I’m that guy, the one who still has a flip phone and who has to get tips from his five-year-old about how to effectively use my Twitter account. The first time I used the internet, as a college freshman, I couldn’t help but think, “Yeah, this ain’t gonna last.” Technophobe, luddite, whatever you want to call me, technology and this faux world created by social media confuses me—even scares me a little. And there is no denying it, my lack of technology acumen has been a shortcoming in my career and has hindered social interactive experiences on many occasions. But, research is showing that this constant, no-boundaries, digital age connection can have its downsides too. Nomophobia, being without one’s smartphone, is one of the fastest growing anxiety disorders and can cause legitimate, real-life, health issues.
The statistics are dumbfounding . . . but considering you are likely reading this from your phone, maybe not so much. According to the Pew Research Center, the average smartphone user checks their phone over 150 times a day and most do not go a single waking hour without connecting. We take our phones almost every time we need to use the restroom and never go to bed without it in reach. Nearly 1/3 of adults admit to checking their phones while eating with others at a restaurant, and worse: while they are driving. Our psychological need to remain connected is so extreme that 73% of adults state that misplacing their phone is one the most panic-inducing events they can think of, causing more stress than rush hour traffic or even a sick child. This digital addiction has even spawned a new industry of smartwatches, so you can inconspicuously check your email or receive texts while still appearing to be focusing your attention on the colleagues you are meeting with or the movie you paid $11 to watch.
The time we spend connected and in front of a screen has, no doubt, changed how we interact, how we read, and our ability to comprehend. As someone who has extreme difficulty recognizing and understanding nonliteral and nonverbal communication cues due to a diagnosed neurological condition, this is actually quite amusing. Texting, instant messaging, tweeting: modern communication is essentially turning future generations into Aspies. Google provides all the collective wisdom of mankind at our fingertips, available with a few mouse clicks, but has done a number on our attention spans and ability to focus. I know very well that if the paragraphs of this blog are too text heavy or if I don’t include any infographics, the chances of you reading it drop dramatically. Thanks to the phenomenon of “transactive memory,” in which we do not properly encode and store memories because we know that information is readily accessible through other means, research has shown that our short and long-term memories are suffering. Thanks again, Google. And, for those of us who have had the opportunity to sort through job resumes of late, “Twitter language” is a real thing and is an issue resulting in universities having to expand remedial writing courses.
This condition is actually resulting in quantifiable negative health outcomes. According to a 2014 study, hunching over to use your smart device can add up to 50 pounds of pressure on your spine and is resulting in a dramatic increase in the number of young people suffering from chronic back problems. Constant use of technological devices is one of the greatest risk factors for Occipital Neuralgia, a condition in which the nerves that run from the top of the spinal cord up through the scalp become perpetually compressed or inflamed, causing intense pain in the back of the head and neck. Recent polls suggest that nearly 2/3 of adults are now falling asleep with their phone or other device in their bed, a habit which research has shown can dramatically increase sleep deficiency. Very similar to carpal tunnel, “text claw” is the latest condition making many orthopedic surgeons wealthy. Constant use of phones can cause unavoidable cramping, tendon inflammation, and numbness and tingling in the elbow and fingers, which there currently is little treatment for. Maybe scariest of all, your constant connectivity may be curtailing your weight management efforts. One recent study found that those who spend at least five hours per day using their phones were much less likely to engage in regular exercise, had less aerobic endurance, and were heavier than their peers. And the effects were directly proportional to the time spent connected: each additional text or tweet reliably predicted a further decreased level of fitness.
Get rid of the phobia, redevelop an appreciation for the amazing capability of these pocket-sized technological marvels, and improve your health in three easy steps:
Put down the phone and pick up a dumbbell.
Commit to putting the phone away for some part of the day, every day. Use this time to sneak in a workout; and no, you don’t need YouTube to get a good workout, and the workout still counts even if you didn’t post pics, so leave the phone in the car or at home. Setting aside a specific daily time to unplug and sweat not only kills two birds with one stone, but also can help you structure the rest of your day. Try setting the tone for the day by doing it first thing in the morning, subconsciously telling yourself that exercise takes precedence over your email.
Sleep is one of the most undervalued aspects of health. Research has associated sleep deprivation with everything from developing heart disease to increased cravings for junk food. Not only does heading to bed with our face in a screen keep our mind racing, making it that much more difficult to transition from the state of being awake to the non-rapid-eye-movement phases of sleep, but our smart devices emit “blue light.” When we are exposed at night to this artificial light, it is erroneously detected as sunlight by our brains, causing a decrease in melatonin secretion. Melatonin is the hormone that helps regulate our circadian rhythm and provides our sleeping cues. By making interaction with your phone part of your bedtime routine, you are sending a direct signal to your brain that it is time to wake up. Leave it downstairs or physically lock it up in your night stand an hour before you are ready to hit the sheets and sleep your way to better health.
It’s the new thing. My social media feeds are filled with statements from e-friends declaring that they are challenging themselves to refrain from social media usage for a day or even a week. It’s ironic that their eventual return to the digital world is broadcasted with statements that their “fast” allowed them to focus more time on their loved ones, get more exercise, and get several things checked off the “honey-do list.” Take it a step further and totally unplug. An hour, a day, even a week—you’ll survive, those emails won’t disappear, and you’ll likely reenter the real world with a new perspective. For your well-being and the health of your relationships, make it a regular habit to consciously disconnect for longer periods of time and focus on the tangible components of your life.
Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.