Big Screens: Bad for your Eyes?

There are a million different considerations you put into purchasing your big screen TV, but have you thought about your health? It’s not until people experience eye irritation that most people ask, “Hey, wait- are big screens bad for your eyes?”

Too much screen time can be bad for your eyes. It’s less about the device (TV, cell phone, tablet, computer, monitor, laptop, etc) and more about engaging in healthy viewing habits.

The Symptoms

The symptoms that inspire this question include:

  • Blurry vision
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Dry eyes
  • Headaches
  • Neck pain
  • Back pain
  • General eye irritation

These are signs of digital eye strain that typically come from excessive exposure to blue light, but Big Screens that are TOO big and poor video resolution can also contribute.

What is Blue Light?

Casually speaking, blue light is what causes your eyes to get tired when you’ve been in front of a computer or TV for too long. The reason can be visually understood by watching someone use a cell phone in the dark: the light shines directly on their face.

Not all light shining on your face is bad, but there is a reason people use sunscreen, right? Blue light is similar to ultra-violet light (UV) in that it’s non-visible and comes from regular sunlight, too.

We all know the colors of the rainbow (ROYGBIV): Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. Of all those light colors, Blue has the highest energy photons (and thus the smallest wavelengths). These shorter wavelengths (just like UV/HEV rays) allow Blue Light to more easily penetrate the retina, causing damage.

Sunlight vs. TV Light

You’re probably wondering: if sunlight has blue light in it and TVs emit blue light, what’s the difference? There are two main differences:

  • Sunlight is indirect and TV light is direct. You don’t stare at the sun, rather you look at objects that have sunlight bouncing off of them. However you do stare at TV screens.
  • Televisions have a much greater composition of blue light than sunlight.

There’s an even more obvious difference between sunlight and TV light, though: sunlight only occurs during the day (duh!). But wait- this is an important distinction.

Can’t Sleep?

The human body has evolved to produces melatonin (a sleep-inducing hormone) when it identifies nighttime. The presence of blue light (naturally from the sun) is one indicator the brain uses to make that determination, suppressing the creation of melatonin when blue light is plentiful.

This explains why watching TV and using your cell phone before bed may actually keep you awake at night- you can blame blue light from your screen. It’s tricking your body into thinking it’s still day time, refusing to produce melatonin, and preventing you from sleeping (among other things).

Studies from prestigious universities such as Harvard support these claims.

How To Reduce Blue Light

If our ultimate goal is to keep our eyes healthy and happy, not to mention prevent long-term eye damage, we can achieve both by reducing over exposure to blue light.

(1) Blue Light Filters & Apps

Following in the footsteps of smartphones and computers, many TVs (and other devices) come with built-in Blue Light filters. Alternatively, the advent of Smart TVs may allow you to download a blue light filter app to your TV. This will of course depend on your model.

(2) Cinema Mode

If your TV doesn’t have a built-in Blue Light filter option or app you can download, look for a Cinema or Movie mode in the settings. This mode will feature more natural colors rather than the “Vivid” type of style options that blast blue light through the roof.

(3) Adjust Brightness, Contrast, Color Temperature

You can manually put your eyes at ease by accessing your device settings and making the following adjustments on your own (and to your liking):

  • Turn the Brightness down
  • Turn the Contrast up
  • Make the Color temperature warmer

Look throughout your TV menus to see what options you have. Many devices will have a “Night Mode” or “Automatic Brightness” that will adjust the brightness depending on the amount of light in the room- which is receommneded to reduce eye strain.

(4) Rest Your Eyes

The best advice applies to life in general: everything in moderation.

Excessive screen use of ANY type of screen is likely to be bad for your eyes so make sure to give yourself intentional breaks. If you’re movie marathoning or on a Netflix binge, step away for 10 or 15 minutes between episodes, even if it’s just to make some popcorn or stare out the window.

Take a Break

There are specific “break” suggestions by various experts, two of which are below:

  • The 20-20-20 Rule: every 20 minutes look away from the screen and focus your eyes on an object 20+ feet away for 20 seconds.
  • The Pomodoro Technique: break your day into 25-minute intervals with 5 to 10 minute breaks between sessions.

Fixed in the Blink of an Eye

Believe it or not, when looking at screens we blink half as much as usual. This can dry your eyes up and lead directly to blurry vision, burning sensations, heavy or tired eyes, and even tearing up as your body tries to compensate.

Two solutions for this dry-eyed problem are keeping some “artificial tears” nearby (eye drops) or even buying a humidifier for the room you experience the discomfort.

(5) Products that Block Blue Light

A last resort is to purchase a product that helps you block the blue light, for example:

driftTV is a physical product that plugs into your TV via HDMI, recognizes the time of day, and adjusts the Blue Light output on your TV accordingly to reduce blue light at night time. Not a bad idea in theory- but with Smart TVs this could/should be done in an app.

Screen protectors and Blue Blocking Glasses both work by placing a physical filter between your eye and the light source. If you’re paying top dollar for a big beautiful TV that can display an amazingly wide color gamut- don’t bother

Big Screen TV: TOO BIG?

It’s possible that your TV viewing habits and blue light aren’t causing your problems at all. Maybe, just maybe, you purchased a TV that’s too big.

To determine what size TV is best for your room it’s important to consider the distance from the TV and how it fits into your peripheral vision. In our TV Size Guide we have suggested TV sizes for normal use and cinema use. The latter replicates cinema style viewing where your entire range of vision is absorbed by the pictures on screen.

As explained by the Visual Therapy Center, “peripheral visual cells respond to motion, so simultaneous motion occurring in different areas of peripheral vision can be difficult to process.”  

If your eyes are having trouble tracking what’s on the screen and your eyes are watering, and headaches or dizziness occur, it’s possible your screen is too big. Compare your TV and room setup to the suggestions in our TV Size Guide and see how they measure up.

It’s worth noting that higher resolution televisions are less likely to cause eyestrain because when objects are more defined they’re more comfortable to focus on.

That being said, one way to reduce eye strain from your TV is to not buy a TV at all.

Big Screen TV vs. Projector

Eye strain and long-term eye damage can be prevented by responsible viewing but for those who want to protect their eye health at all costs, consider a projector.

TVs expose your eyes to more blue light than projectors because when you’re looking at a Projector, you’re not looking directly at the light source. The light is projected onto a screen and you’re looking at the reflection of light (not the light itself). Flat screen TVs embed the light source in the television panel, you’re staring directly at the light source, and so your eyes absorb more direct blue light.

Here’s an easy way to think about it:

  • Turn on a flash light and point it at the wall
  • Look at the light on the wall (symbolizes projector)
  • Then look at the flashlight directly (symbolizes TV)

Did one of those hurt your eyes? Hopefully you were only thinking about the above and not trying it- looking directly at the flashlight (like a TV) is more likely to hurt your eyes than looking at the light projected on the wall (like a projector).

What’s the bottom line?

Screens are a part of our worldwide culture and they’re here to stay. Too much screen time is bad. Whether those screens are smartphones, laptops, or TVs makes little difference.

The best way to protect your eye health is to:

  • Limit total screen time (especially at night)
  • Divide continuous screen time with breaks
  • Reduce brightness when possible
  • Adjust to warm colors when possible

If you’re overly concerned, buy a projector instead of a flat screen, but consider that even the “College of Optometrists” says there is no evidence to support that viewing a screen can damage your eyes.

Be safe, be healthy, enjoy your amazing big screen TVs, but do so responsibly!