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What you need to know about news stories claiming ‘smartphones speed up blindness’

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Kevin Lomangino is the managing editor of HealthNewsReview.org. He tweets as @KLomangino.

U.S. News & World Report is one of many news outlets running a story about the potential damage smartphones can do to your eyes.

The stories are almost all based on a University of Toledo, Ohio news release headlined,  “UT CHEMISTS DISCOVER HOW BLUE LIGHT SPEEDS BLINDNESS.”

Almost all of these stories warn that the blue light from smartphones can accelerate the death of cells in the retina, leading to macular degeneration. They also note that macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in the United States.

But very few stopped to consider whether these claims are backed up by the evidence provided by the study. Had journalists taken just a few moments to run these claims by an independent expert (we offer a list of them here), they would have found out that the study conditions bear little resemblance to what happens in the real world — rendering the conclusions somewhat meaningless for readers who may be worried about their eyesight.

Fiona McMillan, writing at Forbes, was one of the few journalists I could find who took the time to do this. She quotes Sunir Garg, MD, a professor of ophthalmology at Wills Eye Hospital and clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

I also reached out to Garg, who tempered the “blindness” rhetoric with some reality-based observations about the study, such as:

  • The level of blue light exposure involved in the study is not equivalent to what we receive from smartphones and other electronic devices in the real world.
  • The researcher studied cells in a lab and did not assess the vision or risk of macular degeneration in human eyes. In fact, the cells that they studied are called “HeLa” cells, which are a type of cancer cell. The authors used them as substitutes for the photoreceptor cells that actually coordinate vision in the eye.  “They are very different cell types and one can’t necessarily be used for the other, even for lab studies,” Garg said.
  • Garg noted that “further research is needed to demonstrate if current findings also translate to photoreceptor cells, where different biochemical pathways … may change how susceptible the cells are to damage.”

A close reading of the UT news release should have raised red flags for journalists. Despite its headline implication that digital devices are causing blindness from macular degeneration, the release later quotes a UT researcher who casts significant doubt on that premise when he says, “If you look at the amount of light coming out of your cell phone, it’s not great but it seems tolerable.”

The release also says: “The lab currently is measuring light coming from television, cell phone and tablet screens to get a better understanding of how the cells in the eyes respond to everyday blue light exposure.”

Journalists should also get a better handle on those questions before blasting the public with headlines screaming “Smart phones speed up blindness.”

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