- As more research emerges about the damaging effects of blue light — part of the spectrum emitted by smartphones, laptops, and tablets — companies are looking for solutions so people can continue using their devices without fear.
- Highly-hyped “dark modes,” for instance, use white text on a black background, set devices to emit warmer tones of light, or just dim the brightness of screens.
- While the modes may benefit mental and physical health, the effects are likely minor, though not well understood.
- What actually helps, experts say, is using common sense about your screen time and avoiding other sources of blue light such as lamps and other lighting fixtures.
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As people become increasingly intertwined with technology, they’re also becoming increasingly concerned about what all that screen time means for their health, and for good reason.
Blue light, part of the spectrum emitted by smartphones, laptops, and tablets, has been linked to conditions ranging from depression to cancer.
One alleged solution, the much-touted “dark mode,” makes the default screen white text against a dark background, instead of vice versa. But it turns out that while dark mode may save your battery life, experts say it probably won’t do much for your health. Changing your usage habits, however, can help.
There’s good reason to be cautious about blue light
Research has linked blue light to the disruption of the circadian rhythm, which is thought to contribute to insomnia, depression, and possibly even diseases like cancer and diabetes. The light could also damage eyes and increase the risk of blindness later in life.
It may also make you age faster, according to Jaga Giebultowicz, a professor in integrative biology at Oregon State University, who has studied the effect of blue light on longevity and circadian rhythm.
Her recent research found that constant exposure to blue light accelerates aging in fruit flies, decreasing their life span. The study even found this to be true even in flies that, due to a genetic mutation, didn’t have eyes.
That doesn’t necessarily mean blue light has an equivalent effect on humans, Giebultowicz noted, but it does indicate blue light can cause stress damage to cells. This warrants concern, given that most people face prolonged daily exposure, she said.
“It would be a good thing to be more cautious down the road,” Giebultowicz told Insider.
Dark mode’s benefits aren’t well understood but likely minor
There isn’t yet good data on how different types of dark mode can help protect your physical and mental health. However, any setting that changes the tone of the screen to warmer colors (like Apple’s night mode) does decrease exposure by simply emitting more red or yellow light instead of blue.
It’s also unclear how much dark modes can protect against the psychological risks of device use, but it definitely won’t hurt to turn to a dimmer, warmer shade of screen in the evening to set a relaxing tone in the same way candles can set the mood for a dinner party, according to design psychologist Sally Augustin.
Dark mode may also have a surprising beneficial effect by conserving energy and leading people to have a small, positive effect on the environment, and feel better about themselves as a result, Augustin said.
“We feel good when things we use align with our alues,” she said. “That could give people who are concerned about the earth a psychological boost.”
Changing the lighting is, unfortunately, too simple of a solution
Still, contrary to popular belief, it’s actually the spectrum of light, not just the brightness, that makes blue light damaging, so dark mode can only make so much of a difference.
And, it turns out, the most startling source of blue light doesn’t yet come with a dark mode — the lighting fixtures in offices, homes, and businesses can also be sources of blue light. It’s even in the sunlight, although that form is somewhat neutralized in combination with yellow light.
What’s more, and perhaps most importantly, it’s the addictive nature of devices, not how they’re lit, that matters most for mental health, Augustin said. News sites and social media are designed to hold our interest as long as possible, she explained, by providing instant gratification when you click through headlines and tweets. They also fuel the need to feel included.
“I don’t think the changing of the light will be enough to make us less involved in what our friends are doing or what Meghan Markle did to her hair,” Augustin said.
What’s known to reduce the risks of blue light exposure is habit change
The best way to reduce the risks of blue light exposure isn’t changing the mode, it’s changing your habits to limit your screen time in any shade. Augustin recommended establishing bedtime rituals like reading a few pages of a book, which can be relaxing either on paper or an e-book (a case in which a device could help, not hurt, bedtime).
You can also get a dimmer switch, if possible, for household lights, Giebultowicz suggested.
Ultimately, common sense about screen time is still the best way to stay healthy, physically and mentally. The health of your eyeballs will be better off by just putting the phone down instead changing its color palette. Seeing your friend’s perfect vacation on Instagram won’t make you any less jealous on a darker screen, and the news can still be stressful to read on white text instead of black.
“In the end, you have to think about yourself as a user, how things make you feel, and act accordingly,” Augustin said.