Before I watch videos, I have to check with someone to see if the video contains any flashing or strobe lights. This can seem like a question that is nearly impossible to answer, since flashing and strobe lights seem to be everywhere- the lights on a school bus, the fire alarm, and even camera flashes can be disorienting to someone who is photosensitive- read more about photosensitivity in the classroom here. Luckily, I have had many awesome friends and teachers who check videos for me ahead of time to ensure that I don’t get any migraines from whatever we are watching. Today, I will be sharing how to check videos to see if they could trigger an adverse medical reaction such as a seizure, migraine, or fainting spell.
I have a brain condition called Chiari Malformation that causes me to have many neurological symptoms, with one of them being photosensitivity and chronic migraines triggered by flashing lights- read more about Chiari Malformation here and read more about chronic migraines here. I have dealt with this issue since ninth grade and at one point I was so sensitive that even small amounts of flashing lights could be a problem. My condition has changed over time though, and now I find that I am especially sensitive to white, red, and blue lights that flash or strobe quickly. Migraines aren’t the only condition that can be triggered by strobe lights- some people with epilepsy, PTSD, ADHD, autism, and other photosensitive conditions may experience adverse health effects due to flashing lights. I am not advocating for the removal of flashing and strobe lights from existence, I am sharing how I personally avoid a known medical trigger for me and how I ask people close to me to help me in doing so.
Many black-and-white videos contain floaters and changing lighting conditions that resemble flickers of light, especially in historical videos like those found in archives- read more about making primary source media accessible for vision impairment here. As recording and audiovisual technology has improved over time, so has the clarity of videos, which dramatically reduces the potential issues mentioned above. While this trigger may only be relevant for people with severe sensitivities to flashing lights, it’s still important to note and can be remedied by showing the highest resolution video available- read more about using high resolution images here.
I was watching a video in one of my classes that my teacher said they had checked beforehand, but they didn’t realize that flashes of lightning are the equivalent of nature’s strobe lights. I ended up in the nurse’s office not too long after a lightning storm showed on the screen gave me an adverse reaction. After that, I started asking specifically if there was lightning in any of the videos we would be watching. I also would ask about fireworks, though those are less common. Speaking of outdoor lights, read more about visiting holiday lights with photosensitivity here.
Many movies that feature scenes with police cars in the background, nightclubs, or concerts have blue, white, and red flashing lights going off in the background. These may be very obvious or hidden in the background, but making a note of flashing background scenes is an easy way to ensure that every scene is accounted for.
Anything that explodes
When I was in seventh grade, my class watched a movie that featured several gunshots, bombs, and similar weapons being discharged rapidly, which created a large amount of flashing lights. While I didn’t realize it at the time, I ended up feeling very disoriented and felt sick, though at the time I thought it was just because of the blood in the movie. Guns, explosions, cannons, and other weapons flash when used, so make sure to check for scenes like this in videos.
Rooms filled with journalists and paparazzi often contain several camera flashes going off in short intervals which can simulate strobing lights. While one camera flash may not trigger a reaction, it’s still important to note camera flashes since the white lights are likely to trigger migraines. Read more about how camera flashes are disorienting here.
How to warn people about flashing lights in videos
Provide as much information about the types of lights as you can
Before sending me a video, my friend sent me a message telling me that they wanted to show me a video that had a scene with slow blinking yellow lights that took up half the screen. Since slow flashing lights don’t trigger a reaction for me, I thanked them for the warning and said that I could watch the video. In a different situation, I was told there was a scene in a video with fast flashing red and blue lights, which are more likely to trigger migraines, and I declined to watch that video since it was more likely to trigger a reaction.
Write down when the scenes begin and their length
For a video in one of my assistive technology classes, the professor told us there were two scenes that contained flashing lights. The teacher provided timings (such as 1:47 into the movie) as well as information about the scene that came up right before the lights so students could close their eyes if needed. They also told us the line of dialogue that followed the scene so we would know when it was safe to look up. I had warned the professor about my medical condition ahead of time and they were happy to accommodate- read more about explaining accommodations here.
Have an audio signal to warn about lights
One of my friends who is sensitive to flashing lights due to a brain tumor asked their teacher to give an audio signal such as a beep before there are scenes with flashing lights or rapidly moving images, and then another beep after the scene ends. They liked this method because it was discreet and the teacher didn’t mind doing it. In a similar example, my college basketball game has flashing lights before the game and the announcer yells “lights out” about five seconds before they begin so that people can close their eyes if they want to, and then my friend signals me when the lights end by tapping my shoulder.
How many lights are too many?
Some movies have several scenes with flashing lights that are either very long or integral to the plot or understanding of the video. In times like these, my teachers would give me the option to skip the video and complete an alternative assignment instead. Another option is to have the student close their eyes and listen to audio description- read more about audio description here.
Everyone is different
Since there are so many conditions that can have adverse medical reactions triggered by many different types of flashing lights, there is no universal way to tell which lights can trigger an issue. Talk to the person affected by the condition and ask what specific triggers they have, and listen to them if they have any guidance on how to check for flashing lights- after all, it’s best to get information directly from the source. I have been very fortunate to have awesome friends and teachers that go above and beyond to include me in being able to watch videos, and I hope these tips will help you to do the same.