Are smartphones jeopardising your health?

Are smartphones jeopardising your health?

By Maria Karlsson-Lilas on 2 July 2018 Everyone knows that smartphones can put your safety at risk, especially if you drive or cross roads on foot while texting. What may be less well-known is that your smartphone can also be a health hazard.

With phones now used for everything from old-fashioned talking and texting to shopping, gaming, banking, watching movies, listening to music, reading novels and immersion in social media, it’s not surprising we spend so much time in the smartphone posture – crooked neck, eyes on the screen, hand clutching the device and the bent thumb or index finger moving up and down. 

Of course there are variations on this, such as both hands using the tablet in the lap. However, the neck is bent forward in most cases, and the neck and arm positions are often sustained over extended periods.

Overuse injuries

But muscles love movement, and maintaining a fixed posture for a long time takes a toll on muscles, ligaments, joints, tendons and other tissues, especially if the posture is unbalanced. 

Take the neck-bent-forward position, for example. The average human head weighs over four kilos. If it’s balanced directly on top of an upright spine, the weight is taken directly by the spinal column, so the muscles of the upper back, neck and shoulders can be relatively relaxed. But if it’s held bent forward in a fixed position, some of those muscles have to be tensed – clenched – to support the weight of the head and stop it lolling further forwards. This muscle tension is known as static muscle loading.

Over time and in combination with repetitive movements – estimates are that we check our phones between 30 and 150 times a day, spending up to and over four hours a day involved with it – these sustained postures can create a lot of fatigue and strain for the muscles and other tissues. This can be associated with stiffness, soreness, inflammation, headaches, eye strain and other symptoms, including overuse injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders.

A quick internet search reveals that a host of musculoskeletal conditions have indeed emerged in public discourse, referred to by terms such as ‘iPod finger’, ‘Blackberry thumb’ and ‘text neck’. Though the labels attached to these disorders sound like a joke, they are not at all funny to the people who have to deal with the pain, discomfort and limitations caused by these conditions. They can generally be classed as overuse injuries – though there is probably a complex set of interacting factors causing the problem, constant or very frequent smartphone use can certainly exacerbate the underlying issues.

24/7 availability

But it’s not just our physical wellbeing that’s affected. Another noteworthy aspect of smartphone strain on human capabilities is the mental, psychological and emotional pressure of being constantly on call and available for social interaction. A recent study indicated that four out of five people between the ages of 18 and 44 only spend two hours of their waking day without their phone on hand. 

Even when they sleep, the phone is close by, and not turned off. And when they complain of being woken by texts late at night, the suggestion that they could turn off their phone at night is greeted with derisive laughter. 

But the lack of a break from the pressure of constant interaction, the lack of downtime, also has a cost. Without clear periods of uninterrupted rest and recuperation, the process of recovering from fatigue and relaxing the mind can be blocked to some extent. This can increase a person’s vulnerability to mental stress, anxiety and depression, not to mention the social cost of frequent disruption to a conversation with someone who is actually physically present.

The potential for adverse effects on work-life balance is yet another possible downside of the constant cyberspace availability. 

Risk management

The most obvious strategy for managing the health risks of smartphones – ‘use your phone less’ – unfortunately has a lot in common with those other deceptively simple-sounding prescriptions – ‘eat less’ and ‘get more exercise’. While it’s the obvious solution, many people just find it impossible to put into practice. 

However, it may be feasible for people to alleviate the physical stress of phone use somewhat by holding the phone closer to eye height, so that the head is not bent forward. It may help to support the elbow of the arm holding the phone, so that holding it higher doesn’t get too tiring for that arm. But note that ‘closer to eye height’ should not mean closer to your face, as close focusing tends to be more tiring. 

Taking regular breaks where you look away from the screen is also advisable, as is getting up and walking around for a while without your phone. If possible, make a habit of regular stretching or other activity that takes your muscles and joints through their full range of movement several times a day.

Ideally, engage in some activity where you won’t be using your phone – such as swimming – for an extended period every day. And if at all possible, turn it off before you sleep.

See also: Don't play dumb: smartphones pose real dangers


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