Most of us grew up in a time when anecdotal evidence was enough to prove a myth right or wrong. We didn’t need quantitative research or double-blind studies to tell us that the word of a trusted friend or family member was indeed true or false.
Nowadays, things are different. We’re a generation of skeptics — yet even so, myths and unfounded rumors abound. Let’s look at some “truths” about screens, monitors, and digital displays and cut through the fiction. How much of it stands up under scrutiny?
1. “Screen Light Reduces Sleep Quality”
In general, artificial light does decrease sleep quality and duration, and digital screens definitely do produce artificial light, so in a sense they do impact sleep . But many other objects produce artificial light, too: fluorescent bulbs, street lights, etc. What’s the difference?
Our body’s natural sleep/wake cycle is called our circadian rhythm, and this rhythm is disrupted by bright artificial light — especially light that’s in the blue-to-white part of the spectrum. Warmer tones of light, such as yellow and orange, also have an effect on sleep quality, but not as much as the cooler blues.
Using bright-screened devices before bed does disrupt your circadian rhythm by tricking your brain into believing it’s daylight. This halts the release of melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy and prepares you for night. That’s how a program like F.lux, which turns your monitor’s blue light into orange light, can actually help you sleep better at night.
What’s even more interesting is that this works both ways. Because they have a real effect, artificial blue light has been used to treat certain mood-related ailments like seasonal affective disorder.
2. “Screen Usage Causes Cancer”
This is a perfect example where causation does not equal correlation. In recent years, several empirical studies have used flawed methodologies and outright bad science in attempts to prove a link between screen usage and life-threatening diseases like cancer.
To be clear, these studies did find a correlation between people who spent more time in front of a screen and greater instances of cancer, but these studies also ignored additional factors.
For example, we’re now living in a period where cancer affects more people than at any point in history. At the same time, we’re in a period where people are using screens more than ever. However…
- We’re also living longer. The longer you live, the more likely you are to develop cancer.
- We’re more sedentary than ever. We no longer have to hunt or gather food, and a lot of us don’t even make trips to work and back anymore (cough).
- We’re eating more processed food in order to get quick meals in between work or what little recreational time we have.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of ways we can explain increased cancer instances that don’t involve computer screens. We can’t, however, conclusively prove that screens cause an increased number of cancer diagnoses. No study has done this yet.
3. “Screens Cause Diabetes & Depression”
Much like in the example above, this is yet another attempt to find a singular cause for problems brought on by sweeping lifestyle changes that happened over several decades.
People who spend a significant amount of time in front of the computer do indeed have greater instances of ailments like obesity, diabetes, and depression. However, the screen isn’t the cause. It’s a combination of the above-mentioned changes in lifestyle.
If you sit more, you’re going to gain weight. If you gain weight, you’re going to have health issues. Heavier people with health issues tend to have more problems with diabetes, depression, and anxiety-type mental conditions.
It’s not rocket science, and there are ways to improve your health even if you’re on the computer for hours every day.
4. “Screens Can Damage Your Vision”
Ophthalmologists agree that too much time staring at a screen isn’t “good” for your eyes, but depending on who you ask, you’ll get different answers regarding how much damage it actually causes.
The biggest fear is that heavy screen might lead to macular degeneration, which is one of the leading causes of blindness. But is there any evidence to support this fear?
At this time, there is no compelling evidence that even suggests long-term eye damage is possible from screen usage. However, you should still exercise caution because screens can cause eye strain, which could lead to temporary issues (we’ll explore these in the next section).
Verdict: Mostly fiction.
5. “Sitting Too Close Impairs Vision”
Many think that this myth is simply the proliferation of anecdotal evidence, bad science, and old wives’ tales. But as it turns out, there is the hint of truth somewhere within.
“It’s not an old wives’ tale; it’s an old technology tale,” Dr. Norman Saffra, the chairman of ophthalmology at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, told the New York Times. “Based on the world our grandmothers lived and grew up in, it was an appropriate recommendation.”
In 1967, GE informed the public that their color televisions were releasing somewhere between 10 and 100,000 times the amount of radiation generally deemed as safe. To combat this, they suggested that television-watchers should move further away from the television to minimize the impact.
But we don’t have this problem anymore.
Sure, staring too near to a screen — whether the screen is a television, monitor, or mobile device — can cause eye strain, headaches, blurry vision, and even nausea, but more often than not these problems are actually related to the angle of your head, shoulders, and neck. The distance to the screen has no impact.
For example, if you watch a toddler as they take in their favorite cartoon on TV, you’ll notice that they tend to sit just a few feet from the TV and stare up at it. This non-ergonomic position affects the eyes more than the actual distance.
Simply put, it doesn’t matter how far you sit from a screen. Rest your eyes when they start to get tired and make sure to always assume proper ergonomics, but otherwise, sit as close or as far as you need in order to be comfortable.
Verdict: Once fact, now fiction.
6. “Darkness Causes Vision Problems”
We’ve all heard that using the computer in a dark room is bad for your eyes — but this claim has absolutely no basis in scientific fact. It started as an old wives’ tale, and that’s where it should rest. Unfortunately, this unfounded myth keeps making the rounds in households and on the Internet.
To be fair, viewing a bright screen in a dark room does have an impact on your eyes, but not in a way that directly affects your vision. Rather, the combination of bright-screen-dark-room causes you to blink less, and that causes your eyes to dry out. Dryness leads to irritation and aches, but your vision itself suffers no long-term effects.
If you’re worried about this, you can always switch to a darker theme.
What are some other common old wives’ tales or myths you’ve heard surrounding screen usage? Which of these did you believe previously? Let us know in the comments below.
Image Credits: Sleeping by Tony Alter via Flickr, Surgeon Dr. Alex Cato by Department of Foreign Affairs (Australia) via Flickr