Over the years there have been several big scares about the potential effects mobile phones are having on our health. There was the ‘radio-waves are cooking your brain’ scandal (since debunked), and the rumour that using a phone whilst putting petrol in a car could cause an explosion (also false). ‘Text-neck’ is the latest concern, but this one might actually be true, and it’s not the only way excessive phone use is causing us health problems.
1. Musculoskeletal strain
The average head weighs 4.5kg and, if held at an angle for prolonged periods of time, can cause considerable strain on the cervical spine. There have been a number of studies looking into the effects of bad posture caused by smartphone or computer use, several of which have found muscle fatigue in the neck and shoulder muscles. One study found that this poor neck posture can adversely affect balance, and a five-year study found there was an association between mobile phone use and back pain in young adults.
But these posture problems aren’t just physical. Several studies have shown poor posture has a negative effect on self-esteem and mood. Furthermore, one study has found that taking long phone calls can reduce nerve conduction in the ulnar nerve, causing so called ‘phone elbow’, a process associated with more long term damage.
2. Sleep cycles
Blue or white light, such as that emitted from a mobile phone, tablet, or computer screen, can disrupt circadian sleep rhythms and delay the body’s natural ability to fall asleep.
This blue/white light, which naturally occurs outside during daylight hours, acts to inhibit the release of a hormone called melatonin, which tells the brain it is nighttime. Exposure to this kind of light from artificial sources can have a big impact on the body’s internal clock. Technology companies are taking steps to tackle this. An in-built ‘night time mode’ is being developed on some phones, as well as apps for laptops which filter out blue and white light in the evenings. They instead produce warmer toned light to help reduce sleep disruption, though the expert advice is still not to not use such devices after 10pm.
Multiple studies on small groups of healthcare professionals have found that over 85 per cent of phones carried harmful bacteria. They were found to be a potential source of bacterial disease transmission in hospitals. This is a particular problem in the hospital setting as patients are generally ill already, and therefore less able to fight off infection.
For people outside of hospitals though, risk of getting sick isn’t from the bacteria on your phone, it’s using someone else’s phone and coming into contact with their bacteria.
One study found that just the presence of a phone nearby can alter people’s perception of relationship quality. Not using a phone, but even just having it on the table nearby when talking about meaningful topics seemed to have reduced the perceived quality of the conversation for participants.
There was even a negative effect on closeness, and emotional connection with the other person.
Some research has also found that we adopt a strange gait when we walk and text. It is thought to be to a subconscious effort to reduce the risk of falling over; steps become exaggerated and the feet are lifted comically higher to avoid potential tripping hazards.
It’s not all bad though; phones are being used to develop tools to help with a range of health problems, like Parkinson’s, lower back pain and apps to help doctors with diagnoses and treatments. Even so, it’s probably still a good idea to look where you’re walking, put your phone away when with friends, and read a book before bed instead of using your devices.
Image: Jamie Street (via Unspash.com)