When a dark ashy cloud born from wildfires settled over the Seattle metropolitan area, Jack Riewe was among the millions of people suddenly trapped indoors. It was September 2020, and without access to the outdoors during a pandemic, it became even more difficult for the 27-year-old writer to see other people. He could only fill his days switching between working remotely on his computer, watching TV, or scrolling through endless fire updates on his phone.
“I was forced to stay inside in my hot apartment without any escape except the craziness happening on Twitter,” he says.
For a week he scrolled, and scrolled, and scrolled, until he felt “weighed down, dizzy, [and] nauseous.” At the time, he attributed these symptoms to the air quality, or even wondered if he had contracted the coronavirus. The cause was something more insidious: the physical toll of living almost entirely in a virtual world.
The pandemic has forced most of us online at incomparable rates. It’s where we’ve worked, taken classes, attended parties, and gotten lost in 2020’s voracious news cycles. But our bodies were not designed to primarily exist in virtual space like this, and as our collective digital time creeps upward, something called cybersickness seems to be leaking into the general population.
Characterized by dizziness and nausea, cybersickness has mostly been studied in the context of aggressively submersive niche technologies, such as virtual reality headsets. In 2011, 30 to 80 percent of virtual reality users were likely to experience cybersickness, though improved headset hardware brought the range down to 25 to 60 percent by 2016.
Now, it seems the scrolling movement in a Netflix queue or a social media newsfeed also has the power to cause cybersickness when used under exceptional circumstances: all day, every day. (Also find out how video calls can tax the brain, leading to the phenomenon called Zoom fatigue.)
“Any kind of perceived motion is going to cause cybersickness,” says Kay Stanney, CEO and founder of Design Interactive, a small company researching human systems integration. “Virtual reality or augmented reality cybersickness is just a kind of a cousin to other forms of sickness related to perceived motion, and scrolling would be another form.”
What’s old is new again
Cybersickness is really just the latest neologism to describe the ongoing tussle between the human body and a world we continuously transform with technology. Cybersickness is space sickness is car sickness is sea sickness.
Reports of illness brought on by mismatched perception go back as far as 800 B.C., when the ancient Greeks wrote about a “plague at sea.” Despite their important role in trade, war, and migration, ships could be so intolerable for some passengers that nausea wasn’t merely a symptom of seasickness but the only word for it. The English word “nausea” actually comes from the Greek word for ship: naus.
By A.D. 300, the ancient Chinese began documenting nausea from all kinds of sources, with specific words to describe each distinct experience: Traveling in a cart inspired zhuche, or cart-influence, while a ship caused zhuchuan, or ship-influence.
As scientists now understand it, the key to all forms of motion sickness is your vestibular system: the combination of sensory organs in the inner ear and brain that controls balance and spatial orientation. If it perceives motion when your visual system doesn’t, the dissonance can make you hurl or, at the very least, feel dizzy and unsteady.
The 21st-century twist is that this is all flipped in virtual space. Rather than moving while perceiving being still—as you might feel on a boat, while looking at the immovable horizon—this time you’re still but perceiving motion. And that creates a similar conundrum for the body.
“Clinically there is absolutely no difference between the two conditions,” says Eugene Nalivaiko, an associate professor at the University of Newcastle in Australia who has studied both general motion sickness and cybersickness extensively. “They have the same symptoms, same sensations, same everything.”
Time is not on your side
Sarah Colley, a 30-year-old content marketer in Asheville, North Carolina, noticed the worst of her cybersickness symptoms in March 2021. Her screen time surged during a cumbersome work deadline, when for several days she spent 10 to 12 hours in a row on her computer. In addition to dizziness and nausea, she says that the screen itself appeared to jump around, making it difficult to focus, and a sense of anxiety settled over her.
“If I'm staring at the same screen, and it's not really moving, that doesn't bother me. But if things are scrolling, that's when it really becomes a problem,” she says. “Even when I close my eyes, I feel like I’m spinning.” After the incident in March, she had to take four days off from work to fully recalibrate—a luxury she couldn’t have afforded at a prior job that didn’t offer her benefits.
For Colley, the rise in remote living exacerbated mild cybersickness symptoms she had experienced periodically prior to the pandemic. But for most people it’s a totally new facet of spending more time online, so there isn’t much targeted research available yet. Most of our understanding has to be borrowed from virtual reality research.
