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‘Cybersickness’ Is Becoming a New Epidemic

It’s the end of a long day in front of the computer and you’re feeling off. Maybe you have a headache. Maybe you feel nauseous. Maybe you have cybersickness.

What is cybersickness?

Although it sounds like it’s something that afflicts only robots, cybersickness is a very real phenomenon that’s becoming more and more common as our lives become increasingly screen-centric.

Researchers in the early ’90s began to use the word to describe when virtual reality users experienced motion sickness while playing games. But you don’t need to be wearing a V.R. set to feel the annoying and sometimes debilitating side effects of cybersickness.

“Say you’re scrolling on a screen for a long period of time and it’s filling up your visual field—that can give your body the sense that it’s moving,” explains Matthew Crowson, M.D., a neurotologist at Massachusetts Eye and Ear. “However, your body knows that you’re not moving. It’s that conflict of signals that drives the symptoms of cybersickness.”

To date, much of the research on cybersickness has been related to virtual reality, with studies estimating anywhere from 20% to 95% of users experience some form of cybersickness, depending on how immersive the content is. Considering how common it is, chances are you’ve experienced it.

Is cybersickness different from motion sickness?

With cybersickness and motion sickness, there is conflict between your ears and eyes, which your brain is not a fan of.

The symptoms of the two are almost identical, but sensory-wise they’re caused by opposite things. With motion sickness your body is moving in space, such as in a moving car or on a boat rocking at sea, but your eyes aren’t getting the same information. Crowson gives the example of reading while in a car: Your eyes are focused on the words, thinking you’re stationary, but the rest of your body is sensing the movement of the car.

What are the symptoms of cybersickness?

“Dizziness is the prominent complaint,” says Crowson. “Typically people feel nauseous, tired, and fatigued.”

A 2018 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology looked at the symptoms from motion sickness in comparison to cybersickness from V.R. and found a variety of overlapping symptoms, with nausea being the most common. Other complaints included dizziness, sweating, and feeling hot.

A 2020 study discovered that cybersickness can last long after the exposure, impacting “stability, hand-eye coordination, visual functioning and general well-being.” Crowson echoes these findings, revealing cybersickness can last up to seven hours after exposure.

What causes cybersickness?

Everything from scrolling quickly on your phone—think playing games or zooming through social media—to having a large screen in front of you (computer or TV) with fast-moving images can cause you to have cybersickness. And yes, that could include watching action scenes in a spy movie.

“Your eyes and ears have a balance system that helps your body sense where it is in space,” says Crowson. “With cybersickness, your eyes think you’re moving but you’re stationary. It’s a sensory conflict.”

In his work, Crowson has also found a strong correlation between migraine sufferers and those who also suffer from cybersickness. The main reason being migraine sufferers are visually sensitive and tend to have issues with motion sickness too.

How do you treat cybersickness?

The moment you feel the onset of symptoms, you should take a break from whatever screen you’re looking at. Crowson says you need to give your brain the visual cues that you’re not moving, ideally by looking at the horizon (which, depending on where you live, might not be possible). Even if you can’t see the horizon, anything outside or not moving around you will do.

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