Is Your Technology Killing You?
As a New York surgeon detects a new phenomenon known as ‘text-neck’ syndrome, we take a look at some of the other technology-induced health risks
Like it or loathe it, technology is something we cannot live without. From the moment we wake up in the morning (the customised ring of a smart phone’s alarm) until the moment we go to bed at night (a final check of emails), technology is an integral part of modern life.
But just how detrimental is this for our health? We take a look at some of the risks, and how to avoid them.
1. “Text-neck” syndrome
Bending your head down to look at your phone can have serious consequences for your spine, according to a new study.
Kenneth Hansraj, the chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine, has found that the increased stress on your spine could lead to “early wear, tear, degeneration and possibly surgeries”.
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The study, which will appear next month in Surgical Technology International, acknowledged that it is “nearly impossible to avoid the technologies that cause these issues”.
However, Dr Hansraj advised that “individuals should make an effort to look at their phones with a neutral spine and avoid spending hours each day hunched over”.
The image below, used in the research paper, illustrates how the weight seen by the spine increases when flexing the neck at varying degrees.
An adult head weighs 10-12 pounds in the neutral position, but as the head tilts forward, the force on the neck surges upwards.
(Dr. Ken Hansraj)
Earlier this year, the United Chiropractic Association said that poor posture arising from over use of smart phones posed as big a health risk as obesity.
Consultant orthopaedic surgeon Jonathan Dearing said that “text-neck” syndrome was not something he had come across before.
“If you put any part of your body in an unusual position of course it will start to feel uncomfortable,” he said. “We would say just move your neck around and don’t be so daft.”
Mr Dearing, who is a spokesman for the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, said that by far the biggest threat arising from technology is the reduction of physical activity – the fourth biggest cause of death worldwide.
“Our parents’ generation was far more active than we are now,” he said.
“If someone is on the floor above you at work, rather than going to see them you would send an email. And you would phone up a friend rather than travelling to meet them.
“Inactivity leads to obesity, and it means risk of cardiovascular disease is greatly increased.
“Pretty much every pathology – such as breast cancer, prostate cancer or bowel cancer – you are both more likely to get it and less likely to recover from it if you are inactive.”
People often send emails at work rather than speaking in person (Alamy)
The Lighting Research Centre, part of New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, found in 2011 that two or more hours of exposure to backlit devices, such as a smartphone or tablet, suppresses melatonin which can lead to trouble sleeping at night.
Mariana Figueiro who led the research team recommended dimming the brightness on backlit devices to minimize melatonin suppression.
However, Professor Kevin Morgan, Director of the Clinical Sleep Research Unit at Loughborough University, said that it is the intellectual stimulation rather than the screen’s backlighting that keeps you awake at night.
“Probably more than half the civilised population of the planet are looking at screens,” he said.
“But screens disturbing your sleep have almost nothing to do with the radiation they are transmitting.
“Why are you looking at a screen before you go to bed? It could be because you are working. Or a child might be playing an exciting game.
“The issue is cognitive arousal. Looking at screens engages you in intellectual activity in a way that is not at all like reading a book. It puts you in a state of alertness which is the last thing you want to be before going to bed.”
Playing computer games before going to sleep puts you in an alert state of mind
Not only could staring at a screen in bed stop you from sleeping, it could also trigger depression, according to an American study.
Samer Hattar, professor of biology at Johns Hopkins University in the US, found that mice regularly exposed to light at night became “depressed” – showing less interest in doing “fun” things, being less likely to explore new objects in their cages and not moving around as much.
They also had higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
Although the study was in mice, Prof Hattar said mice and men were similar in certain ways and so the study held lessons for people.
“I’m not saying we have to sit in complete darkness at night, but I do recommend that we should switch on fewer lamps, and stick to less-intense light bulbs: Basically, only use what you need to see,” he said.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organisation, declared in 2011 that mobile phones may increase the risk of developing brain cancer.
It classified the radiation emitted by handsets as “possibly carcinogenic”, placing mobiles in the same risk category as lead, the pesticide DDT and petrol exhausts.
The NHS advise everyone, especially children, to only make short calls on a mobile phone, when necessary and keep your phone away from your body when you are not using it.
They also advise using a hands-free kit, and only using a mobile phone where reception is strong.
Children are advised to only speak on the phone when necessary (Ian Jones)
Dr Aric Sigman, an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, claimed that a generation of young people are growing up with a virtual addiction to computers, televisions and smartphones.
“Technology should be a tool, not a burden or a health risk,” he told Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health 2012 annual conference.
“Whether children or adults are formally ‘addicted’ to screen technology or not, many of them overuse technology and have developed an unhealthy dependency on it.”
He accused parents who constantly fiddle with mobile phones or iPads in front of their children of “benign neglect” and advised that children under the age of three have no access to screens at all, and no more than an hour a day outside school for those under the age of seven.
Posted by Rohan Kar for Android