Is Too Much Screen Time Making You Sick? Managing Cybersickness

Digital Health
4 min read

Watery, irritated, burning eyes, heavy eyelids, and headaches–You're no stranger to these common woes of digital life.

These minor symptoms can seem like temporary inconveniences, but what happens when they manifest into more serious issues?

Whether you're a student remote learning or a professional working from home, the perils of too much screen time have touched us all.

And this overdose of screen time is not only making our eyes tired but also making us physically sick.

If you've spent hours in front of a screen and have ended up getting headaches, feeling dizzy or nauseous, know that you are not alone. What you're experiencing is called 'cybersickness' and it's very real.


‘It's a Modern Day Epidemic'

Too much screen time can lead to tiredness of your eyes and dry eyes, but overdo it, and you could end up with serious oculomotor symptoms like eye strain, fatigue, headaches and also disorientation, and difficulty in concentrating.

Dr Anita Sethi, Director, Ophthalmology, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram, explains this.

"Many hours in front of the screen most commonly leads to what we call dry eyes–when the natural lubrication of the eyes dries up," she says.

"During the pandemic, we have been getting an influx of such cases, and people coming in with complains of burning in the eyes, or tiredness, these are also symptoms of eye strain or digital strain."
Dr Anita Sethi, Director, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram

This happens because of the overworking of the nerves of the eyes.

But these symptoms can be worsened because of an overlap of different issues, like dehydration, lack of sleep, stress, on top of long hours of screen time.

What is Cybersickness?

To put it simply, cybersickness is like motion sickness but without the motion.

Though typically cybersickness is associated with virtual reality headsets and simulators, an increasing number of people have been reporting symptoms of cybersickness from everyday gadgets like their phones and computers.

In fact, this phenomenon is so common that Apple had to tone down the dynamic screen motion effects of their iPhone 7 because it was triggering symptoms of motion sickness, and vertigo in users.

There isn't a definite reason for why this happens, but researchers co-relate the phenomenon to that of motion sickness to understand it better.

Dr Aparna Mahajan, Consultant, ENT, Fortis Hospital explains.

"In our ears there are balancing apparatus called the labyrinth," she says. "80 percent of the body's equilibrium is maintained by organs in the labyrinth."

The brain typically uses these sensory organs (vestibule system) in the ears (and the eyes) to gauge movement.

"The labyrinth is responsible for maintaining our body's balance in relation to motion. Each ear has one labyrinth, and when the body is in motion, they send signals to the brain, alerting it to the movement. When the body is in motione, they balance each other out to maintain equilibrium.
Dr Aparna Mahajan, Consultant, ENT, Fortis Hospital, Faridabad

But when you're in a moving vehicle, your body isn't moving in itself, yet your sensory organs including your eyes and your ears are registering motion.

"So, when that happens, there is an imbalance in certain individuals, and then the person experiences symptoms like nausea, swinging, and dizziness," she says.

"Similarly when there is a virtual movement, there can be a mismatch between the vestibule system or the balance organs in the ears and what the eyes are seeing,
Dr Aparna Mahajan, Consultant, ENT, Fortis Hospital, Faridabad

"The eyes are stimulating the brain, but the balance apparatus is not sensing that movement which leads to a disproportionate signal reaching the brain. So the patient may experience similar symptoms of dizziness, nausea and giddiness from these gadgets as well," she further explains.

In fact, 'simulator sickness' is a major challenge faced by those training to fly or drive using simulation machines.

And just like in the case of motion sickness, some people may be more prone to cybersickness than others.

A Stitch in Time...

If you experience cybersickness from every day screen time, one of the most obvious solutions to the problem is to decrease screen time.

Given our lives in the pandemic, this isn't so easy when our livelihoods, education, recreation, and even social lives depend on it.

But there are ways to work around it and reduce everyday eyestrain and cybersickness. Dr Sethi recommends the following.

  • Follow the 20-20-20 Rule

    Every twenty minutes, give your eyes a rest of 20 seconds by looking away from the screen at a distance of 20 meters.

  • Blue light glasses can help. (But it is not a free pass for uncontrolled screentime)

    "If you are a young professional, or a student who can't do without spending many hours in front of the screen, it is good to use blue light glasses as an added protection," she says.

"Using a blue light glass is not a substitute to decreasing screentime and taking other measures of care."
Dr Anita Sethi, Director, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram
  • Be mindful of your posture

    Make sure you're upright, and avoid using your gadgets while you're in bed, or lying down.

  • Blink More!

    "When you are looking at a screen, you tend to forget to blink which aggregates dryness. Make a conscious effort to blink more when you're looking at a screen for long periods of time can help."

  • Make sure the lighting in the room is adequately bright

    Looking at screens in dimlighting or darkness can further strain your eyes.

  • Take breaks between zoom calls

    Zoom fatigue–mental exhaustion associated with video conferences–was established earlier on in the pandemic as a very real issue faced by working professionals. When you start feeling uncomfortable or drained, take a short break.

  • Get regular Eye checkups

"Because of lockdown, people have generally been putting off going for eye check ups. They may have a power and not know, and end up straining their eyes even more," says Dr Sethi.

  • Drink lots of water throughout the day to keep yourself from getting dehydrated.

  • Take care of your diet & exercise

    Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, especially coloured vegetables.

  • Get adequate sleep and try to maintain a regular sleep cycle.

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