Is Your Phone Giving You a Headache? OLED Screens Might Be to Blame

An increasingly common kind of display has a slight flickering effect that causes some people grief, but there are basic fixes

Photo: Sebastian Kaluitzki/Getty Images

IfIf you buy a new phone today, there’s a good chance you’ll wind up with an OLED screen. They’re used in the newest iPhones (excluding the XR; more on that in a minute), the LG G8, and even more modestly priced models from companies like Motorola. They offer plenty of advantages to LCD screens like those seen in older iPhone models — crisper, clearer black levels and thinner displays among them. But some users complain of one significant drawback: headaches.

In part because the technology is so new, research and data on the topic are scarce. But it certainly is possible that an OLED screen would make some people miserable because of one practically invisible quirk: at certain brightness levels, an OLED flickers.

OLED is short for “organic light-emitting diode.” While LCD screens use a single underlying panel of LED light as its source of illumination, OLED screens are composed of many pixel-like LEDs. I think of OLED screens as really technologically advanced Lite-Brites: the image is made up of countless little pins of light, each one producing its own color. An LCD screen, meanwhile, would be more like a light box, with the illumination source lying beneath a colored image.

Having many different sources of light on a screen, rather than a single backlight that illuminates the entire thing, means that when the screen is at full brightness, there’s better contrast and — crucially — black sections of the image are, well, blacker.

“Because LCD screens have to filter out light to produce dark areas, they aren’t 100% effective at it,” says Daniel O’Keeffe, a writer at the technology review website RTings.com. “Which means if you’re watching in a dark room, the blacks won’t be completely black… whereas with OLED screens, they can turn off all the individual pixels or colors.”

Think about how irritated fans were by the last fight against the white walkers in Game of Thrones’ “The Long Night.” The screen was dark nearly the entire episode, which made it difficult to see just what was going on. Assuming you weren’t having problems with a poor streaming connection, a good OLED screen would better depict a pitch-black episode like “The Long Night,” because the contrast would be more crisp and clear compared to an LCD screen.

This is what makes an OLED smartphone screen so appealing: with heightened contrast and deeper blacks, you get a better, almost realistic image. But it’s also what appears to give some sensitive users headaches. OLED screens don’t have degrees of illumination — each little LED light is either on or off. When a user wants to lower the brightness on their OLED phone, the screen, using a method known as pulse-width modulation, responds by rapidly turning on and off some of those light-emitting colors to create the illusion of a darker image.

LCD phones typically don’t do that. Instead, they use a filter that controls how much light is allowed to pass through the panel — again, think of a transparent image placed on a light box. Some light, inevitably, will pass through the darker areas of the screen, making the image slightly hazy and muddled. But it also avoids that cycling flicker that causes some people eye strain and headaches.

According to Arnold Wilkins, a professor of psychology at the University of Essex who has researched the health effects of flickering fluorescent lights and written about potential impacts related to LED flicker, when LEDs in an OLED screen flicker, there’s a potential link to headaches, even when the flicker is so fast that you don’t notice it.

“We know that flicker from fluorescent lighting that is too fast to be seen doubles the average number of headaches experienced by office workers,” he says. Wilkins published a piece in the academic publication The Conversation in 2017, writing that the flickering of LED bulbs, which is even more pronounced than fluorescent flickering, is likely to put some people off the technology.

Dr. Raj Maturi, an ophthalmologist and member of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, says that the issue can be more pronounced in the young than in the old. Many older people have worse eyesight than the young, he says, so “younger people can discern flickering at a higher frequency than older people.” It’s possible that the people who are getting headaches from their flickering smartphone screens have vision that can better see rapid movement, while the rest of us won’t pick up on those tiny flashing lights and will be spared the eye strain and head pain of their better-sighted peers. Maturi says that we need more research on this topic to more fully understand the role that flickering smartphone screens play in some users’ headaches.

The flickering from OLED screens typically occurs when the screen brightness is dimmed. Therefore, keeping your brightness on its highest setting all the time will help eliminate that flicker.

The fixes to this issue are thankfully simple. The most expensive, but straightforward, solution is getting a phone with an LCD screen. The iPhone XR — Apple’s less expensive “X” model and the best phone I’ve ever had — is perhaps the most well-known of all the recent LCD options; other phones with LCD displays include the ASUS ZenFone 6, and Sony Xperia 10.

Remember, the flickering from OLED screens typically occurs when the screen brightness is dimmed. Therefore, keeping your brightness on its highest setting all the time will help eliminate that flicker. Maximum brightness can produce its own problems, though; as I wrote in my column about dark mode, when the brightness of the screen doesn’t match the ambient light of the room the phone is in, the user is at increased risk of eye strain.

To avoid that conundrum, you can apply a darker filter to your screen so that even when the phone is at maximum brightness, the display appears darker. You can accomplish this on iOS by opening Settings and navigating to General > Accessibility > Display Accommodations > Reduce White Point. Reduce the white point to 95% or below, and ensure that your phone’s brightness level is above 50%. This should help with any flickering, but if it doesn’t, simply decrease the white point and increase the brightness level.

For most Android phones, you’ll have to download a third-party filter app that will transpose a dark layer over your screen; make sure your brightness is up as high as it goes and you should be set against any visible flicker.

Some manufacturers, meanwhile, have acknowledged the flicker issue and are investigating ways to improve it. The CEO of OnePlus, Pete Lau, has reportedly mentioned on his Weibo account that the company is looking into the use of DC dimming — in which the power supply to the phone’s circuit is varied, thereby altering the display’s brightness level — as a way to counter flicker. (OnePlus didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time.) And earlier this year, Xiaomi released a beta software update for the Xiaomi Mi 9 that includes DC dimming.

If you’ve gotten a new phone or taken the steps above and are still experiencing headaches, dry eyes, and other symptoms of digital eye strain, it might not be the flicker that’s bothering you. It could be — and I say this with considerable empathy — that you’re looking at screens too intensely and too long.

“The most important issue is the amount of time we spend looking at a tiny screen in front of us,” says Maturi. He recommends following the Academy’s 20/20/20 rule: every 20 minutes, look at a distance at least 20 feet away, for 20 seconds. This, he says, allows the muscles of the eye to relax and thus keep eye fatigue at bay. “It would be wonderful if manufacturers would actually come up with a system that gives users a little warning every 20 minutes to look away,” he says. “We could have a feature that has googly eyes shift that reminds you to look away.”

My own optometrist, inspecting my tragically bloodshot eyes during an exam, mentioned the same thing. It’s a lot of trouble to remember to look away from your screen several times an hour, but it really can help, OLED screen or not.

While screen flicker is a significant problem for a minority of people, there are other well-documented ways that your phone could be giving you a headache. Maybe your boss won’t stop emailing you at 8 p.m., or you need to turn off your notifications and news alerts, and these things are giving you a stress headache. Maybe the brightness is too high, or too low. Or maybe it’s that damn flicker.

Oh, and Reddit? You’re welcome.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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