Digital downers: Are your devices hurting your health?
Published 10/08/2016 | 02:30
Digital technology has transformed our lives - but not always for the better. Abi Jackson takes a top-to-toe look at how our devices are impacting our health
EYES AND VISION
Our screen time has increased by 42pc in the past five years, according to healthcare brand Bausch + Lomb, and it's taking its toll on our eyes. A key factor is dryness; we tend to blink far less when gazing at screens, which means missing out on essential lubrication provided by eyelids swiping over the eyes.
'Digital Eye Strain' is now a recognised condition, causing symptoms like blurred vision, tired, strained, irritated eyes and headaches.
"Viewing a computer or digital screen often makes eyes work harder [and is] different from reading a printed page," highlights the American Optometric Association. It can be particularly troublesome for contact lens-wearers, and while there's no solid evidence of major threat to long-term vision, there is a risk of chronic dry eye syndrome and sometimes inflammation.
Fix it: Follow the 20: 20: 20 rule - every 20 minutes, shift your eyes to look at an object 20ft away, for at least 20 seconds. Let your eyes relax and do some extra blinking. Regular eye check-ups are also important, and seek advice from an eye care professional if dryness and strain becomes problematic.
SHOULDERS AND ARMS
Recent decades have seen sharp rises in repetitive strain injuries, a range of symptoms linked with over-use of a particular part of the body, characterised by pain in the muscles, nerves and tendons - and working at a computer's often responsible.
"It's commonly caused by typing or using the mouse," says physiotherpist Laura Harman. "It usually affects the upper limbs, neck and upper back." Experts believe that many work days are lost annually to RSI injuries.
Fix it: Harman highlights there are things we can do to prevent and help manage RSI. Take regular desk breaks, keep your posture in check and ensure you're sat well and using appropriate technique for repetitive movements (employers should provide desk assessments). Pilates and yoga can be beneficial, along with regular stretching, and seek professional advice if symptoms persist.
FINGERS AND THUMBS
"Texting and gaming on smartphones can cause overuse injuries to the tendons and muscles of the thumb and fingers due to the constant flexing movements. Overdoing these movements can cause inflammation and potentially lead to tendinitis or 'trigger finger/thumb'," says Harman.
Fix it: Think about how and why you're using your devices - if you enjoy playing games, be sensible with the amount of time you're spending doing it. Or are you just in the habit of mindlessly picking it up to fill every quiet moment? Harman suggests interchanging typing with thumbs and fingers, regular stretches to open up the palm and digits, consider voice activation/messaging for longer emails and texts and have at least one full tech-free hour a day. If things do get bad, seek professional advice; physio exercises and massage may help loosen tight muscles.
NECK AND HEAD
'Tech neck' or 'text neck' is real. "Spending hours looking down at a computer or phone can lead to neck and shoulder pain, plus stiffness and headaches," says Harman. "Our bodies our designed to work in a certain way in order to be efficient and pain-free.
"When you look down for prolonged periods, you create a muscle imbalance. Some muscles become overstretched, while others tighten up and feel overworked. This can lead to the formation of trigger points ('knots') and therefore pain."
Fix it: Bring the screen to eye level. Also, Harman suggests setting 20-minute reminders to look up and perform some simple neck stretches: rolling shoulders, turning to look over each shoulder, tilting the ear to each shoulder and tucking your chin in. Pilates will help improve your posture and strength in this area.
Work in an office? Chances are, aches and strains in the lower back are a common complaint. Harman says it is "difficult to say how sitting at a desk for hours each day will affect individuals long-term" - however we know "sitting for prolonged periods will create muscle imbalances which, if left unaddressed, can lead to pain and stiffness". Additionally, sitting in a slumped posture is known to put more pressure on your discs in the lower back and neck.
Fix it: Desk breaks are vital - Harman suggests setting a reminder for every 30 minutes. Stand up, change position, have a stretch (maybe do a tea round?). Again, Pilates and yoga are a great preventative measure for desk workers. Be mindful of your posture and desk set-up, and seek professional advice if aches and pains persist.
Social media can be a minefield for triggering things like FOMO (fear of missing out), poor body image and low self-esteem from comparing yourself to others. Then there's online bullying, Dr Google and health anxiety, plus the wider impact that a reduction in 'real' social interactions might bring about.
"For the majority, technology has a number of positive psychological outcomes. Social networks help us feel connected to others, whether they're far away or in the next room. This sense of belongingness is an essential human drive," notes Dr Elle Boag, senior lecturer in Social Psychology at Birmingham City University.
"However, the story's not always positive, with other research demonstrating a number of negative outcomes."
Studies have even found depressive symptoms associated with social media can impact productivity at work. Boag adds: "The reciprocity associated with offline social relationships may not be adhered to as much online. Plus the constant demand to respond to friends' or followers' posts can cause psychological drain and lower levels of personal satisfaction."
Fix it: As Dr Boag says, there are plenty of positives associated with the web and social media - but we need a sense of control over how we're engaging with them. If you experience problems like online bullying, reporting it and seeking appropriate advice can help. There are support services for things like web and social media addiction too.
"Many of my clients have sleep problems because of unhealthy relationships with technology. For some, their devices have become a comfort blanket and people can't be without them at night," says psychologist and sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, whose new book 'Fast Asleep Wide Awake' is out this week.
"Looking at these devices close to bedtime can really disrupt sleep - not only does it make it harder to fall asleep, but sleep might be more shallow and easily disturbed."
As well as the infamous 'blue light' emitted, which triggers sleep-hindering hormones, Ramlakhan notes the "stressful distraction that comes from picking up a worrying or email or message just before you drift off can affect your slow-wave sleep".
This means grumpiness and tiredness in the short-run, but experts are increasingly acknowledging that poor sleep may majorly impact long-term health, associating it with higher rates of obesity, heart diseases and diabetes.
Fix it: "Ideally we start the 'electronic sundown' around an hour before getting into bed," says Ramlakhan. "This means not watching TV in bed, keeping the bedroom tech-free (get an old fashioned alarm clock) and not checking devices during the night."