How does technology affect your physical health?
With tens of billions of internet-connected devices around the world, technology surrounds us like never before. There are many positive aspects to technology – not least, helping us stay connected to others, which has been a lifeline throughout the pandemic – but alongside the benefits, there are also potential health consequences that should be considered. In this overview, we explore the effects of technology overuse and the negative and positive impacts of technology on health.
Negative impacts of technology on health
Some of the health problems caused by technology include:
Looking down at an electronic gadget for long periods can lead to neck and back pain, as well as pains in elbows, wrists, and hands. In addition, laptop and smartphone usage can involve people sitting in positions consistent with poor ergonomic function and poor ergonomic positioning. As well as back pain from computer use, often caused by poor gaming posture or computer posture, there have also been reports of “selfie elbow” or “texting thumb” caused by technology overuse.
How to minimize musculoskeletal issues:
- To relieve back and neck pain, adjust your posture when using a device:
- Ensure proper sitting posture at the computer by ensuring that your desk, seat, and screen set-up is optimized – the UK's NHS has detailed guidance on achieving this here.
- Instead of holding your phone in your lap, you can minimize neck problems by holding it out in front of you. Positioning the device so it is in front of your face with your head sitting squarely on your shoulders is helpful to your neck.
- Consider using a body-standing desk. These make staring straight at your computer screen possible and help you avoid the health dangers of sitting all day.
- If texting with your thumbs causes pain, you may need to use other fingers to text or use a stylus.
- Regular screen breaks – allowing you to walk around, stand up, or stretch – will help relieve muscle pain and stress.
Digital eye strain
Constant exposure to digital devices can be harmful to our eyes. Digital eye strain, sometimes called Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS), is one of the most commonly reported symptoms of too much screen time. For example, one study suggested over 60% of Americans were affected by it. Symptoms of digital eye strain include dry eyes, redness around the eyes, headaches, blurred vision, plus neck and shoulder pain.
How to reduce digital eye strain:
- Practice the 20-20-20 rule for healthy digital device usage – i.e., take a 20-second break from the screen every 20 minutes and look at something 20 feet away. You could set a timer every 20 minutes to act as a reminder.
- Reduce overhead lighting to minimize screen glare.
- Increase text size on devices so you can read comfortably.
- Make sure you are blinking – when we stare at digital devices, we can blink less frequently, leading to dry eyes. If dry eyes are bothering you, using eye drops could help.
- Get regular eye check-ups. Poor eyesight contributes to eye strain. Regular check-ups will help ensure timely prescriptions when you need them.
Getting enough sleep is vital for almost every bodily function. But using a laptop, tablet, or smartphone shortly before going to bed can affect your ability to fall asleep. This is because the so-called blue light from devices can lead to heightened alertness and disrupt your body clock. In addition, activities on digital devices can be stimulating and make us much less ready for sleep. As a result, people can become absorbed and continue using the technology past their bedtime.
It’s important to distinguish between interactive and passive technological devices. Passive devices are those which require little or no input from users. Examples include listening to music, reading an e-book, or watching TV or a movie. With interactive devices, what is viewed on-screen changes with input from the user. For example, playing a video game is interactive, as is chatting on social media. Interactive activities are more likely to disrupt sleep than passive activities.
How to avoid disrupted sleep:
- Avoid using your smartphone, laptop, and tablet for at least an hour before going to sleep every night. Reading a book is more likely to relax you than scrolling through social media feeds.
- Dim the screen as much as possible for evening use. In many e-readers, you can also invert the screen color (i.e., white font on black background). Many devices now come with a 'night-time mode,' which is easier on the eye before bed.
- You could consider using a software program for PCs and laptops which decreases the amount of blue light in computer screens – which affects melatonin levels – and increases orange tones instead. An example is a program called f.lux which is available here.
- If you can, consider making your bedroom a screen-free zone.
- Establish a relaxing bedtime routine that doesn’t involve screens, to help you relax before going to sleep.
Excessive use of smartphones, laptops, and tablets can lead to physical inactivity. For example, according to one study, 38% of parents worried that their children weren’t getting enough physical exercise due to excessive screen time.
Too much sedentary time has been linked to an increased risk of a range of health conditions, including obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. The Covid-19 pandemic – which kept people at home, increased reliance on digital technology, and saw sporting events around the world canceled – didn't help. Still, even before Covid, it’s estimated that physical inactivity was costing 5.3 million lives a year globally.
How to stay active:
- The World Health Organization recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week for adults. Health organizations around the world advise against prolonged sitting for all age groups.
- Get up and stretch every 20 to 30 minutes. Walk around, take restroom breaks, carry out simple stretches to pump fresh blood and oxygen through your body.
- Find a physical activity you enjoy – whether that’s walking, cycling, swimming, or a team sport.
- Certain apps and wearable technologies can help keep you active – for example, by sending push notifications telling you it's time to move or by helping you set and track fitness goals.
Excessive screen time can negatively affect mental and emotional wellbeing. For example, by inducing anxiety because someone hasn’t replied quickly enough to your WhatsApp or text message, or constantly checking your social media feeds to see how many likes your last post received. It’s easy for both adults and children to compare themselves unfavorably to others on social media, which in turn can lead to feelings of anxiety.
