Ken Jennings


November 20, 2012

Last week, we investigated the overhyped dangers of running with scissors.

Today: sitting too close to the TV!

I’d like to thank John Roderick, lead singer of The Long Winters, writer, raconteur, Unofficial Mayor of Seattle, and all-around good guy for helping out with this important experiment. If you are not familiar with John’s work, I would begin with the amazing podcast he does with Merlin Mann, Roderick on the Line, or One Christmas at a Time, the new holiday album he just recorded with beloved tech-era troubador Jonathan Coulton.

Here’s my new book‘s relevant extract on proper television viewing distance:

“You’re sitting too close to the TV!”

My mom always plopped us back on the couch if we were watching cartoons on the carpet in front of the television. The couch was safe and healthy; the carpet was dangerous. I always thought this was yet another of mom’s never-ending warnings about things that caused eyestrain (like reading in dim light, wearing someone else’s glasses, etc.). It never occurred to me that she might have been worried about actual rays coming out of the screen and injuring us. Bizarrely, in the late 1960s, that’s exactly what was happening in living rooms all across America.

In 1967, General Electric announced that 110,000 of its larger color televisions were emitting unsafe levels of X-rays, as high as 100,000 times the recommended standard, due to faulty voltage regulators. The U.S. surgeon general, William Stewart, recommended staying away from the sides and rear of the sets, and sitting at least six feet away from them. If that’s the generation of tube-watching that produced your parents, their caution may be understandable—but it’s also forty-five years out of date, since the faulty sets were quickly recalled.

“Contrary to popular myth, sitting too close to a TV will not damage your eyes, but it may cause eyestrain,” says Dr. Lee Duffner of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. “Children can focus at close distance without eyestrain better than adults. Therefore, children often develop the habit of holding reading materials close to their eyes or sitting right in front of the TV.” This kind of thing can fatigue the eyes, leading to headache and blurred vision, but it doesn’t cause any lasting damage. A short break will usually take care of the problem. For today’s screen-obsessed kids, doctors recommend something called the “20-20-20 rule”: every twenty minutes, take a twenty-second break from the hypnotic glowing screen to look at something twenty feet away.

There’s no clear evidence linking eyestrain to myopia, or nearsightedness—-in fact, most cases of myopia are 100 percent genetic. But myopia might be a cause, not a result, of sitting too close to the TV. A child who prefers to be mere inches away from SpongeBob might need an eye exam to see if she’s nearsighted. Of course, too much TV can have other, non-ophthalmological side effects, like obesity, imitative behavior, and unusual expertise on the iCarly supporting cast. But those mostly depend on your distance from reality, not from the TV screen.



Remember, Because I Said So! hits stores in just two weeks! Pre-order today.

Posted by Ken at 1:56 pm