Why You Feel “Off’ After Scrolling Through Your Phone or Working on a Laptop
Similar to feelings of motion sickness, symptoms of nausea and dizziness are becoming increasingly common among computer users. Medical experts refer to it as digital motion sickness, or cyber sickness.
I’ve dealt with symptoms of digital motion sickness for over a year now and, as a writer who spends the majority of my day on a laptop, it has been debilitating. A quick search of “cyber sickness” on Twitter (#cybersickness) delivers a tsunami of results, and there is a myriad of online forums dedicated to the subject. Tech companies like Apple are responding to reports of digital motion sickness by adding iPhone accessibility settings that reduce motion and developing flicker-free, retina-display computer screens that reduce eye strain. In most of my initial encounters with medical specialists, they had little knowledge of the condition, but this is starting to change.
“Awareness of this condition as a chronic issue is coming up more in the medical community,” says Dr. Briar Sexton, a neuro-ophthalmologist based in Vancouver. “We’re having more patients report it to us and certainly recognizing that telling a young person to quit their job because they can’t scroll a mouse isn’t optimal advice.”
Motion sickness is caused by a mismatch between the information being received and processed by the eyes, inner ear and brain. When you’re on a boat, your body feels like it’s moving, but your eyes tell you that you’re sitting in a room, so you feel sick, says Dr. Sexton. Digital motion sickness occurs because the opposite is happening: Your eyes perceive movement, such as rapidly scrolling on a screen, but your body is stationary. “If you have ever been at a stoplight and suddenly put your brakes on because the car beside you is moving when you thought your car was moving, that’s what’s going on inside your brain.” explains Dr. Sexton.
Dr. Sexton says symptoms can range from feeling light-headed and dizzy to experiencing a bad headache or, in the most severe cases, throwing up. Cyber sickness differs from the eye strain commonly felt after a long day in front of the computer in terms of the onset of symptoms. “When people sit in front of screens, scrolling for long periods of time, they can start to feel woozy, but for people who are really sensitive, the feeling can be almost instantaneous,” says Dr. Sexton.
The issue is common in people who have had concussions or have a vestibular disorder, but it also strikes those without any head trauma or illness. A history of migraines, syncope (fainting) and other kinds of motion sickness may predispose people, according to Erica Zaia, a vestibular audiologist and vice-president of BC Balance and Dizziness.
A study by the University of Minnesota also suggests that the condition is much more common in women due to an innate difference between the sexes in the control of postural balance. Zaia confirms that most of her patients who suffer from cyber sickness are female. The link there may be migraines, which are also more highly reported among women, suggesting a genetic or biological basis for digital motion sickness, says Zaia.
Cyber sickness is a subset of visually induced dizziness, explains Zaia. Patients are also likely triggered by 3-D movies, busy visual environments like malls and supermarkets and even drives through tree-lined streets where there is a continuous pattern of shadow and light. “I’ve seen these symptoms for 25 years now, before smartphones existed,” says Zaia. “The triggers have just changed.”
Popular opinion online suggests that, much like people who get migraines, there is a high-anxiety, perfectionist personality type linked to digital motion sickness. However, both Zaia and Dr. Sexton are quick to dispel this notion, stating that there is no scientific evidence to back such a claim.
There may not be a correlation with personality, but a new study by researchers at the University of Antwerp in Belgium suggests that a certain brain type is more susceptible to the condition — proof that certain people are hard-wired to experience digital motion sickness. The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to explore functional brain connectivity in 10 patients with visually induced dizziness and 10 healthy matched control subjects. The tests showed altered brain functionality in the visual and vestibular cortical networks of those with visually induced dizziness, which could explain why challenging visual stimuli triggers symptoms.
Zaia hopes the research will spur more studies on the subject. The lack of hard numbers on the severity and scope of the problem points to the newness of the issue and is also a hurdle for getting proper medical care. “Once this has been studied more, medical professionals will start taking it more seriously and our understanding of how to treat it will also change,” she says.
Kay Stanney is the CEO of Design Interactive, a Florida-based company that works with virtual reality (VR) content developers to ensure that their applications are optimized with regard to digital motion sickness. “I started hearing reports of cyber sickness 20 years ago, when we were doing research on the early stages of VR training for the military,” says Stanney.
Feeling sick while viewing VR content is common, with two-thirds of healthy individuals experiencing some level of nausea, dizziness and disorientation, according to Stanney. However, as the screens we use every day, such as laptops and smartphones, become increasingly 3-D, it only stands to reason that they will provoke similar symptoms. “VR applications that have dumbed down the visual detail actually do better,” says Stanney. ”Wide fields of view and lots of detail in the periphery cause vection [where the movement of something else makes you feel like you’re moving], so that’s really difficult.”
Apple added a “reduce motion” accessibility setting to its iPhone after adding a parallax to iO S 7. The parallax gives a mild 3-D effect and makes app icons appear as though they’re moving against the background wallpaper and responding to the tilt of the screen. Shortly after its release, people took to Twitter and Apple forums to report feelings of nausea. This could be an ongoing issue for the tech giant and other companies like it as 3-D technology develops. Apple recently launched ARKit, an augmented-reality app that blends objects on the screen with a user’s surrounding environment.
For patients who suffer from chronic digital motion sickness, Zaia uses rehabilitation therapy to treat the issue. The therapy involves controlled, repetitive exposure to stimuli that trigger symptoms until the brain is retrained to process those visual triggers properly. Optokinetic stimulation uses moving images on a screen, such as scrolling black-and-white stripes and eye movements that simulate screen-based work, to desensitize the brain. “The idea is to do the movements over and over again so that your brain eventually gets the memo that it’s OK for your eyes to be moving, even though you’re not,” explains Zaia.
Other coping mechanisms include experimenting with lower light settings on a screen, adjusting head position and viewing angle and minimizing the amount of scrolling a person does. Zaia recommends creating as much distance as you can between your eyes and the screen — a tactic I’ve found particularly helpful. By sitting at a distance and putting as much information as you can on one screen before moving down to another block of text, you minimize the amount of eye movement. For some, looking away from the screen at a fixed point in the distance or at a plain background and doing some deep breathing for several minutes may be enough to calm symptoms.
The Bottom Line
If you’re being dismissed by your doctor, Zaia urges people to see another doctor. “There are conditions that predispose you to it, and your brain may be hard-wired to experience digital motion sickness,” she says. “It’s a real issue.”
Next, learn if it’s time for you to go on a tech detox.