One trigger for cybersickness seems to be the amount of time spent immersed in a digital world, which Stanney says tracks with her research into virtual reality headsets, as well as prisms, 3-D displays, and 2-D displays. Oddly, this rule may not hold true for augmented reality. The day before we spoke, Stanney had just finished sifting through data from a new study she’s leading that has not yet been published, and she uncovered a surprising pattern.
“Before this current study, I would have said an absolute definitive yes: The longer you're in the situation, the more perturbed you are. But augmented reality is acting differently than virtual reality: The longer you were in there, the better you felt, which is so strange,” she says. “I’m still trying to uncover exactly what that means.”
Typically, though, Stanney says time is not your friend in digital space. A few minutes of scrolling through Instagram, switching between open windows on a laptop, or visiting Netflix to watch one specific show might be benign, but when these activities drag on for hours, as they have under quasi-lockdowns, the persistent motion on the screen can make you queasy.
Stanney is also willing to bet that it’s not just increased screen time that’s causing the phenomenon with everyday devices. Before the pandemic, humans more regularly experienced motion in many directions, as we flew in airplanes and took regular rides in cars and subway trains. But for the last year, many people have really dialed it back: we walk, we stand, we sit, and we lie down.
That shift could be making some people less resilient to a type of digital motion they once tolerated without realizing it was actually a strain on their systems. “When we see this discord between visual movement and rest—where we are most of the time [now]—maybe it's a more profound discord,” Stanney says.
For instance, you may think you’re at peace lying in bed at night in the serene darkness, totally still but for a finger scrolling through Twitter. But Stanney says, “in fact, lying in bed could probably be one of the worst things to be doing.” Since it’s the most “chilled out” your vestibular system can possibly be, prolonged motion on a screen becomes extra difficult to reconcile.
One factor is a lack of what augmented reality research refers to as “rest frames,” the real walls or floors around you that act as stabilizing signals to the brain. Holding a phone inches from your face in the dark mimics the environmental conditions of virtual reality—when your rest frames are stripped away—and so may be similarly difficult to tolerate at length. Scientists don’t yet have empirical evidence that rest frames help users tolerate augmented reality for more time than virtual reality, but Stanney speculates that may be the case, and she recommends trying to tweak phone use accordingly.
“If the phone [were] a little further away, or if they were in a lit room, it might help to diminish some of those adverse events,” she advises.
If you can’t log off, Nalivaiko agrees that changing your field of view by holding your phone differently could help, as well as scrolling more slowly to take control of the frame rate, another nausea-inducing factor of digital motion. His research in animal models also suggests that staying cool can prevent motion sickness. For Riewe, being trapped in a hot apartment without respite may have spurred his peak symptoms.
“If you think about what people feel during motion sickness, it's sweating, it's feeling hot, it’s a desire to get to cool, open air,” Nalivaiko says.
While motion sickness and cybersickness are both incredibly well documented, what continues to stump researchers is why a disconnect between the vestibular and visual systems would provoke nausea in the first place.
“We have two aversive sensations: We have pain, and we have nausea,” says Nalivaiko. “Both are present when Mother Nature wants us not to repeat what we're doing, but what nausea is designed to prevent, we don’t know.”
Pain sends a straight forward message: Hate that feeling? Well then do not ever hold your hand over a flame again. But nausea is more gradual, nuanced, and unpredictable, especially when tied to an activity that doesn’t seem overtly dangerous, like going for a sail or scrolling through a smartphone.
The leading hypothesis is that it’s a misfire of a reflex that evolved to keep us safe from toxins. Alcohol, for example, when drunk too quickly or abundantly, can make a room seem like it’s spinning, even while you could swear your feet were firmly planted on the ground. Alcohol can also kill you. So the human body evolved to connect this dizzying effect with a threat, and to induce nausea to help purge the toxin and keep you alive.
Now, when we experience the same vestibular and visual mismatch brought on by non-threatening forces, like smartphones, our body thinks we’re in grave danger. It’s an apt metaphor for the emotional toxicity overdoing it online can ignite, and in the end, cybersickness may turn out to be as effective as warding off actual poison.
When Riewe did finally learn about cybersickness, “it was such an ‘aha moment,’” he says. “I immediately put my phone down and started reading my book. I went from needing to throw up to falling asleep happily."