Technology plays a major role in our daily lives. Right now, you're using some form of mobile device or computer to read this article, and it's likely you rarely stop to put it down for more than a few hours – except when you’re sleeping.
Whether it be a smartphone, laptop or television, we rely on devices in all shapes and forms for so much. Instead of penning letters, we send emails or load up an IM service, and if a new album comes out, we stream it using applications like Apple Music and Spotify rather than running to the CD racks.
On the face of things, technology provides convenient ways to get things done, saving tonnes of time through devices that our grandparents would only have dreamed of. But we rarely stop to think about the impact all these devices are actually having on our wellbeing. With so much time spent staring at screens, surely there are bound to be health implications?
Are we starting to become digitally addicted? The answer is yes, most definitely. According to a study by Nottingham Trent University, every day, the average person checks their smart device about 85 times and spends 5 hours browsing the web.
From memory loss to weight gain, experts are warning that this level of usage is causing serious health concerns. We ask the experts about the common health complaints caused by over reliance on gadgetry. Here are just a few tech-fuelled maladies you need to watch out for.
The Square Eyes Phenomenon
Remember the old saying that your eyes will go square if you stare at the television too much? Well, health professionals believe there’s a degree of truth to it. Your eyes may not necessarily morph into a different shape, but peering into the displays of computers, tablets and smartphones is causing vision complications.
Dr Colin Parsloe, who works at Luton and Dunstable University Hospital, explains that devices like tablets and smartphones can cause dry eye symptoms and problems with blinking. There’s even the risk of infection and blindness.
He says: “staring at computers, tablets and smartphones for too long results in lack of blinking and then dry eye symptoms. Research shows that eye problems are the very prevalent in office workers due to temporary eye strain and dry eyes.
“We normally blink every 10 seconds. Concentrating on a screen or reading reduces your blink rate. Some people may only blink after two minutes! If you're not blinking, tears evaporate from the surface of the eye leaving dry spots that result in inflammation, redness and pain.
“The vast number of cases of dry eye disease result only in occasional pain but it can also be incredibly severe and lead to an increase in the risk of infection and possible blindness. There is also the increased risk of developing styes and other inflammatory lumps in the eyelids, possibly requiring surgical correction. Depression and anxiety are more prevalent in patients with dry eye disease, and they are more likely to report problems with reading or using a computer, and poor visual performance when driving.”
Rapid Weight Gain
Some believe that our addiction to technology is also making us put on weight. Ben Barker, from Total Health Clinics, says the convenience of devices is creating a vicious cycle of inactivity. Instead of going out and exercising, there’s growing concern that many people are staying inside to watch TV and browse the internet, and at work, they’re stuck at computers for most of the day. This can also have an impact on our posture.
"Our obsession with technology is having a detrimental affect on our health, despite the rise of health and fitness applications for mobiles. From a musculoskeletal perspective, there is a significant pressure being placed on the cervical spine as we tilt our heads down and stare at handheld devices. This poor posture can negatively impact the spine, increasing wear and tear,” Barker says.
“From a weight gain perspective, any pain that we feel means that we are less likely to take part in any exercise, so we stay inside and most likely use technology – it’s a vicious cycle that can lead to feelings of depression, also affecting our food choices. The increase in technology is leading to weight gain due to the inactivity that it inherently leads too.
“The majority of us work in front of screens, relax in front of the television – both 'activities' mean that we are sitting down. Because everything is at our fingertips, it becomes less necessary for us to even leave our homes (apart from to work!), meaning that most of us are barely hitting 2,000 steps a day – let alone the recommended 10,000.”
Carly Tierney, of DW Fitness Clubs, talks about the misconception of gadgets that aim to get you fit and healthy: “Fitness tech can help you to lose weight. It makes you more aware of your lifestyle choices, can help you to track your food and exercise consumption and encourage you to get moving. However, there can be challenges too.
“Failure to achieve goals can be massively disheartening, so try not to invest too heavily in the magic numbers that some fitness tech generates. In the end, gadgets are only going to give you more options to get into shape.
“You'll still have to do the rest of the work yourself. Tracking technology could give you the information you need to stay motivated and avoid slipping into bad habits. However, it doesn't address the root cause of your weight gain: lifestyle choices and low self-esteem.”
Grave Problems for Youngsters
Gemma Johnson, founder of the National Unplugging Day campaign to get people to have a break from technology, says tech has a dark side that is often ignored. In particular, she sees major health implications for younger generations, who are growing up in an interconnected age and don’t know any different.
