If you’ve ever felt a touch of lightheadedness or nausea while scrolling online, you may have had an episode of cybersickness. And if you’ve ever had motion sickness, you know what cybersickness feels like.
Motion sickness is common. It’s that nauseated, disorienting feeling that can happen on boats, in cars, and on amusement park rides for many people. Like motion sickness, cybersickness occurs when your senses send conflicting signals to your brain.
Cybersickness can occur when you scroll on your smartphone or computer, use multiple screens, or attend a virtual meeting in which someone else is controlling the screen.
It all has to do with orientation. You need your senses to get a feel for where you are and how you’re moving in the world. When your senses report contradictory information to the brain, it results in disorientation and physical symptoms.
Read on as we look at symptoms of cybersickness and what you can do to manage them.
Whether you’re sitting or actually moving, immersing yourself in a virtual reality (VR) experience can be disorienting and lead to motion sickness.
It can happen when you’re playing a game that simulates motion using headsets, 3-D video, or complicated graphics on large screens.
In 2018, researchers in Australia conducted two small trials to study motion sickness and cybersickness. One trial involved participants being blindfolded and riding a motorized rotating chair while tilting their heads at regular intervals. The other trial involved a visual stimulus in which participants “rode” a VR rollercoaster.
The majority of participants had symptoms of severe motion sickness, with little difference between the motion and cybersickness trials.
Whether caused by a VR experience or a session of fast-paced scrolling, the resulting symptoms are the same. That’s probably why the terms “VR sickness” and “cybersickness” are often used interchangeably.
Cybersickness doesn’t involve actual movement, so cybersickness and motion sickness are technically two different things. But the result is the same.
For the seasick version of motion sickness, imagine yourself on a boat. You’re in an interior cabin where your body feels the up and down movement, but your eyes see no evidence of movement. Next thing you know, you’re sick to your stomach.
Now go up on deck and focus on the horizon. Before too long, your eyes sync up with your other senses to set things right again.
With cybersickness, it’s not actual movement like on a boat that triggers it. It’s only the perception of movement that sets off the symptoms. Still, focusing on a steady object can turn things around.
As with motion sickness, some people experience cybersickness at the slightest provocation while others are unaffected. Symptoms typically involve nausea and lightheadedness.
Nausea tends to be an early sign of cybersickness. It may feel worse if your stomach is full or you’re already under the weather. Strong smells or a stuffy room can also aggravate nausea, which may escalate to vomiting.
Working at a screen for long periods, especially with the perception of movement, can make you feel lightheaded or as though the room is spinning. Dizziness can leave you feeling disoriented and make it difficult to concentrate.
Staring at electronic devices can be a big strain on the eyes, causing dryness, irritation, and blurry vision.
If you’ve been in one position too long, you might develop neck and shoulder strain. Along with eye strain, this could produce a headache. Other symptoms may include drowsiness, flushing, and sweating.
Cybersickness is caused by a mismatch in sensory input involving the:
- visual system (what your eyes tell your brain)
- vestibular system (what your inner ear senses with regard to head movement and balance)
- proprioceptive system (what sensory receptors throughout your body feel)
For example, if you’re looking at a flashing screen, your eyes will tell your brain there’s a lot of movement. But your vestibular and proprioceptive systems tell your brain that all is steady.
It’s a contradiction that can make you lightheaded and sick to your stomach.
The easiest solution is to try to prevent cybersickness in the first place. You may be able to do this by:
- reducing overall screen time
- taking frequent breaks to rest your eyes, stretch, and change positioning
- periodically focusing your eyes on something stable other than the screen
- avoiding use of multiple screens at one time
- choosing audio presentations over video when you can
- choosing audio or printed books over electronic reading material when possible
- writing notes by hand rather than electronically
- slowing your scroll speed
- turning off pop-ups and avoiding flashy displays
- avoiding heavy foods before long periods of screen time
- keeping the room ventilated and free of strong odors
- avoiding electronic screens when in a moving vehicle
If you can’t avoid an online event that might cause cybersickness, you can try using over-the-counter motion sickness medication.
When symptoms strike, you can also take long, deep breaths to help combat nausea. Try to break away from the screen at the first opportunity.
If you’re prone to cybersickness, it’s best to avoid complex video games and VR.
What are cybersickness glasses?
Motion sickness glasses have two lenses in the front and one on each side. There’s nothing in the lenses, but the rims are filled halfway with blue liquid. The liquid moves with movement to sync what your eyes see with what your body feels.
There’s a lack of research on the effect these glasses have on motion sickness. And since they’re intended to balance actual movement, they’re unlikely to be helpful for cybersickness.
You probably don’t need to see your doctor for an occasional bout of cybersickness. Do check in if you’re severely ill, or if you’re not sure of the cause.
Medications used to treat motion sickness may or may not be effective in treating cybersickness. If you must spend a lot of time online, it’s worth discussing these options with your doctor.
Cybersickness is akin to motion sickness, but it happens while using electronic screens rather than through actual movement.
Although symptoms like nausea and dizziness are the same, cybersickness doesn’t require any actual motion. You get it when your brain receives conflicting messages from your eyes, inner ears, and body that disorient you.
There are a few steps you can take to lower the chances of developing cybersickness. Shortening your overall screen time, taking frequent breaks, and periodically focusing away from the screen can help.
Avoid VR and complex video gaming if you’re prone to cybersickness.
If cybersickness is a frequent occurrence, speak with your doctor about how to prevent it or lessen its effects.