The alarm on your smartphone buzzes next to your bed. You get up, check your FitBit to see how many hours of sleep you logged, then pull up your calendar on your Apple watch. “Alexa, what’s today’s weather report?” you ask your Bluetooth speaker. As you’re using your daily meditation app, you get a FaceTime call from your daughter in college. All this technology is great, right? So easy, so useful, so … harmful?
Research–and personal experience–tells us that living in a technology-obsessed world is contributing to an increase in physical ailments, from “text neck” to dry eye disease. Some even wonder: is digital technology destroying our health? That was the topic of a Zócalo/UCLA event in Los Angeles in March 2016, where a group of health experts gathered to discuss this timely issue.
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, a biobehavioral scientist, pointed out that there are tangible benefits when people can monitor their own health and take more responsibility for their health care. But there are also some real drawbacks to technology we need to be aware of, he warned.
How screens impact sleep
Excessive screen time, especially at night, takes a toll, Block said. “Perhaps the most dramatic impact is the reduction in the amount of sleep.” While in the 1960’s the average adult got eight and a half hours of sleep per night, today we average less than seven hours a night.
Bright light reduces levels of the hormone melatonin, which regulates sleep, and decreases leptin, which makes you feel full, while at the same time increasing ghrelin, which makes you feel hungry, he explained. So more time on screens equals less sleep and more weight gain, and not just because we’re more sedentary.
Sleeping less is a serious problem, given that insufficient sleep has been linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases and conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
‘Text neck’ is real
New technology has given rise to new ailments, such as the previously unheard-of “text neck.” This increasingly common repetitive strain injury is characterized by muscle pain in the neck, shoulders, and sometimes lower back, and is caused by hunching over smartphones.
Constantly looking down at a device changes the natural curvature of the neck, and over time can strain muscles and cause even worse problems. “Neck muscles, in their proper position, are designed to support the weight of your head, about 10 to 12 pounds,” Robert Bolash, M.D., says on the Cleveland Clinic website. “Research shows that for every inch you drop your head forward, you double the load on those muscles. Looking down at your smartphone, with your chin to your chest, can put about 60 pounds of force on your neck.”
Text neck is more serious than sore muscles, however. Poor posture can restrict the lungs’ ability to expand and impair lung capacity, forcing the heart to pump harder to distribute blood throughout the body. Shoulder stretches and simply paying attention to your posture are the best ways to avoid problems.
Dry eye is on the rise
Other screen-related ailments, like dry eye disease, are also on the rise. Once considered very rare and seldom diagnosed, dry eye syndrome affects an estimated 3.2 million U.S. women age 50 and over and 1.68 million men age 50 and over today, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Even more shocking, while dry eye was once considered an “older person’s” issue, it is now affecting younger people with otherwise healthy eyes, reports the Review of Optometry. This is because Millennials, teens, and even schoolchildren now spend more time than ever on mobile devices and computers, which impact users’ blink rate and tear production.
Tech’s toll on empathy and social ties
Technology is also affecting younger people’s social skills as well as their eye health. On the UCLA panel, psychologist Patricia Greenfield, director of the UCLA Children’s Digital Media Center, said she was most concerned about “the social costs of our obsession with digital technology,” reported the UCLA website.
Greenfield cited a recent study conducted by her center that found that “sixth graders’ ability to read emotions from nonverbal cues improved significantly in just five days when they went to a camp that focused on face-to-face interactions.” Another of their studies found that college students felt most “bonded” to their friends when they talked face-to-face, and most distant from them when they text-messaged.
Technology’s ability to create a barrier between people is not just a problem for young people, however. Doctor-patient communication—and patient satisfaction—can take a hit when clinicians spend too much time inputting data into EHRs and not enough time interacting with the people in their exam rooms.
Many studies have shown a connection between social ties and better health, from short-term health benefits like reduced incidence of colds, to better long-term disease survival rates and increased longevity, reports Stanford’s BeWell health newsletter.
This holiday season, make an extra effort to unplug, disconnect from your devices, and reconnect with your loved ones by enjoying some of your favorite offline activities. Scrabble, anyone?