Will iPhone 13 Trigger Headaches and Nausea?

Apple introduces another generation of OLED-only phones, potentially shutting out the flicker-sensitive

2 min read

iPhone 13 in various colors.​

The new iPhone 13 in various colors.


Tim Cook is "so excited for iPhone 13." I'm not, because yet again, Apple's latest and greatest tech sits behind an OLED display. And OLEDs, for some of us, cause nausea, headaches, or worse. I explain why Apple's OLED displays, that dim by flickering on and off rather than by voltage adjustments, trigger health issues here.

The iPhone 13 series, launched Tuesday, has cool video features, like automatically changing focus on the fly. The phones have longer battery lives. They have better processors.

But it doesn't come with an LCD option, the second generation that's OLED only.

Watching the livestream of the iPhone 13 intro event this week, I had a moment of hope, albeit one that could be a little hard on the budget. The OLED screens on the iPhone 13 Pro models (starting at $999 for the Pro, $1099 for the Pro Max) sport a refresh rate of 120 Hz, instead of 60 Hz of other models. The rate of the flicker—the pulse width modulation (PWM) is typically four times the refresh rate, and the slower the flicker the worse the effects on the sensitive, so a higher refresh rate could potentially translate to higher frequency PWM, and trigger problems in fewer people.

However, these new screens aren't designed to always run at 120 Hz. They will adjust their refresh rate depending on the content, Apple's executives explained, with movies and games running at the highest speed and more static things like photos and email at far slower rates, as low as 10 Hz. (Reducing the refresh rate extends battery life.) So it's hard to say whether this new display is better or worse for the motion sensitive. It's possible that Apple will offer a user option to lock the refresh rate at 120 Hz in spite of the hit on battery life, no word yet from Apple on that, and I won't really know if that will help unless I try it.

Will my motion sensitivity force me to fall further and further behind as Apple's phone technology advances? Apple's September announcements did suggest a possible path. Perhaps my next phone shouldn't be a phone, but rather an iPad Mini. I'd have to back off on a few things I consider essential in a phone—that I could hold it in one hand comfortably and fit it in my back jeans pocket; at 5.3 by 7.69 inches the Mini is a little big for that. But Apple's new mini packs in much of the same technologies as its top-of-the-line iPhone 13s—the A15 Bionic chip, Center Stage software to automatically keep the subjects in the screen during video calls, and 5G communications, all behind an LCD, not an OLED, display.

And oooh, that wisteria purple!
The Conversation (6)
James Gish
James Gish25 Sep, 2021

Back to the future-I thought this problem was way behind us when CRTs with 60Hz refresh faded into history. I remember how awful it was, particularly in an office with standard fluorescent lights. The headaches were unbearable. I had to fight with management to get full spectrum fluorescents and higher refresh monitors. I image Apple’s designers are too young to remember these issues and are too eager to jump to new technology. Here we go again.

Nicola Giesecke
Nicola Giesecke27 Sep, 2021

Thank you Tekla for your article, I'm surprised there isn't more on the topic out there. I bought an iphone 13 yesterday on a whim and as soon as I turned it on outside the apple store, I started to feel a headache - which has not gone away. Oddly, I did not feel that while checking it out in the store for a good half hour or more. When I took it outside, I didn't even look at the screen much, just set up my music, so I wonder if there's another aspect to it that impacts the body, aside from the screen issue. Anyway, I'm taking the phone back today!

1 Reply
matt plamer
matt plamer26 Sep, 2021

we will discuss that until better replacement come out

John D
John D22 Sep, 2021

Thank you for writing about this issue again, I really hope that it gets more attention & can potentially be addressed with future hardware or software. Personally, I'm unable to use any of the newer MacBooks, iPads, or iPhones due to flicker, it's extremely frustrating and I appreciate you giving the issue some exposure.

1 Reply