E-Reading and Eye Strain

The other day, I took a look at the readability of different e-reading devices. One of the factors influencing the question of e-readability is certainly what effects reading on those E-Ink or LED-backlit iPad screen might have on our eyeballs. The New York Times Bits Blog looks into the question:”Do E-Readers Cause Eye Strain?” The answer generally appears to be no, with a but:

“First of all: doctors say that reading on a screen won’t cause any harm. … For example, the ergonomics of reading screens and the lack of blinking when we stare at them play a big role in eye fatigue. “The current problem with reading on screens is that we need to adjust our bodies to our computer screens, rather than the screens adjusting to us,” Dr. Meredith said.”

Sure, different screens fare better depending upon the circumstance (E-Ink as a better reading experience in sunlight, LCD screens as more useful in dim lighting). The best way to reduce eyestrain is to heed advice we probably already know but don’t follow as often as we should, and it applies to e-reading, or reading: take a break.

“When we read, Dr. Hedge explained, a series of ocular muscles jump around and can cause strain, regardless of whether we are looking at pixels or paper. “While you’re reading, your eyes make about 10,000 movements an hour. It’s important to take a step back every 20 minutes and let your eyes rest,” he said.”

The Wall Street Journal — which always has a useful opinion or two on all things ebooks — suggests that the E-Ink vs. LCD debate isn’t really a debate at all (“Seeking an E-Reader That’s Easy on Eyes”):

“Michael Marmor, a professor of ophthalmology at Stanford Medical School who has a Kindle at home, says neither technology offers inherent advantages. Reading with both kinds of screen could cause eyestrain because it has relatively little to do with the function of the eye, he says. Eyestrain is caused by placing too much stress on the brain and body by doing one thing for too long. The only solution for eyestrain is taking more regular breaks.”

The somewhat less-satisfying conclusion appears to be that it might come down to personal preference, which is also the conclusion arrived upon at by CNET (“LCD vs. e-ink: The eyestrain debate”):

“today’s LCD screens aren’t going to give you eyestrain. That said, some people simply like the way e-ink appears on the page, and some prefer how the iPad displays text. It’s an aesthetic issue more than anything else. In other words, you can simply be averse to one screen or another — but that doesn’t mean it will give you eyestrain.”

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And, here are some helpful tips from Wired on How to Prevent Eye Strain. It’s good info: exercising your eye muscles; reducing that high-contrast screen, especially bright white background with tiny black text; avoiding glare; and avoiding tiny font (something I’m going to need constant reminding on). Also good to keep in mind:

“The simplest and most effective way to prevent eye strain is to make sure you look up from the screen and give your eyes a rest.

Because different sets of muscles control different parts of the eye, you don’t need to close your eyes to take a break, you just need to change your view.”

One good link deserves another: for even more useful information on reducing or preventing eyestrain, check out the MayoClinic’s advice here.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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