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5 ways your smartphone is damaging your health

November 16th 2015 / Ayesha Muttucumaru Google+ Ayesha Muttucumaru

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Could it be time to give your smartphone a bedtime? With a new study showing that switching off earlier could equal an hour's more sleep, we checked in with a panel of experts to see how our gadgets could be harming our health on a wider scale too

From carpal tunnel to insomnia, eye problems to mental health, could it be high time to perform an intervention when it comes to our smartphone addictions?

With our phones now acting like a newly evolved appendage nowadays, our health could be paying the ultimate price for the growing pressure of staying constantly online. Among the repercussions, is the long-lasting effect our phones are having on our sleep, with a new study indicating that if the light emitted from them was shifted from the melatonin-disrupting blue-green end of the wavelength spectrum to the yellow and red one, we could be getting an hour's more sleep a night.

In addition to this, what other health warnings should we all be wary of? We asked a panel of experts for their insight into the damaging side-effects of our smartphone dependencies, how to offset the consequences and ensure that we’re using our gadgets in the safest way possible.

1. Eye problems

The combination of small screens, bright lights and miniscule text makes eye strain and future eye problems almost a certainty for many of us - unless the proper precautions are taken to safeguard our health. According to consultant ophthalmic surgeon Mr Saj Khan MB BS FRCSEd(Ophth), resident consultant at the London Eye Hospital, continued exposure could result in the following harmful effects:

  • "Prolonged concentration results in reduced blinking with consequent drying of the eyes and blurring of the vision - making the eyes feel strained."
  • "Constant focusing on small objects, typically being held closer than normal reading distance, can result in fatigue of the muscles responsible for focusing the vision for near objects (accommodation) and for turning the eyes in towards the target (convergence) - resulting in headaches."
  • "For children and even young adults, too much time spent concentrating on a smartphone screen can result in development or progression of short-sightedness (myopia) - which is not reversible, and will result in a need for glasses/contact lenses to be able to see clearly in the distance."
  • "There is a theoretical risk, though it is not proven, that the emission of blue light from smartphones may cause retinal damage and development of cataracts."

2. Tech addiction

Do you feel a tad twitchy when separated from your phone for say, a minute? We can relate. Being online all day, we can all of a sudden feel a bit lonesome without our trusty sidekick in tow. As well as the physical side-effects though, there are also the mental health consequences to bear in mind which can prove even harder to cure. “Many psychological studies have looked at the link between phone use and mental illness. According to a study undertaken at the University of Chicago, checking social media accounts for updates and notifications is a far more difficult habit to break than tobacco or alcohol,” warns Dr Anita Sturnham, GP and Get The Gloss Expert.

“Many people develop extreme anxiety around losing their phones, dependency of use and also find that their concentration and work productivity is reduced due to overuse of smartphones. Some studies also suggest that using smartphones for work can increase the risk of mental health problems. However, on the other side of the coin some employers and employees report that being able to access work-related tasks via their smartphones helps to reduce their work-related anxiety as they feel in greater control when they are away from the office. I guess the answer here is getting a balance and knowing when to switch off.”

MORE GLOSS: 10 ways to overcome anxiety

3. Neck pain and back pain

“Prolonged hunching over computers and handheld devices can lead to neck and back problems. If you think about it, the average human head weighs approximately 10lbs so when it tilts forwards for a longer period of time, it exerts extra pressure on the spine, causing pain in the neck, head and shoulders,” cautions Dr Sturnham.

MORE GLOSS: How to correct bad posture

4. Carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive strain injury

From sending texts to checking emails, changing our Twitter statuses to uploading pictures onto Instagram, it seems our fingers are getting the type of workout best reserved for Olympians. However, even world-class athletes have rest days and it may be time to give our digits a long overdue digital detox. “Studies have shown that in some cases, excessive texting with mobile phones can lead to inflammation of tendons, repetitive strain injuries (RSI) and articular degeneration in the thumb joint and index fingers,” says Dr Sturnham.

“The latest smartphones and tablet computers tend to involve the index finger or the thumb to perform the touch functions. Even though the physical actions are very light, frequent repetitive actions lasting for long hours could lead to excessive strains in the finger joints.

“Regular smartphone use may also be linked to a condition called carpal tunnel syndrome where overusing your tendons can lead to inflammation around the median nerve that travels down your forearm and into your hand, leading to pain, numbness and tingling in your wrist and hand.”

5. Insomnia and sleep disorders

As highlighted earlier, smartphones and a good night's sleep make for the most unlikely of bedfellows. “Studies show that exposure to excessive light at night, including extended use of various electronic media, can disrupt sleep or exacerbate sleep disorders,” says psychologist and Get The Gloss Expert Elaine Slater.

“We’re at the relative beginning of our understanding of how different forms of light affect sleep and health. Harvard Medical School scientists have found specific wavelengths of light can suppress the hormone melatonin in the brain. Melatonin is a sleep hormone produced by the pineal gland at night and under conditions of darkness,” explains Elaine.

“Blue light, a short wavelength light, has been singled out as more significantly disruptive to sleep than other colours on the light spectrum. Research has shown blue light delays release of the sleep hormone melatonin, disrupts circadian rhythms, stimulates the central nervous system and may influence negative changes in mood. Blue light is part of the full light spectrum, which means we’re exposed to it by the sun every day. Blue wavelengths are beneficial during daylight hours because they boost attention, reaction times and mood. However night time exposure to that light, which is emitted at high levels by smartphones with self-luminous, backlit displays, inhibits and suppresses the pineal gland from releasing melatonin thus preventing or disrupting sleep and reducing sleep duration.

“The artificial lights that illuminate from smartphones, throw the body’s biological clock – or, the circadian rhythm – out of sync, resulting in the deterioration of sleep quality. Screen time before bed is not only considered bad for quality sleep but can leave you feeling depleted in the morning, thereby making you less focused and engaged at work. Poor quality sleep and lack of sleep will affect your physical and emotional wellbeing. It can lead to illness, low mood or even depression.”

Smartphone SOS...

Saj Khan’s top eye health recommendations

"Prevention is always better than cure," he says.

1. "Actively remind yourself to blink regularly whilst using the phone. You can also use artificial tear drops to aid rehydration of the eyes."

2. "Limit the constant time spent looking at the phone - turn away and look into the distance every few minutes to help relax both internal and external eye muscles."

3. "Restrict children from spending too much time using a smartphone or similar digital device. Have regular and defined ‘No electronics’ periods. Ensure they spend time outside in natural daylight."

4. "Short sight/long sight/astigmatism may be corrected by the use of spectacles or contact lenses. For adults, once the vision is stable, surgical correction including laser vision correction, implantable contact lenses or lens replacement surgery with multifocal lens implants may be potential options."

How to get to sleep...

1. “One of the first things I tell my patients with insomnia is to switch their phones off at night and not to sleep in the same room as their smartphone or computer,” says Dr Sturnham.

2. “Research advises a digital ‘switch off’ at around 9pm to ensure quality sleep,” recommends Elaine Slater.

3. “Try dimming your smartphone or tablet brightness at night and hold the device at least 14 inches from your face while using it,” she adds.

Should you be suffering from wrist pain, back pain or discomfort in your neck, shoulders or arms, make sure to book in with your doctor as soon as possible to ensure that your gadgets aren't actually doing more harm than good...

Follow us @getthegloss and Ayesha @Ayesha_Muttu.

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