Dark mode does not solve screen problems

Original author: Angela Lashbrook
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Research data says that reducing eye strain when using a dark theme in most situations does not occur

Earlier, I published a translation of the article “Dark Times Are Coming” , the author of which stated the benefits of the regime and prophesied its widespread adoption. This article focuses on research on the topic and the effect of options on different people. - approx. perev.

Photo: Andrew Brookes / Cultura / Getty

The night obscures the screens of our computers.

It comes in the form of a dark mode, a function fashionable in the technology industry, when the usual bright backgrounds are replaced with dark blue or black. Twitter released a dark mode for the site in 2017, and Facebook Messenger introduced a similar feature in April 2019. Apple’s announcement at WWDC last week was especially noteworthy that iOS 13 coming out in the fall would also get a similar option. The company claims that with the dark mode “every element on the screen will strain your eyes a little less”, and some people say that turning on the function helps to fight migraines .

Here are just scientific evidence to back up such claims, virtually none. Even for users with vision problems, the dark mode is not necessarily better than any of the known alternatives, but, again, there is very little research on this.

One thing is certain: for many people, for most of the day, dark mode will not increase productivity and reduce eye fatigue. At best, it's probably just an aesthetic option.

In contrast, dark modes can reduce readability and performance for most people. A 2003 study examined how different display settings influenced user performance, including negative polarity (light text on a black background) and positive polarity (black text on a white background). It turned out that it was easier for subjects to complete tasks with positive polarity.

Another  study , conducted in 2013, examined the effects of positive and negative polarity on both young and old people, since theoretically, the deterioration of their vision could affect their perception of brightness and contrast. Both age groups, as shown by the results, coped better with tasks with a white background.

Although black text on a white background may be even better for productivity, connoisseurs of the dark mode have their own serious argument: this function can be useful at night.

Just like when we look at a bright light bulb on a black background or try to look at a dim corridor from a brightly lit room, if the phone screen is much brighter  or dimmer than the surrounding space, it will be difficult for the eye to adapt. This effect is familiar to anyone who has ever squinted while checking the phone at dusk, or trying, while in a brightly lit room, to examine a dark television image. In such situations, according to  the Mayo Clinic, the eyes are prone to overstrain, and symptoms include dry eyes, fatigue, and headache. True, in the long term, there should not be serious harm to health from this.

Data on the absence of serious harm to health is available on the Mayo Clinic website : “Eye strain (eyestrain) does not lead to serious long-term consequences, although it can be annoying and unpleasant. It can lead to fatigue and lower concentration. ” - approx. perev.

Many models of smartphones and computers are already equipped with ambient light sensors that adjust the brightness of the screen to environmental conditions. However, for people who are especially sensitive to light or just for those who don’t like Apple’s night mode, the option to turn on dark mode can be a nice addition.

“Dark mode can be very useful for people who are sensitive to brightness, because it reduces the overall intensity of the screen,” says Lauren Milne, an associate professor of computer science at Macalester College, whose research focuses on accessibility issues. “A lot of people with low vision, and especially people with tunnel vision, prefer white text on a black background, because it is easier for them to distinguish between words.” Although operating systems have long enabled the inclusion of color inversion, this can lead to the Andy Warhol effect, which is not always desirable or pleasant.

However, according to Syed Bill, PhD in computer science at Stony Brook University, dark mode may not be as effective as inversion. In his study of accessible technologies for people with visual impairments, he found that users with certain diseases, such as glaucoma, prefer large text in high-contrast modes. In such modes, the text appears yellow, white or green on a black background. “It’s not at all like Mac’s dark mode,” he says, “the dark mode uses different shades of gray, the borders [and] the edges are not very visible [or] distinguishable, and the mode just doesn’t work for non-native applications.”

Thus, while the dark mode, for example, on Twitter can be aesthetically pleasing to people with normal vision, it is likely that it is simply not a suitable option for people who really need an accessibility tool. This does not mean that the dark regime is harmful - it just does not help people with visual impairments.

Remember, however, that very few studies of modern dark modes go beyond the impact on readability for users with normal vision. Presumably, correctly made dark modes can help people with photophobia (photosensitivity) or some other visual impairment. That's just because of the lack of information on this topic, it is difficult to understand how much they can help and how exactly they are best implemented.

“We really need more good, up-to-date research,” says Silas Brown, a partially blind scientist at Cambridge University. People with brain injuries that can affect the processing of visual information, such as dyslexia, migraine and autism, can respond differently to different combinations of colors and brightness, but “all these states are poorly studied, each of them, in fact, is a generalization for a number of states, so we can’t say if the screen settings will help everyone”

However, Brown and Milne agree that having options is better than not having them, and some people may find that dark mode helps them. “I’m always happy when [the developer] officially adds options such as dark mode,” says Brown, “this makes it possible for everyone to check whether the effect is personal for him.”

It is commendable that Apple and other companies offer the opportunity to use the dark mode, but only use it when it is bright around, probably not worth it. And since many people watch the screens during the day, and sometimes at night, more research is needed on this topic. Now our knowledge is full of gaps. This is especially important for people with visual impairment or headaches. Dark mode is better than nothing, but the potential for improving accessibility is much broader if corporations ever decide to make it a priority.

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