Laser Institute

This Bulletin was produced by the Laser Institute of America.
It can be freely copied and distributed without further permission from the LIA.

Mischief and kids go hand in hand at times. For example, when digital watches became inexpensive enough for every school-aged child to have one, kids would use the glass faces to shine patches of light at other students, teachers and objects.

Kids will be kids of course, and young people are doing the same thing in schools across the country today using laser pointers. The difference is laser light from pointers poses a much greater risk to the eye than the relatively primitive method used by children in days past. The energy a pointer can direct into the eye is many times brighter than staring directly at the sun.

Use and Misuse of Pointers

Commercial laser pointers are most commonly designed to assist speakers when giving lectures or business presentations. A high-tech alternative to the retractable, metal pointer, the laser pointer beam will produce a small dot of light on whatever object at which it is aimed. It can draw an audience?s attention to a particular key point in a slide show.

Pointers are also used for other purposes such as the aligning of other lasers, laying pipes in construction, and as aiming devices for firearms.

Much like the digital watches about 15 years ago, laser pointers have become very affordable recently due to new developments in laser technology. They are widely available at electronic stores, novelty shops, through mail order catalogs and by numerous other sources. As inexpensive as $20 or even less, they are in the price range of other electronic toys and are being treated as such by many parents and children. One woman wrote the Laser Institute of America describing how other mothers she knew bought laser pointers for their elementary-aged children so they could imitate Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and duel with them.

Laser pointers are not toys! This lesson was brought home to a small school district in Wisconsin in the fall of 1996. A 16-year-old girl was illuminated in the eye from the beams of laser pointers used as pranks. She experienced two momentary exposures, one while performing a pom pom routine and again while walking down a hallway. She reported the incidents to her parents, adding that after the first exposure, everything looked green; after the second, she could temporarily not see out of her right eye.

While this is one of the most dramatic examples to date, there are numerous reports of similar, momentary exposures across the U.S. and the U.K. While it seems clear such brief exposures can cause only brief effects, there is no reason to ever shine a pointer towards someone. The Laser Institute of America and the American Academy of Ophthalmology have also received reports of people exposed for longer amounts of time, including two verified retinal injuries caused by intentionally staring into pointers. For more information about these incidents, AAO?s web site,, should be consulted.