Then there’s ‘doom scrolling’ – 1 in 5 Americans now obtain their news from social media, which is a more significant proportion than those who read traditional print media. Social media users who log in multiple times a day can be exposed to non-stop news, typically bad news such as natural disasters, terrorist events, political division, high-profile crimes, etc. Bingeing on bad news via social media or other online sources is known as doom scrolling, which can adversely affect mental health.
How to minimize psychological effects:
- Limit the amount of time you spend on social media – one study found that the less people used social media, the less depressed and lonely they felt. You can use a timer or app to track how long you are spending on social networking sites.
- Use real-world activities to help you focus on your immediate surroundings and circumstances. For example, you can read a book, watch a movie, go for a walk, do some baking, or phone a friend.
- Remember that social media is not a true reflection of reality – user feeds are often highly curated and show only a small proportion of real life.
Negative effects on kids
Technology overuse can have a significant impact on children and teenagers. This is because children’s brains are still developing, which means they can be more sensitive to the effects of technology overuse than adults. For example, some studies suggest that excessive screen time and social media use among kids and teens can impact social skills, creativity, attention spans, and language and emotional development delays. In addition, the same issues described above – poor posture, eye strain, disrupted sleep, and lack of physical activity leading to obesity – also apply to children.
How to minimize the impact on kids:
- It’s important for parents and caregivers to monitor screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children under 18 months old avoid screen time altogether, except for video chat, while 2-5 years old should have no more than 1 hour a day of supervised viewing. For older children, the Academy no longer provides a specific recommended time limit (previously, it recommended no more than 2 hours per day, but this was seen as unrealistic given how pervasive technology has become). Instead, the Academy encourages parents and caregivers to set sensible screen limits based on their own circumstances.
- To help your children get better sleep, talk to them about how digital devices can disrupt sleep and encourage them to avoid screens for at least an hour before bedtime.
- Set aside time without technology – for example, by turning off electronics at specific times or set days of the week.
- Model good behaviors for your children by avoiding technology overuse and ensuring your own healthy screen time per day.
Impact on hearing
Prolonged use of earphones, headphones, or earbuds at high volumes can cause hearing loss. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.1 billion young people worldwide are at risk of hearing loss due to unsafe listening practices, in part from listening to music via headphones or earbuds. Noise exposure is one of the most common causes of hearing loss.
How to minimize the impact on hearing:
- Outside-the-ear headphones are considered a better option because, unlike earbuds which deliver music directly into the ear, they provide a buffering space between the music and the ear canal.
- Better quality headphones are likely to improve both your listening experience and protect your hearing.
- You could also consider using noise-canceling headphones, which work by using inverse waves to cancel out the incoming sound. Another option is noise-isolating headphones, which create a seal around the ear that creates a physical barrier between the ear and the outside noise.
- Experts recommend listening at no more than 85 decibels (dB) for no more than 8 hours per day.
Positive effects of technology on health
It’s not all bad: there are many ways in which technology can also positively impact our health. For example, digital devices or apps can help to improve our diets, track our fitness activities, act as a reminder to get up and move or take our medication. There is a wealth of well-sourced and credible medical information online, which allows people to research their own health conditions (although it's important to note that misinformation also exists, and looking up information about health symptoms online can sometimes be a double-edged sword, causing needless worry).
In addition, technology helps medical providers ensure better patient care, improve relationships with patients, and deliver medical results direct to patients’ phones. Examples include:
- Online medical records that give patients access to test results and allow them to fill prescriptions.
- Apps that track chronic illnesses and communicate essential information to doctors.
- Virtual medical appointments – through video and phone consultations – especially during and post-Covid.
Tips for using technology in a healthy way
Some tips for ensuring healthy screen time include:
- Remove unnecessary apps from your phone to prevent you from constantly checking them for updates.
- Set screen time limits and stick to them.
- Log off and take regular breaks.
- Review and maximize your privacy settings on social media. Be selective about what you want to post and who you want to see it.
- Keep mealtimes gadget-free.
- Keep electronic devices out of your bedroom. Turn clocks and other glowing devices towards the wall at bedtime. Avoid using digital devices for at least an hour before going to bed.
- Use the internet to stay connected but prioritize real-world relationships over virtual ones.
If you are a parent or caregiver, many of the same principles apply:
- Set limits on screen time and restrict it before bedtimes and during mealtimes.
- Encourage in-person interactions over online interactions.
- Encourage children to have technology-free playtime.
- Make sure you're aware of what programs, games, and apps they are spending time on – you can read our article on apps and websites parents need to know about here.
- Explore technology together with your children.
- Use a parental control app like Kaspersky Safe Kids – as well as minimizing their exposure to inappropriate content, it also helps you manage their screen time and includes expert advice and tips from child psychologists on online topics.
In summary: technology is an integral aspect of modern life, and there are both positive and negative effects of computer use on human health. Taking sensible steps – such as setting limits on screen time, ensuring correct posture, taking regular breaks, and keeping active – can help minimize the impacts of technology on health.