up the older portion within Gen Z also play games on their devices and report being online almost constantly.7,8

Devices offer relaxation and entertainment

Preferred leisure activities are also dependent on devices. Digital Natives turn to their devices to help them relax and release pent-up energy. A survey of 1,884 digital natives found that they overwhelmingly prefer activities that involve screens and digital devices such as watching TV, Netflix, or YouTube, playing video games, or being on social media to outdoor activities, sports, reading, or other activities.9 Many digital natives check for messages as soon as they wake up and feel anxious when they don't have their cellphone with them.10 They're also uncomfortable being without internet access for an extended period—with two-thirds reporting that they're uncomfortable going without internet access for more than 4 hours.9,11

Devices are an educational necessity

In addition to being used for leisure, devices are a classroom and after-school necessity for today's digital natives.

Pre-pandemic, technology and device use were ubiquitous in classrooms. Students are taught early to use various computer-based programs like Microsoft Office, iMovie, or Photoshop.11  For older students, 73% of high school teachers reported that their students were using tablets or laptops daily, and 70% said that phones were causing classroom disruptions (further evidence of this generation's knack for multitasking).13

In a recent survey of chief online learning officers at public 2- and 4-year and private 4-year colleges, 59% said that it is likely that emergency remote learning and online courses developed in response to the pandemic will evolve into permanent new online degree offerings for some programs. Most respondents also said the pandemic increased priority for future online learning.14

In fall 2021, students of all ages who spent countless consecutive hours on tablets and laptops—likely triggering or exacerbating symptoms of digital eye strain— emerged from nearly a year of virtual learning to return to school in person. Yet online learning appears here to stay. Some K-12 school districts created programming for families to opt-in for virtual-only learning in fall 2021. With the ever-changing pandemic, school districts and colleges are exploring plans to start 2022 with a return to virtual learning, albeit temporarily.15-17

No matter the learning format students of all ages will likely be staring at devices during and after the school day for at least the year to come.

Adding up all that device use equals symptoms

man working on laptop, tablet, and smartphone.

Young adults are spending more time than ever on their devices. Combining time spent on devices at school or work with the time spent on devices for leisure adds up to symptoms of digital device use.

Some people use multiple digital devices simultaneously--especially when trying to multitask or when using social media--which is associated with a greater prevalence of symptoms related to digital device use.18,19 Evidence suggests that a whopping 87% of teenagers are extreme multitaskers and frequently use more than two devices at a time while multitasking.9,20,21  Additionally, young adults in Generation Z spend about four hours per day on smartphone apps and 12 hours per week on social media.5,22 People start to report symptoms after two or more hours on digital devices.21

Beyond the device, environmental factors can contribute to symptoms. Digital natives spend long stretches of time in various settings in front of screens, many of them less than ideal. Distance from the screen, poor lighting, and few breaks from devices during the day could fuel an increase in digital device use symptoms in this age group.

Growing demand for relief 

Digital natives now use digital devices in new ways and for more extended periods than ever before. Ongoing, constant digital device use in so many areas of school, work, and leisure add up to a potentially dramatic rise in cases of digital lifestyle symptoms. Individuals previously unaffected or unaware of the condition may now be exhibiting symptoms due to how they were using digital devices for work and school during the pandemic and beyond. Additionally, current contact lens wearers or those with glasses may find that they need to upgrade their contact lens technology to find relief.

Optometrists can play a vital role in addressing this issue, satisfying patients, and driving long-lasting loyalty to their practice. Check back for other posts detailing business opportunities for reaching digital natives and the impact that MyDay Energys® and Biofinity Energys® may help in alleviating some of the digital lifestyle symptoms.


  1. American Optometric Association. Computer vision syndrome. Accessed January 2, 2022.

  2. Parker K, Igielnik R. On the cusp of adulthood and facing an uncertain future: what we know about Gen Z so far. May 14, 2020. Accessed January 1, 2022. Pew Research Center.

  3. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. What are the core characteristics of Generation Z? January 12, 2021. Updated April 14, 2021. Accessed January 1, 2022.

  4. Rekos M. What makes Gen Z click. Presented at: the North Carolina Independent Colleges & Universities Administrative Meeting Group; January 8, 2020. Accessed January 1, 2022.

  5. Freer A. Gen Z are spending more time in finance and shopping apps during Q3 2020. Business of Apps. October 22, 2020. Accessed January 1, 2022.

  6. Anderson M, Jiang J. Teens, social media & technology 2018. Pew Research Center. May 31, 2018. Accessed January 1, 2022.

  7. Eyes overexposed: the digital device dilemma. 2016 digital eye strain report. The Vision Council. Accessed August 3, 2020.

  8. Perrin A, Kumar M. About three-in-ten US adults say they are 'almost constantly' online. Pew Research Center. Published July 25, 2019. Accessed January 1, 2022.

  9. Green D. America's phone-obsessed teens are always multitasking, and it's starting to cost them. 2019. Business Insider. Accessed July 1, 2022.

  10. Jiang J. How teens and parents navigate screen time and device distractions. Pew Research. August 22, 2018. Accessed January 1, 2022.

  11. Williams R. Gen Z wants brands to be 'fun,' 'authentic' and 'good,' study says. Marketing Dive. July 8, 2020. Accessed January 1, 2022.

  12. Common Sense®. The Common Sense census: inside the 21st century classroom. 2019. Accessed January 1, 2022.

  13. MidAmerica Nazarene University. Tech in the classroom. Accessed January 1, 2022.

  14. Garrett R, Simunich B, Legon R, Fredericksen EE for Quality Measures and Eduventures®. CHLOE 6: online learning leaders adapt for a post-pandemic world. June 8, 2021. Accessed January 1, 2022.

  15. Richards E. After a tough year, schools are axing virtual learning. Some families want to stay online. USA Today. June 5, 2021. Updated June 15, 2021. Accessed January 1, 2022.

  16. Zalaznick M. K-12 closings tracker: A growing number of districts will start 2022 remote. District Administration. December 23, 2021. Accessed January 1, 2022.

  17. Taking a step back: US colleges returning to online classes. US News & World Report. January 1, 2022. Accessed January 1, 2022.

  18. Rosenfield M. Computer vision syndrome (a.k.a. digital eye strain). Optom Pract. 2016;17(1):1-10.

  19. Sheppard AL, Wolffsohn JS. Digital eye strain: prevalence, measurement and amelioration. BMJ Open Ophthalmol. 2018;3(1):e000146. doi:10.1136/bmjophth-2018-000146

  20. Eyes overexposed: the digital device dilemma. 2016 digital eye strain report. The Vision Council. Accessed August 3, 2020.

  21. The Vision Council. Eyes overexposed: the digital device dilemma. 2016 digital eye strain report. Accessed August 3, 2020.

  22. Piper Jaffray. Taking Stock With Teens®: a collaborative Gen Z insights project. Fall 2019. October 8, 2019. Accessed January 1, 2022.


More Blog Posts
Related posts