She tells us: “technology is a wonderful thing but when overused, has some dark sides which can have a detrimental and potentially serious effect on your physical and mental health due to long term usage.
“Short sightedness, wear and tear to the cervical spine, headaches, jaw tension, sleep disturbances, low mood have been well reported as being on the increase. And the long-term health implications for our younger generations as they grow into adulthood are relatively unknown with regards to the sheer scale of the issues to come.
“Overuse of mobile phones and communication tools have been proven to be root causes for stress, fatigue and depression according to a study by the University of Gothenburg Sahlgrenska Academy, and University of Carolina research indicates early onset diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and even cancer through an inactive lifestyle due to technology.”
Like Gemma, Dr Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and leadership coach, believes that digital detoxes are essential to remaining healthy in the modern world. Using devices in bed should be a no-go, she says, as it’s hurting our brains and quality of sleep. Blue light is the main culprit here, as it alters the hormone responsible for helping us fall asleep.
“Considering a period of digital detoxing within your brain health routine is extremely important. The sheer volume we check our smartphones every day is astounding – and using such devices in bed, as many of us do, can have a particularly negative impact on our brains and the quality of our sleep,” says Swart.
“Melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate our sleep, is released by the pineal gland into the bloodstream. The blue light that phone and laptop screens emit confuses the gland because darkness is what triggers it to start work. Getting to sleep, and the quality of our sleep, can therefore be affected by this.
“We should all aim for 7-9 hours’ sleep a night, and when we have any sleep disturbance, our IQ drops by 5-8 IQ points the following day. More frightening is that an entire night’s disturbed sleep accounts for 1 standard deviation loss on your IQ. This means you’ll effectively be operating with a below normal IQ.”
Digital Amnesia and Memory Loss
Another worrying side effect of tech overuse is memory loss. David Emm, a principal security researcher at Kaspersky Lab, has been investigating this area. He’s found that connected technologies are introducing a new kind of illness: digital amnesia. The latter introduces the notion that we no longer need to remember things like passwords and phone numbers because we can save them in our phones.
“Connected devices enrich our lives but they have also given rise to Digital Amnesia. We need to understand the long-term implications of this for how we remember and how we protect those memories. The phone numbers of those who matter most to us are now just a click away - so we no longer bother to memorise the details,” he says.
“An overwhelming 86 per cent of those surveyed say that in our increasingly hyper-connected world people simply have too many numbers, addresses, handles for them to remember even if they wanted to. We discovered that the loss or compromise of this precious information would not just be an inconvenience, but it would leave many people deeply distressed.”
Psychology teacher Saj Devshi adds: “one way technology is affecting us is it is warping our perception of how we think about our money and also conditioning us to spend it impulsively with little thought of the consequences. Contactless payments, one-click checkouts, paying via your phone all positively reinforce the buying experience and detach us from the process of thinking about spending money.
“Unlike handling physical cash, which would be a reminder of the money we're spending, technology on the other hand has done all it can to separate us from these thoughts. How often have people come home from a night out of tapping their bank card only to find they have spent far more than they thought the next morning? People may not be earning more but they are certainly spending more because of technology.”
Technology isn’t just having an impact on physical health. It’s also introducing mental health implications, especially around self-esteem and relationships. Hilda Burke, psychotherapist and couples counsellor, says: “An area where I see 'always on' digital devices having an impact is emotional health and relationships. Digital device addiction is often an issue in the couples I see – one will complain that the other constantly checks their phone while they're out or spending time together.
“By being always on, it means we’re switching off from real intimacy with our loved ones. While digital devices can serve a purpose to keep in touch when we’re apart from those we love, when we’re actually with them they often serve as a distraction.
“Another risk with being always on, particularly in terms of social media, is that we run the risk of constantly comparing what others are doing, achieving or experiencing – or rather what they’re presenting! – with our own lot. To be in this constant state of comparison can have a detrimental effect on our emotional health and general sense of wellbeing.”
When you look at technology, there’s usually the perception that it’s going to have beneficial impact on your life. Yes, it allows us to do loads of great things, but it’s hard not to ignore the impact it’s having on our physical and mental health. As the experts rightly point out, these issues are caused by relying too heavily on devices. Used in moderation, you become a lot healthier. Should you continue to use them constantly, you’re putting your health at risk.