Law in the Internet Society

How, exactly, are smartphones harming our health?

-- By MarianaFranceseCoutinho - 06 Dec 2019

The question

I am an anxious person by nature. I bite my nails, fidget, and I constantly, constantly check my phone. I check the time; see whether I am missing something; aimlessly observe the screen like a moth attracted to something shiny. Frequently, I will be looking for a little nudge of socialization; often, if I haven’t received one and feel particularly lonely – not hard, given the distance from family, friends and pets alike – I will provide the nudge myself and (anxiously) wait for an answer. I idly distract myself on social media, sometimes for hours. One day, I noticed something about my hands that I had never noticed before: a small indentation in the middle phalange of my little fingers, in exactly the same spot where I usually cradle my cellphone. Could it be that I have always been ignorant about this small bodily feature of mine, or was it something new?

Being me, I (anxiously) wondered whether it was possible that I was irreversibly damaging my body simply by holding my phone. Which led me to think about how my myopia has been steadily increasing for the past few years, despite the fact that I stopped growing ages ago. If my bones might be getting distorted and my eyesight getting worse, what other physical or psychological effects am I – and many others – being subjected to?

The answers


Fake News!

It seems that I am not alone in my fear of warping my pinkies through excessive iPhone usage. It also seems, fortunately, that the probability that I actually did manage to bend my bones is pretty low, and a possible pinkiedemic has been debunked by several sources (featuring doctors!).

One particularly concerning report about smartphone damages linked excessive smartphone usage by young people to the formation of a horn-like bone growth on their skulls. It came from a 2018 study claiming that such bone growths appear more often than expected in people aged 18 to 30, essentially suggesting that “sustained aberrant postures” + smartphones = horns at the back of our skulls. This terrifying notion has been thankfully met with some skepticism (by doctors!), and the study itself apparently has some significant flaws such as not measuring the actual smartphone usage of its subjects; not having a random population sample, since subjects were drawn from people seeking a chiropractor; and inconsistent x-ray setups.

Real News

Even though I may not be on the path to becoming a bent-pinkied horned creature, I am certainly well on my way to some neck and back problems. I am a prime victim for something called “text neck”, which is a pain on the neck caused by frequently leaning forwards, causing one’s neck to strain in order to hold itself in place. Overenthusiastic smartphone use can also provoke hand pain and numbness; as well as finger cramping and aching muscles (“cubital tunnel syndrome” in medical terms) due to the pinching of the ulnar nerve by an elbow bent for too long. It seems that poring over cute cat videos is not harmless, after all.

Not only am I becoming a bent-neck lady, I am also becoming a progressively blinder one. Confirming my fears, smartphone use might be – at least partially – to blame for my ever-increasing myopia. We are currently experiencing a myopia epidemic. Many more people are myopic compared to a decade ago, thanks to an increase in near-plane reading associated with less time spent gazing at the horizon outdoors. In short, forcing our eyes to constantly look to close distances and barely ever using them to look at far-away ones makes us very shortsighted – and this type of myopia increases indefinitely. There are also reports on how harmful the blue light emitted by our smartphones can be, damaging our retina and increasing the risk for macular degeneration. Blue light can impact our secretion of melatonin as well, reducing our sleep quality at night, which has been linked to coronary artery disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and anxiety and depression.


(No Fake News On This One, Unfortunately)

That fixation I mentioned above about missing something? Turns out it has an acronym: FOMO. It has a twin in the form of nomophobia, the anxiety associated with being without a smartphone. They are natural consequences of apps’ architectures. Popular apps are designed to maximize the amount of time people spend on them by maximizing addictiveness: they do that by linking users’ actions to intermittent rewards (notifications, messages, likes) – the same technique that makes things like slot machines addictive. This makes it hard to turn off the device or disable notifications, because we actively come to crave the nudges; and each time we receive a notification, we get pulled back in again. The constant interruptions to capture our engagement directly conflict with focused attentiveness. Our ability to concentrate is severely impaired by smartphone usage, and so is our patience, which is essential for learning new things or performing deep work.

As another side effect, although smartphones and social media apps are supposed to enhance our social lives, they actually seem to worsen the quality of our real-life socializations. A UK study revealed that 20% of subjects felt ignored by a friend or family member daily because that person was on their smartphone. Face-to-face, half said that devices interrupted conversations. Instead of bolstering our social lives, it seems that smartphones attempt to remove our personalities from live social gatherings and place them firmly back behind the screen.

So what, then?

After writing this essay, I find myself having to resist the rising temptation to defenestrate my phone. Alas, it is too expensive for that; I will have to settle for adjusting my own behavior. I have resorted to video-calls, which seem to have a more durable effect on my loneliness (and circumvent the nudges). My social media notifications have been turned off for years. I posted nothing, yet kept getting constant alerts; the notifications were getting increasingly random, crossing the line from engrossing to annoying. I can only hope to have some good informed discernment going forward – I think my eyesight might be hopeless, though.

You don't have to throw away the phone to stop using it. Begin by leaving it home a couple of days a week. Learn what you need to have and what you don't. Make alternative strategies for dealing with what you actually need, including moving the SIM into a simple dumb phone sometimes, so people can call or text you in emergencies, if that's really important to you. Get a very inexpensive laptop, like a Chromebook, but run free software on it. You need a browser and a mail reading tool (preferably not the browser), and a Tails USB key to boot when you need to have strongest possible approach to anonymity online.

Once you have tried the experiments of computing away from the smartassphone and leaving the device at home for days at a time, you will have a good idea what your real needs are, as opposed to the ones you acquired in order to do the bidding of the phone. Given what you say about your existing habits, that won't be hard. Then, with some adjustments to make sure you have what you need, the leash can be cut forever.

If it will help you to try the experiments, I will give you the free software laptop.


Webs Webs

r2 - 11 Jan 2020 - 15:00:32 - EbenMoglen
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