Vector image of a hand holding a smart phone.

How to choose a new phone when you have photosensitivity

A successful college student with low vision shares tips on buying a new smart phone.

A few years ago, I ordered a new cell phone from Motorola after owning both the Moto X and Moto X 2nd generation for a few years, and was excited to receive a new device with additional accessibility features. Unfortunately, I ended up having to return it almost immediately, as I didn’t realize that there were several sources of strobe and flashing lights on the phone, including settings that could not be turned off or modified. This was a valuable lesson in the importance of checking out a device in-person before ordering it online, and the experience showed me several things to consider when choosing a new phone with photosensitivity and photophobia. Here are features I consider when choosing a new phone as a person with a neurological condition that is exacerbated by strobe and flashing lights.

Phone startup animation

The main reason why I returned the new Motorola device is because whenever the phone would start up, an animation with several rapidly flashing colored screens would play, and this triggered a migraine. Another time I was looking at a different phone at a store and turned it off and back on again to discover the startup animation was a rapidly flashing lighting bolt, which had the potential to trigger another migraine. Since phone startup animations cannot be turned off and phones may sometimes restart without warning, users should check the startup animation for a device before purchasing it or have a trusted person check it.

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Flashing notifications

Some phones will use flashing lights or the flash bulb on a phone for notifications, which can be disorienting for people that are sensitive to bright or flashing lights. This can usually be turned off in the Settings menu, though users who are especially sensitive to bright lights may want to consider covering the flash bulb or other sources of flashing lights on the device with tape or a case.

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Keyboard animations/flicking effects

One of my friends reported having difficulty with using a new phone because the keyboard had a flashing light effect whenever they typed something. I use a third-party keyboard app called AIType on my phone, which allows users to turn off key press animations, though the built-in keyboard apps for Android and iOS also support turning off popup animations and other visual settings.

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Adding color filters

For users that are sensitive to bright displays or that are colorblind, many smartphones support the use of color filters and automatic brightness adjustments that adapt based on environmental lighting, which is helpful when using a phone in a dark room. I have posts about how to configure color filters for iOS and Android and other accessibility settings linked below.

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Turning off animations and auto-play

In order to avoid strobing videos and gifs, I turn off animations and auto-play so that I don’t get surprised with a flashing animation. This also helps with reducing the effects of vertigo.

Disable autoplay in iOS

  1. Open the Settings menu
  2. Go to the section marked “Accessibility”
  3. Under the “Vision” section, select “Motion”
  4. Disable autoplay for video previews

Disable autoplay in Android

  1. Open Google Chrome and click the button with three dots
  2. Select the option for “Site Settings”
  3. Go to the “Media” section and set Autoplay to be blocked

Social media applications and other smartphone applications may have dedicated Settings menus for turning off auto-play as well- I recommend checking to make sure these are turned on, as some apps do not recognize the global auto-play settings enabled on mobile devices.

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Other things I consider when choosing a new phone with photosensitivity

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes,

Updated October 2023; original post published April 2017.

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