Mind & Body

Is Dark Mode Easier on the Eyes?

If you've used any computer or mobile app recently — hello, that's all of us — you've probably been asked if you wanted to switch to "dark mode." Maybe you immediately made the switch and felt your eyes relax. Maybe you didn't, and it made you wonder if this dark craze makes any difference at all to your eyes. The short answer to this question? Like many things in science, the quick answer is, "Maybe."

Battle of the Brightness

A lot of factors are at play when it comes to the relative lightness and darkness of your screen. Consider the shifts that might happen over the course of the day and the content you consume. In the morning — maybe even before the sun rises — you might read the news. That means dark surroundings and a bright white screen. During the day, maybe you work on spreadsheets or Word documents in bright light. And at night, you might browse Netflix on a dark screen background amid your dark surroundings.

These circumstances play differently in terms of the strain they cause on the eyes. Scientists tend to take their base rule from your typical middle-of-the-day work: light screen, dark text, bright surroundings. That's how most of our screens looked before the advent of "dark mode." In the middle of the day, when surrounding light is high, dark on light is ideal. In one of the few studies on the subject, researchers found that people read more easily and retain more information when text is formatted this way. Contrast makes details easy to see, and the study authors noted that most readers are used to reading dark on light, anyway.

Another reason a white background makes things easier to read comes down to the biology of the human eye. White reflects all of the colors on the spectrum, which means that a white background keeps the pupil from opening wide to let in more light, which would make it harder to focus. But there's also a quirk in the human visual system that makes your eyes overreact to light objects on a dark background, which can make white text on black seem to bleed into the page and make it harder to read.

It's Different in the Dark

In a dark room, things seem to change. A white screen with black text certainly feels like it puts more strain on the eyes, though the science on this isn't conclusive. While you'd think your pupils would shrink to pinpricks when flooded with the white background of a standard webpage, at least one study found that not to be the case: When you compare different room brightness conditions, the size of the pupils actually changes less when people look at a dark-on-light color scheme than it does when they look at light-on-dark. And like we mentioned before, a wider pupil means worse focus, so even in dark conditions, it may still be better to go with dark-on-light for long passages of text.

Still, what the limited science says and what the general public seems to experience are currently two different things. Before dark mode was introduced to the larger world, gamers were the ones concerned with eye pain in the dark. They often used special glasses to mask blue light and put ambient lights behind their screens to make white backgrounds less painful. As screens became more ubiquitous — and more of us started to read our phones before bed — the rest of the electronics-loving world started to demand a dark color scheme.

If you log on to your favorite sites right now, you'll probably find they've taken the hint. Twitter's optional "night mode" switches the display to white text on shades of dark blue. It's almost perfect for use in a dim setting. Reddit's night mode uses light gray on a near-black background. And Netflix has relied on white text over black and gray for years. But at least in brightly lit rooms, it's best to set your favorite sites to the easiest setting for your eyes: dark on light.

Though the scientific verdict is still out, using a dark-mode setting could possibly help your eyes hurt less when you use them in the dark. Just follow your comfort and switch things up if you start to feel strained.

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To see how your eyes can fool you, check out "The Ultimate Book of Optical Illusions" by Al Seckel. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Kelsey Donk June 18, 2019

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