Does Staring at a Screen Make You Nauseous? You Can Blame 'Cybersickness' (Not Your Eyesight)
Yep, there’s a legitimate, scientific reason your computer makes you feel foggy, queasy, and dizzy. Here's what to do about it.
If you're like most Americans, you're spending more hours on screens than ever before—and extremely sick of it. But for some people, excessive screen time isn't just a pain in the neck—it literally makes them feel sick. Screen activity, especially prolonged screen activity, can cause something called "cybersickness," a phenomenon akin to motion sickness that results in very real feelings of nausea, bleariness, dizziness, and migraines. While cybersickness hits some individuals worse or more often than others and can seem impossible to avoid in this über-digital age, there are some helpful ways to curb screen use and tackle the very unpleasant sensation of feeling seasick at your desk.
Too much screen time isn’t good for anybody, but for some individuals, being on screens for prolonged periods can cause cybersickness, which experts say is similar to motion sickness in several ways. You might feel nauseated, your head might start aching, and in some cases, you might even feel dizzy or foggy-brained. But really what’s going on in your brain and body when it happens?
“Cybersickness occurs when your brain receives messages that you’re moving—for instance, by a flashing screen—when you are, in fact, still,” explains Gillian Isaacs Russell, PhD, a psychotherapist in Boulder, Colo.
This is called visual vestibular conflict. One of the most familiar examples of visual vestibular conflict is if you feel sick while trying to read in the car as a passenger. While your eyes are focused on a stationary object, the rest of your body perceives movement (you are technically moving at the speed of the vehicle, even though you’re sitting still in your seat). “As a result, this creates a type of confusion where your eyes sense one thing and your inner ear and body detect something else,” says Christina Finn, OT, assistant professor of occupational therapy at New York Institute of Technology in Long Island. When that kind of mixed messaging happens, you might feel nauseated or dizzy, especially if you’re prone to motion sickness.
Similarly, screen time, especially those with moving images, can also create a type of visual vestibular conflict. “In this case, your eyes may detect movement on the screen while your body remains stationary, setting up a conflict that can cause similar feelings of motion sickness,” Finn says, adding that it doesn’t take all day to hit you—this might occur after only one or two hours of screen use. Depending on the individual, symptoms can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours.
There may be another culprit at play, and that’s blue light, which emanates from screens. Researchers suggest that blue light exposure may disrupt sleep and recommend reducing screen time before bed, but the recommendation may also be connected to mitigating cybersickness. “When people look at screens, some may experience it as nausea and dizziness associated with eye strain, which may be associated with blue light exposure,” Finn says.
While anybody can experience cybersickness, those who are most susceptible to it include people who have a history of migraines, anybody who’s prone to motion sickness, and individuals with vestibular issues or a history of concussion, Finn says. Young children, older adults, and women (perhaps because of fluctuating hormone levels) are also susceptible.
The obvious solution to cybersickness is to avoid screens, which is not only impossible, but improbable in today’s society. So the keys are to take preventive steps and make a realistic-for-you plan to limit screen time where possible.
1. Reorient your brain and body often.
First, help remind your body where it is in space by getting up and walking around more frequently. Of course, health experts warn against the dangers of sitting too much, and health organizations like the Mayo Clinic recommend getting up every 30 minutes which might be a wise idea to fend off cybersickness, too.
“Your body will gain more information about its position in space, which reduces sensory conflict,” Finn says. “Sometimes, I refer to this as reminding your eyes that they have a body attached to them.” You can also sit on an exercise ball or a more movable surface to give your brain even more information about where your body is in space.
2. Take active steps to prevent eye strain.
“If you hold a dumbbell for 10 hours without a break, you can imagine the muscle will fatigue, your arm will hurt, and you won’t be able to hold it up—which is what happens to the eyes,” says Christopher Starr, MD, ophthalmologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian in New York City. Plus, when you stare at a screen, your blink rate decreases by about 50 percent, which causes the eyes to dry out. That can lead to eye strain, which worsens as the day goes on.
To minimize eye strain, Dr. Starr suggests following the 20-20-20-20 rule. Take a break from your screen every 20 minutes and look into the distance 20 feet or further for 20 seconds. Use the last 20 seconds to rewet and lubricate the eye surface by closing your eyes for 20 seconds or blinking 20 times in rapid succession.
You can also use preservative-free artificial tear drops if your eyes feel dry and place your computer screen below eye level. “Looking down [slightly] can reduce dryness since the eyes aren’t open as widely,” Starr says.
3. Minimize blue light exposure.
You should also reduce your blue light exposure wherever possible. Many devices have blue light filters built into them, Finn says. Check your phone and computer display settings to see if there’s an option to reduce blue light or buy a filter for your screen. You might also want to buy an inexpensive pair of blue light glasses, which help filter out the blue light from screens, says Russel, who speaks from experience. She's suffered from migraines from long hours in front of a screen and now wears blue light glasses whenever she’s on the computer, which she says have helped her immensely.
You’ll never be able to ditch screens entirely, but with the above strategies and a little discipline, you can hopefully keep your cybersickness at bay.