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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Some tips for ensuring healthy screen time include:
If you are a parent or caregiver, many of the same principles apply:
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.