Social media is a time-waster, as I’m sure you’ve experienced, and you should be spending more time outside in nature, frolicking in the flowers and feeling the sunlight on your skin. Okay, not really, but there is actually a medical reason you should avoid scrolling through endless social media feeds.
You’ve probably heard about how detrimental social media can be for your mental health, constantly comparing yourself to others and doing everything in your power to increase your followers. As it turns out, the actual act of scrolling is bad for you too—or, more specifically, for your eyes.
Ah, doomscrolling. What a perfect word to describe the need to continue browsing social media until we reach the end… which is, well, never.
Historically, the term “doomscrolling” has been used to describe the act of constantly feeding yourself bad news on social media, even though you know it has a negative effect on you. And even if you don’t necessarily use social media to see bad news, it has a way of making its way onto your social media or news feed. Then, you want to keep reading and coming back for more. It’s a bad cycle.
Since many of us have spent a lot more time indoors over the past few years with not much else to do besides sit in front of our screens, doomscrolling has likely increased. With that increase in doomscrolling, many people are possibly experiencing eye strain or cybersickness, which I’ll discuss in greater depth later in this article.
The act of constantly scrolling is not natural at all to our eyes. Certain tracking motions come naturally to our eyes, like surveying an area or even following a specific target, like a deer on a hunting trip. But scrolling nonstop? There’s nothing natural about it.
That said, there are other visually unnatural activities humans participate in, like driving at 70 miles per hour for long periods or focusing on an altitude gauge to know when to open a parachute while barreling through the sky. Although not all of us have experienced skydiving, most of us have experienced driving at high speeds.
Here’s the difference, though. When you take a road trip and drive at high speeds for long hours, you take breaks. You have to refuel, you have to go to the bathroom, and you have to eat. When you’re doing something as monotonous as driving, it’s much easier to remind yourself to take breaks. And skydiving, although it can feel way longer, is a pretty short activity; you don’t skydive for hours at a time.
Doomscrolling social media is constantly entertaining and engaging, so it’s difficult to remember to take breaks. Even if the content isn’t all that funny or interesting, it’s so easy to get sucked into a Twitter thread or an endless stream of Instagram reels.
When you’re on the sidewalk and watching cars race by, have you ever tried to focus on a specific car and follow it with your eyes? The same concept can be applied to scrolling through social media. Your eyes can’t focus and refocus as fast as you can scroll through our Twitter feed.
The more our eyes focus and refocus, the greater our eye strain and potential headaches. Imagine flexing your bicep for 10 seconds, letting it go, and doing this over and over for as long as you would usually browse your favorite social media platform. Your arm would get pretty tired, no?
According to Dr. Alex Conley, a neuro optometrist at Neuro Eye Team, it engages your accommodation system when your eyes are heavily focused on something. He states that “most causes of eye strain are caused by engaging this system for extended periods of time by focusing up close.”
He goes on to explain that it’s not necessarily the act of scrolling that’s harmful by itself, but the amount of time you spend on social media, engaging our accommodation system. And let’s be honest, how many of us are ever on social media for just a short period?
He recommends using the 20/20/20 Rule: Every 20 minutes, look at something that’s 20 feet away for about 20 seconds. Doing so gives your accommodation system a chance to relax.
Motion sickness is something you may be familiar with if you’ve ever played a game using a virtual reality (VR) headset or tried to read a book in a moving car. When you experience motion sickness, it’s because there’s a disconnect between three of your sensory systems: visual, proprioception, and vestibular.
In simpler terms, your eyes and your inner ear can’t seem to agree on whether or not you’re actually moving. When people experience that dreaded feeling of motion sickness while trying to play a VR game, it’s because your body is physically stationary in the real world, but your brain feels like it’s moving. Similarly, when you try to read a book in a moving car, your eyes are focusing on the book, which is stationary, while your inner ear is sensing movement. It’s a sensory mismatch.
You can experience the same imbalance between these three systems by scrolling on your phone for long periods. The situation here most aligns with the VR example above; your inner ear senses that you’re stationary, but your eyes see constant scrolling movement on your smartphone. The same concept applies if you’re sitting at your desk, constantly scrolling through articles on your desktop monitor or laptop.
Cybersickness is just the modernized word for motion sickness. Both cyber and motion sickness “happen through similar means neurologically,” according to Dr. Conley. When you see the term “cybersickness,” it’s a clear indicator that someone is talking about sickness from a screen, but it’s essentially motion sickness.
All that said, not everyone experiences motion sickness. I’m sure you know a friend or two who could play VR games with no issue right away. So why do some of us have issues when others don’t?
Dr. Conley mentions that when he has a patient experiencing motion sickness while driving, he tests their balance and how well their peripheral vision is being integrated into their body; oftentimes, both are decreased in his patients. After getting his patient a proper glasses prescription, he retests and finds that the patient is doing better with both balance and peripheral vision integration.
So if you’re experiencing motion sickness or cybersickness, whatever you want to label it, it might be worthwhile to make an appointment with your eye doctor to ensure there’s nothing else going on under the surface.
We’re not going to stop driving our cars at 70 miles per hour on the highway, and we’re not going to stop binging social media. Even though these actions may not be natural for our eyes, we’re willing to overlook the costs to keep doing what we’re doing.
The first helpful tip, and maybe the most obvious, is to limit the amount of time you spend with screens. Most of us are on our phones or computers way more than we should be.
However, those of us who have to use a computer for work can’t necessarily use it less. So for those people, use the 20/20/20 Rule that Dr. Conley mentioned. Every 20 minutes, look at something that’s about 20 feet away from you for about 20 seconds.
Then, although all forms of scrolling can feel unnatural and cause eye strain, having a smartphone or computer that supports higher refresh rates and smooth scrolling can help. Nowadays, many phones have smooth 120Hz refresh rates that make scrolling feel less harsh.
Lastly, but surely not least, be sure to keep regular appointments with your optometrist. Although an extra-long day of staring at your computer for work can cause a headache, it shouldn’t be a regular thing. And if headaches or any other negative physical symptoms are “normal” for you, please reach out to your optometrist.
Dr. Conley stated, “There is a reason for the discomfort and your body is telling you something is wrong. A complete eye health evaluation can help determine if those causes are from your vision.”