Smartphones and Health: How Your Cell Phone Affects You
In the not-so-distant past, cell phones were a new and exciting technology. Now it seems you can’t go anywhere without seeing a smartphone in nearly every hand. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—they are awfully practical. If you’re trying to call a friend, find the nearest coffee shop, or simply keep up with the news, your cell phone can help you do just that. And you can do it from just about anywhere.
If smartphones are an inextricable part of day-to-day life—which they seem to be—it’s worth looking into the ties between them and your health. So, whether you’re an occasional user or stay tied to your phone, read on for a breakdown of how your cell phone affects you.
Smartphones and Physical Health: The Effects of Cell Phones on Your Body
When it comes to cell phones and health, many people immediately jump to the radio frequency energy these devices emit. While it is technically true that cell phones expose users to a type of radiation, it’s important to note it’s a low level of non-ionizing radiation—a type that has not been linked to any health problems.
With the insidious threat of radiation out of the way, let’s look at the ways your smartphone actually can impact your physical well-being:
- Disrupted sleep: One of the most reported effects of smartphone use is disrupted sleep patterns. This is especially true when you are on your phone in bed before falling asleep. Excessive exposure to screens throughout the day can also lead to difficulty falling asleep and insomnia. To avoid screen-related sleeping woes, some experts recommend cutting out your cell phone, laptop, and TV usage 30 minutes before bed.
- Increased eye fatigue and headaches: It’s probably not too surprising that staring at a screen isn’t great for your eyes. This is partially due to the blue light your smartphone screen emits, as well as how close many people view their phones. Eye fatigue can present several symptoms ranging from double vision and difficulty focusing to headaches and dry eyes.
- Neck, back, and shoulder pain: In a 2022 study, researchers observed higher reported neck, back, and shoulder pain in college undergraduates and graduate students who used their smartphones excessively (more than five hours a day per this study). These physical symptoms are likely the result of posture and head positioning during cell phone use.
- Hand and wrist pain: The musculoskeletal effects your smartphone can have on your body aren’t limited to the head and neck. You do, after all, hold your phone in your hand. Excessive cell phone use—especially texting or typing—can lead to trigger thumb (tissue thickening in your thumb), thumb arthritis, wrist pain, and more. If you feel your thumbs or wrists getting achy and sore, it might be time to take a break from the phone for a bit.
In many studies conducted, researchers found it difficult to tie cell phone usage to weight and physical activity. Many theorized that higher levels of smartphone use would directly correlate to weight gain and obesity, as it seems plausible that time spent on a phone might replace time spent exercising.
However, many individuals use their smartphones to track workouts, map runs, and perform other fitness-related activities. In these cases, researchers found smartphone usage was promoting physical activity, not replacing it. So, the way you use your phone could make a difference in how it impacts your health.
Smartphones and the Brain: Cognition, Mental Health, and Your Cell Phone
If you’ve ever felt like your cell phone is wrecking your attention span, you’re not alone. Various levels of smartphone addiction are so common that products have been created to help monitor and restrict phone usage, be it through an app or a physical lockbox.
Such solutions may seem extreme, but product developers aren’t acting on anecdotal evidence alone. Scientific studies have identified the very real effects smartphones can have on the brain. Some of these include:
- Decreased attention span: If you regularly use a smartphone, there’s a good chance you’ve noticed your attention span has been impacted. Cell phones can affect your ability to focus in a variety of ways. As scientists study attention and focus, they often measure their subjects’ ability to achieve “flow”—a state of mind achieved when you are completely focused on and absorbed in a task. One 2015 study found that participants who displayed some level of phone addiction were less likely to achieve “flow” performance.
- Increased risk for anxiety and depression: Several studies have linked excessive smartphone use and cell phone addiction to anxiety and depression. While the exact causes for this are not clear, one theory suggests smartphone use can increase an individual’s sense of isolation and loneliness. Another theory correlates the amount of time people, especially young adults, use their smartphones for social media. Other studies, however, show evidence that some smartphone usage can decrease your sense of loneliness and boost your mood. It all depends on how and why you interact on your phone.
- Decreased ability to connect with others: Some researchers break cell phone distractions into two categories: endogenous and exogenous. Endogenous distractions come from your own mind, not the phone itself. Exogenous distractions refer to vibrations, rings, and other phone notifications. During a conversation, exogenous factors can obviously be a distraction—it’s hard to focus on what someone is saying when your phone is vibrating nonstop in your pocket. As it turns out, endogenous factors can be just as distracting. One study showed when a cell phone is visible on the table the owner must fight the impulse to check it. And this urge can be incredibly distracting. In other words, if you can see your phone, your own thoughts can draw your attention away from engaging face-to-face.
Kids and Their Phones: Smartphones and Health in Childhood and Adolescence
In schools, the mental and cognitive effects of smartphones on children and teens have become a major talking point—especially after the COVID-19 pandemic forced many school districts to virtual instruction.
And for good reason. Many of the symptoms of excessive smartphone use listed above are more pronounced in children and teens. It’s also important to remember that these are habit-forming years. The relationship you develop to technology in your teens is likely going to shape your adult years. For this reason, it is crucial to monitor how much time children and teens are spending on their phones to help them develop healthy lifelong habits.
It’s Not All Bad: Using Your Smartphone to Promote Healthy Living
Sure, smartphones can affect your health in a variety of negative ways, but that doesn’t mean a phone in hand is inherently bad. In fact, many people use their smartphone to promote healthy lifestyles.
Technology has revolutionized the ways you can approach fitness, health, and wellness. So rather than ditching the smartphone completely, think about how it can be a tool for your health. Look for new apps to track your workouts, set health goals, practice daily mindfulness, or even build better connections with your loved ones. The possibilities are limitless—you’ve just got to explore what’s out there!