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Since the onslaught of remote work and the increasing popularity of virtual reality, people are spending more and more time looking at screens. Think of the hours spent on Zoom calls, the endless scrolling through social media or binge-worthy Netflix options, or whole days immersed in virtual reality games.
This new lifestyle challenges our bodies and minds and for some, all of this screen time can lead to cybersickness. If you’ve ever felt dizzy or nauseated or ended a day of remote work with a pounding headache, you may have experienced cybersickness.
How does cybersickness happen?
If you’ve ever felt nauseated after reading in the car, cybersickness is much the same. Our eyes and ears have special mechanisms for perceiving our surroundings and cybersickness (and all types of motion sickness) happens when there’s a mismatch between what your eyes see and the motion sensed by your body (Gavgani 2018).
When eyes see movement but the vestibular system—the mechanism of the inner ear responsible for balance and spatial awareness–thinks the body is at rest, the mismatched signals cause the brain to experience motion sickness. In the case that screens are involved, this is called cybersickness. When your body knows it’s sitting still but your eyes see a character running through a virtual world or the rapid movement of a scroll bar, your senses get confused.
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Symptoms of cybersickness
If you experience any of these symptoms while playing a virtual reality game or during a long session of scrolling, you may be experiencing cybersickness:
- A lingering sense of movement
Causes of cybersickness
Understanding the mechanisms involved in the experience of cybersickness is helpful, but what leads the senses to this mismatched state? Why does the body rebel against our digital lives with protests of nausea and dizziness?
The simple answer is that our bodies evolved to survive in a world much different from the one we live in now. We experience motion sickness in cars, on planes, and when riding roller coasters, all forms of transportation that propel our bodies at speeds and in ways which they could never move on their own. Our senses have a set of expectations for what we should be seeing and feeling when we’re sitting down. When the vestibular system thinks the body is at rest but the eyes see the rapid movement of a screen, it contradicts these expectations, leading to cybersickness.
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And while scientists used to think that women were more susceptible to cybersickness, a 2020 study found that it wasn’t a function of gender at all but rather due to poorly fitting virtual reality headsets. The headsets were designed for men so they were typically too big for women. This causes the screen—which a virtual reality environment turns into the user’s whole world—to be misaligned, worsening the feeling of disorientation (Stanney, 2020).
Treatments for cybersickness
The treatments are pretty straightforward, but you may not like them.
- Try to reduce screen time. Printing out articles can be a helpful way to shift reading away from computers and phones. Make sure to take breaks by looking up, walking around, and breathing deeply. Don’t wait until you feel sick either. Schedule these breaks into your work or leisure time on screens. This can help productivity as well.
- If you compulsively check your phone, explore apps to help monitor and restrict your screen time.
- Ensure that virtual reality headsets fit snugly and securely.
If you can’t shake cybersickness and your life requires you to spend large amounts of time on a screen, talk to your healthcare provider.
- Gavgani, A. M., Walker, F. R., Hodgson, D. M., & Nalivaiko, E. (2018). A comparative study of cybersickness during exposure to virtual reality and “classic” motion sickness: are they different?. Journal of Applied Physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985). doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00338.2018. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30284516/
- Reason, J. T. (1978). Motion sickness adaptation: A neural mismatch model. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 71(11), 819–829. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/731645/
- Stanney, K., Fidopiastis, C., & Foster, L. (2020). Virtual reality is sexist: But it does not have to be. Frontiers in Robotics and AI, 7, 4. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33501173/
- Weech, S., Wall, T., & Barnett-Cowan, M. (2020). Reduction of cybersickness during and immediately following noisy galvanic vestibular stimulation. Experimental Brain Research, 238(2), 427–437. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31938844/
Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.