Do you ever feel like the light of your computer screen is burrowing into your eyes and making your head pulse? Or feel dizzy or nauseous after looking at your phone? While you might think these sensations are just eye strain or fatigue from looking at your screen for too long, they’re actually symptoms of a condition called cybersickness.
These issues may seem like a necessary evil with the rise of work from home, remote learning and days spent endlessly scrolling online. But I can assure you as a researcher in human computer interaction specializing in cybersickness that there are ways to anticipate and avoid feeling sick from your screens.
What is cybersickness?
Cybersickness refers to a cluster of symptoms that occur in the absence of physical motion, similar to motion sickness. These symptoms fall into three categories: nausea, oculomotor issues and general disorientation. Oculomotor symptoms, like eye strain, fatigue and headaches, involve overworking the nerve that controls eye movement. Disorientation can manifest as dizziness and vertigo. And several cybersickness symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating and blurred vision, overlap categories. These issues can persist for hours and affect sleep quality.
People can experience symptoms of cybersickness through everyday devices like computers, phones and TV. For instance, Apple released a parallax effect on iPhone lock screens in 2013 that made the background image seem like it floated or shifted when a user moved their phone around, which many people found extremely uncomfortable. As it turns out, this was because it triggered cybersickness symptoms. Parallax scrolling on websites, where a background image remains static while foreground content moves as you scroll, can also elicit these symptoms.
There isn’t total agreement among researchers about why people experience cybersickness. One prevailing idea, sensory conflict theory, hypothesizes that it’s from a mismatch of information perceived by the parts of the body that regulate vision and balance. Your eyes receive information that tells them you’re moving even though your body isn’t. Everyday technology design can trigger this conflict between visual perception and physical experience.