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Do Your Eyes Hurt After Watching TV? Here's How You Can Fix That

If you've noticed a gritty or sore feeling in your eyes after a long binge watch, your TV might be the culprit. Here's how to tone it down.

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
5 min read
A man with glasses on a sofa rubs his eyes.

Eyes hurting after watching TV? It might be your TV's fault.


Eye soreness, ranging from stabbing pain to a gritty/sandy feeling, can often be caused by staring at bright screens for too long. Phones and computers deservedly get most of the blame and attention. Modern TVs are also bright enough they could be a culprit. If you're already dimming your portable devices, it's worth considering some steps for the biggest of your home screens.

When it comes down to it, staring at your TV in a dark room is like someone shining a flashlight in your eyes. You want to blink and turn away, but naturally you can't. The whole point of that bright light is to stare at it! It's also perfectly normal to want to watch TV in a dark room. Cinemas are dark for several reasons, but related to this topic it's for better immersion into the movie. The same goes for the TV at home.

Fortunately, there are a few things you can do about TV-related eye pain and still get in your binge watches of your new favorite show. If these don't help, and you've tried dimming your phones and laptops too, you should talk to an eye doctor to make sure there isn't a bigger issue.

Brett Pearce/CNET

What is HDR and why is brightness an "issue"?

High dynamic range, or HDR, is the latest TV tech. It's available on PlayStation and Xbox game consoles and streaming services including Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu. Nearly all modern TVs have HDR to some extent. Mid- and higher-end TVs offer significantly more brightness when watching HDR content. For example, the sun or a streetlight will be noticeably brighter than the surrounding scene. This is great, as it makes an image that really pops in a realistic way.

However, if you're watching TV in a dark room, which we highly recommend for any high-quality video experience, those sizzling highlights may seem too bright, causing your eyes to become sore or scratchy. If you've ever stared at your phone in a dark room, you've probably experienced this.

I put "issue" in quotes for this section because the exact same thing can happen with non-HDR material. Any TV that's too bright in a dark room can cause eyestrain. Modern TVs are so much brighter than older TVs that even at lower backlight settings they can still be eye-searingly bright.

Side by side images of a chrome WWII-era trainer aircraft, illustrating the difference with an HDR image.

The highlights of HDR content on HDR TVs are much brighter than "normal" standard dynamic range TVs. (Image for illustrative purposes only. Actual HDR on an HDR TV will be brighter.)

Dolby/Geoff Morrison

Why your TV might be hurting your eyes

Someone shining a flashlight in your eyes at night is annoying, right? But standing in a room with the lights on isn't. Your eye adjusts to the average amount of light hitting your retina. A dark room with a bright TV is still, on average, dark. So your iris is wide open. But the parts of your retina getting hit by the light from the TV are overwhelmed. They get fatigued, causing the tired, scratchy feeling. 

In general, the way to prevent this is reducing the average amount of light hitting your retina. You can do this by turning down the overall light output of the TV, or, counterintuitively, increasing the light in the room.

A woman with glasses rubs her eyes. The light from a laptop lights her face.

If your eyes feel terrible on a regular basis, change up your habits, reduce the brightness of your displays, and see if that helps. If not, talk to an eye doctor to make sure it's not something more serious.


How to watch TV without the painful eye strain 

1. Get a bigger TV, or sit closer.

Want an excuse to get a bigger TV? Here's a good one. 

A small, bright object in a dark room confuses your eye. The "average" amount of light is low, your irises open up, and the bright "pinpoint" of light strains part of your retinas. A larger TV, or sitting closer to your current TV, will fill a greater percentage of your field of view. With more of your eye filled with light, your irises will contract, so less light overall is hitting your retinas. Generally this will mean less eye fatigue. 

Personally I'm a fan of projectors, which create even bigger images and aren't as bright as TVs. Way easier on the eyes.

2. Turn down the TV's light output.

The menus of a TCL 55S435.

Adjusting the backlight can help, though not always.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Though the obvious solution, this isn't necessarily the most ideal. Many TVs automatically set their backlights to maximum to show HDR content. Turning the backlight down (or turning down OLED Light on an OLED TV), can impact how the TV displays HDR content. It's possible the image might look odd. How odd is hard to say -- it will depend on the TV. 

This isn't the same as the Contrast or Brightness controls. These controls typically have nothing to do with how bright a TV is. 

Read more: Want better TV? Change these 9 TV picture settings today (you'll thank us later)

Most HDR-capable TVs will have multiple HDR presets. These might be obvious in the picture settings menu, and they might not be. These could be labeled, for example, Dolby Vision Bright and Dolby Vision Reference, or HDR Bright and HDR Normal. In these cases, Bright would be designed for brighter rooms, while Reference/Normal is better for dark rooms.

Your TV might not have these modes, or the lower setting might still be too bright. If so, there are other fixes.

3. Add a strategically placed lamp.

Turning a light on is another option, but of course, this can create reflections (or worse, be a distraction in your eyeline). Again, you may not care about either of these two drawbacks, but I'm hoping to help you find the most perfect solution for your setup.

Ideal lamp placement is somewhere not in your eyeline to the TV, and not somewhere it causes a reflection. This might have to be somewhere out of the ordinary, like behind a sofa.

Dimmable recessed ceiling lights might work too, but of course, it depends if they cause reflections on the TV. A TV mount you can move or pivot might help with reflections, too.

The point is, adding more light to the room raises the "average" amount of light in the room, making your irises close a bit, letting less light in, and potentially causing less eye fatigue.

4. Add a bias light.

A computer workstation with the subtle glow of a backlight.

A bias light, like this laptop shown above, is a neutral-white light that brightens up the room a little. 

Taylor Martin/CNET

One step further than a lamp is a bias light. These neutral-white lights add a bit of light to the room, they don't negatively impact the image on the TV, and they reduce eye strain.

The color is important because whatever color the lights are, that color is "subtracted" by your brain from the color you see on screen. So if you have a blue light behind the TV, the TV will look red. The right color for bias lights is a neutral white; as close to the D6500 color temperature standard as possible.

Bottom line

TVs have long been far brighter than necessary for the average room. HDR does potentially make the problem worse, since they are, on the whole, much brighter than older, "SDR" TVs. If you experience eyestrain with HDR or other material, hopefully our fixes can help. If they don't, and you've tried similar fixes with your other bright devices, it's worth talking to an eye doctor to make sure there's nothing else going on.

Note (10/2022): This article was first published in 2017 but has been updated with new links and info.

As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castles, epic 10,000-mile road trips, and more. Check out Tech Treks for all his tours and adventures.

He wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines and a sequel. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and his YouTube channel.