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Can VR headsets harm your eyes?

young girl wearing vr headset

In 2020, an estimated 52.1 million Americans slipped on headsets to immerse themselves in virtual reality (VR). Unfortunately, VR is not all fun and games. Researchers say VR headsets may cause eye problems, although there’s no evidence of long-term damage.

“Virtual reality is constantly advancing and new technologies and applications [are] regularly emerging,” the Canadian Association of Optometrists advises. “For now, the best advice is to pay attention to warnings that come with VR headsets, limit time spent in the virtual world, and ensure all users have regular comprehensive eye examinations with an optometrist to ensure eye health and contribute to overall health.”

Effects of VR on your eyes

Research shows wearing VR headsets can cause eye strain, eye discomfort, eye fatigue and blurred vision.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology explains that staring for too long at a VR screen can lead to eye strain or fatigue. Why? Because we tend to blink less when using a device with a digital screen than we normally do, leading to eye strain or fatigue. Furthermore, a study published in 2019 suggests that eye fatigue among users of VR headsets results from the discrepancy between virtual and perceived depth.

Image: Kara Perricone

Another eye-related issue associated with VR headsets is visually induced motion sickness. Aside from eye strain and eye fatigue, symptoms of this so-called “cybersickness” include trouble focusing, headache, lightheadedness, drowsiness, sweating, nausea and vomiting.

Visually induced motion sickness “remains an obstacle to the widespread adoption and commercial development of technologies associated with [VR headsets],” according to a research analysis published in 2018.

The analysis notes that children, women, and people with unstable posture, defects in their field of vision or a history of motion sickness may be especially susceptible to cybersickness.

What Oculus says about VR headsets and vision

In a user’s handbook for VR headsets sold by Facebook-owned Oculus, the company reports about 1 in every 4,000 users may experience symptoms associated with seizures, including eye or muscle twitching, severe dizziness, or blackouts that are triggered by light flashes or patterns. Oculus says this may happen when someone wearing a VR headset is watching TV, playing a video game or otherwise immersing themselves in virtual reality. 

This kind of reaction is more common in children and young people, according to Oculus. Anyone suffering these symptoms should stop using the VR headset and visit a doctor, Oculus recommends.

Furthermore, Oculus suggests immediately halting use of the VR headset if you experience:

  • Eye strain.

  • Eye or muscle twitching.

  • Blurred, altered or double vision, or other visual problems.

  • Eye discomfort or eye pain.

Can a VR headset damage your eyesight?

In 2020, VR developer Danny Bittman complained that wearing a VR headset for hours a day had harmed his vision. Bittman claimed his vision had deteriorated “dramatically” over a three-year period, although he said eyeglasses were prescribed to correct the problem.

In reporting on Bittman’s case, BBC News noted there’s no evidence proving that using VR headsets leads to permanent vision deterioration among children or adults. The American Academy of Ophthalmologists makes the same point.

Nonetheless, VR headsets remain a concern for parents. In a 2017 survey commissioned by the nonprofit group Common Sense, 8% of parents with children age 8 to 17 who use VR reported their kids had suffered from VR-related eye strain.

Manufacturers warn that children under 13 should not use VR headsets because of the nature of some VR content and because the size of the headset is not intended for children. But a study published in 2020 found that young children tolerate “fully immersive” VR games without “noteworthy effects” on the coordination between visual perception and physical movement. Likewise, a study published in 2017 showed no serious deterioration of vision among children 8 to 12 who played a VR video game for 20 minutes. But two study participants did run into trouble detecting differences in distance.

Vision benefits from VR

While VR headsets may cause concerns about potential harm to our vision, they also can help people enhance their vision.

Under the guidance of an eye care professional, a VR headset can be used to improve eye coordination, hand-eye coordination, depth perception and reaction time. In addition, proper use of a VR headset can produce better visual acuity for someone with lazy eye (amblyopia).

Additionally, VR headsets are helping people with low vision regain their sight. For instance, VR headsets and software from a California company called IrisVision have helped thousands of vision-impaired people achieve better sight.

When should I see an eye doctor?

If you notice changes in your vision (for example, your vision becomes blurred) or you feel eye discomfort or eye pain while using a VR headset, stop using the headset and call your eye doctor. Your doctor will perform a comprehensive eye exam to determine if you have any vision problems that require treatment.

US virtual and augmented reality users 2020. eMarketer. April 2020.

Are virtual reality headsets safe for eyes? American Academy of Ophthalmology. February 2017.

Are virtual reality headsets dangerous for our eyes? Canadian Association of Optometrists. Accessed April 2021.

Factors associated with virtual reality sickness in head-mounted displays: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. March 2020.

Assessment of eye fatigue caused by head-mounted displays using eye-tracking. BioMedical Engineering OnLine. November 2019.

The visual effects associated with head-mounted displays. International Journal of Ophthalmology and Clinical Research. April 2018.

Health & safety warnings — Oculus Quest. Oculus. Accessed April 2021.

Oculus website. Oculus. Accessed April 2021.

Tweets from Danny Bittman. Twitter. June 2020.

Developer warns VR headset damaged eyesight. BBC News. June 2020.

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