I Want My Night TV!

For four generations now, parents have been warning their kids about ruining their eyes by sitting too close to the television. Are they right?

In the early morning hours of some long-forgotten day in March 1983, MTV came to Hilo.

Its novel melding of music and image was heralded as a pop culture godsend in the corridors of Hilo High, where I went to school. In those heady first months of the video revolution, my friends and I happily stayed up long into the night … wanting, and getting, our MTV. Potato chips and soda by our sides. A pitch-dark family room. And our heads propped this close to a glowing television set.

Forget the sensory overload of mousse, synthesizers, Day-Glo spandex and silly lyrics. My mom was less afraid of MTV’s dubious content than the late hours I was keeping, and the potential havoc being wreaked on my eyes.

“You’re going to ruin your eyes if you sit that close to the TV,” she’d mutter groggily, while confiscating my snacks and turning on a lamp. “You want to end up blind?” I’d keep on watching, of course. But I always wondered between videos, “Was she right?”

Well … no, Mom, you weren’t.

The human eye is a miracle of genetic engineering. It converts light rays into electrical impulses and sends them to the brain, which interprets them as images. A cat. A dog. A Flock of Seagulls. Our eyes are designed to easily deal with changing lighting conditions and can equally focus light entering them from both near and far. To the eye, a flickering television screen — no matter how close — is nothing more than another source of light to contend with. And an apparently innocuous source of light at that.

But don’t call your parents liars. Some television sets built before 1968 actually did emit excessive X-rays — a finding that raised some consumer concern at the time. The problem was eliminated, but the radiation scare persists.

Sitting even two feet away from your television screen or computer monitor at work for long periods won’t damage your eyes, but will make muscles in them work harder. The mild pain or fatigue that results from this is temporary, and easily remedied by sleeping or pursuing some other activity. One study even proved that staring into a television screen only a few feet away for 16 continuous hours caused no permanent eye damage. The optimal distance for the least eyestrain is six to 10 feet from the screen, with your set placed at eye level. Why then do kids tend to sit so close?

The American Academy of Ophthalmology says it’s because children focus without eyestrain better than adults do. It isn’t recommended, but it isn’t harmful either. However, sitting close may also indicate that a child is nearsighted and needs to have their vision checked.

Sitting in a darkened room watching television or cruising the Web won’t permanently damage your eyes, but may cause eyestrain. A light placed behind the television set or monitor to avoid onscreen glare, and a dim general room light, will remedy this.

As for me, I still prefer my music videos illuminating the cocoon of a pitch-black room in the middle of the night. But not on MTV. Bruce Springsteen and Duran Duran never age — or need reading glasses — on VH-1.

Published: Island Scene Magazine, Winter 2001

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