Last November, a national survey by New York University’s Langone Medical Center found that 58 percent of adult respondents have downloaded health apps on their smartphones—and that almost half these people don’t use them anymore.
Smartphones have long been heralded as pocket-sized gateways to fitter, happier, and more productive versions of ourselves, but whether they’ve improved our health is debatable. When we actually take advantage of what they offer, smartphones can do amazing things: They count the number of stairs we’ve climbed, put boundless medical knowledge at out fingertips, even ward off postpartum depression. But at what cost? They also may be wrecking our spines and our sleep. And they’ve been estimated to cause up to a fourth of America’s car accidents.
So how much good are smartphones doing for us, really? When do they cross the line from being helpful to being excessive? In advance of a March 28 Zócalo/UCLA event on the dangers of our tech obsessions—“Is Digital Technology Destroying Our Health?”—we posed the following question to people who think a lot about our favorite handheld companions: Are smartphones bad for your health?
Here’s how I knew my own relationship with my cell phone wasn’t so healthy: I was sitting on the couch one night, well past bedtime, scrolling through Twitter—and my husband texted me from upstairs to let me know he was going to bed.
The cell phone is a powerful tool—and it’s undoubtedly made me healthier. The ability to pay my doctor—or even text him—has been a lifesaver for me. But like a narcotic, the cell phone plays to our greatest human weakness (which is also one of our greatest strengths): our intense drive to connect with others. And even the best drugs can be poisonous at the wrong dose.
My take: the cell phone itself is pretty harmless. Most doctors think the radiation they emit isn’t particularly harmful, though studies are still being done on that, and I prefer to use a headset whenever I can. As for how mobile phones fit into our everyday lives, the key question is whether the technology is running you or you’re running the technology. If you find yourself mindlessly scrolling late at night—hey, I do it, too!—it might be a sign that it’s time to unplug for a bit.
The smartphone gives us untethered access to what I like to call “the world’s largest slot machine”: the Internet. When you go online, you never quite know what you are going to get, when you are going to get it, and how pleasurable the content will be. This unpredictability keeps our brains tuned-in. And when we get that “reward,” in whatever digital form we find pleasing, we get small elevations of dopamine, which makes us want to keep checking our phones again and again, whether it be for stocks, sports, texts, email, gaming, or pornography.
To make matters worse, there are notifications. We are constantly getting beeps, rings, and buzzes that tell us something is waiting for us, which only heightens the anticipation of possible desirable content. We want another dopamine hit.
The sad result is that the smartphone keeps us on automatic pilot and inhibits us from making healthy choices. We’re socially isolated, intolerant of boredom, and always connected somewhere other than where we actually are at the moment. High on the list of unhealthy smartphone habits is compulsive use and distractibility. The data shows that smartphone use doesn’t stop when we get in our cars, and people are being injured and dying at an alarming rate from distracted driving.
On top of distraction, other possible negative health impacts are increased sedentary behavior and the stress of being ever-connected. Good health often comes down to practicing healthy behaviors, so the smartphone may not always be such a smart choice.
While there are many benefits to smartphones, one has to weigh the benefits in relation to potential hazards that typically correlate with excessive time spent using them. Excessive use carries great risk for negative effects on our health, including poor posture, digital eye strain, headaches, increased stress, anxiety, depression, attention problems, fatigue, sleep loss, and increased risk for car accidents. Time on smartphones typically equates to sedentary time, which has contributed to the obesity epidemic and related health issues (poorer physical fitness, hypertension, diabetes, etc.).
Children and teens are particularly vulnerable to additional negative effects of smartphone use, including cyberbullying and exposure to sexual content or sexual predators. A 2015 survey by Common Sense Media found that 67 percent of teens ages 13 to 18 have their own smartphone and spend an average of 6.5 to 9 hours per day using it and other electronic media. Children and teens often rely on adults to regulate their time on smartphones, yet many parents struggle with this because they rely so much on phones themselves.
Excessive smartphone time can decrease time spent socializing face-to-face, bonding with family, exercising, and doing other things that promote creative thinking, self-discipline, and pro-social skills. To prevent this, we must find a healthy balance between smartphone use and other important aspects of our lives.
For some people, yes. It depends on someone’s emotional needs and how they balance their use of technology in their lives. On the one hand, one can argue that drivers who are operating smartphones are killing people. On the other, devices give people access to better health care by allowing physicians and patients to interact immediately and remotely.
As an artist looking out at the world and trying to make sense of it with photographs, I’ve definitely seen a shift in people’s dependence on their phones over the past several years. In my photo series “Removed,” I took pictures of people on their phones in social situations, but removed the actual devices from their hands. The photos emphasize how looking at a phone signals both connectivity and isolation at the same time. It’s a strange moment in human history, this particular relationship with technology. The series hasn’t shown me that phones are overtly bad for people’s health, but it’s evident that the devices are changing who we are and how we experience the world.
Society will always change when new technology comes along, especially when it is so widely and rapidly adopted. But since humans will always have basic needs, the use of that technology will eventually meet them—hopefully.
Let’s talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly of smartphone usage in health care.
First, the good. Physicians and health care professionals who regularly use smartphones for work are able to diagnose and treat patients more effectively because they have endless medical information at their fingertips. This allows them to be more confident at what they do.
The bad is that while smartphones and their apps can provide great educational tools, patients might be tempted to use them in place of doctors. At the same time, health-care providers using mobile devices still must obey organizational policies and state and federal mandates regarding protected electronic health information, which constantly forces them to question if the information they are sharing, and how they are sharing it, falls within the law’s privacy guidelines. If they do not follow the rules, they could face significant penalties and other consequences.
The ugly aspect of smartphone use in health care is security. Nearly 89 percent of U.S. health care employees use their personal smartphones for work purposes. Yet studies show that many of their personal devices are not password protected, and that they access unsecured Wi-Fi networks, both of which jeopardize patient data. (Thankfully, there have been encouraging advances: Apple, for example, has added new features to the iPhone to help defeat malware activity; the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology created a five-step process for mobile device management.)
Smartphones have the potential to fundamentally change health care. But we have to learn how to use them appropriately first.
Smartphones have a variety of features that make life more convenient. However, these features come with a price. When people are always accessible, it becomes harder to “disconnect” and take a break to relax. They feel pressured to check email, answer messages, and return calls during time previously allotted for leisure. This multi-tasking often results in a lower quality of work and interferes with relationships, hobbies, and other responsibilities. Instead of simply offering a diversion, smartphones may become a distraction that leads to decreased mindfulness and increased stress.
The siren call of the phone alert prevents some people from properly attending to their surroundings, including present company and conversation. They may become immersed in content on their smartphone and tune out of lectures, meetings, family celebrations, and other social events. For many couples, “quality time” now entails sitting side-by-side with each partner fully occupied by his or her phone. Ironically, the ability to connect more easily with long-distance family and friends frequently disrupts in-person interactions.
Further, research has demonstrated that problematic use of smartphones is similar to addiction in many ways. Some individuals may have great difficulty separating from their phone and feel anxious if they forget the phone at home, experience poor signal strength, or run down their battery. Excessive phone use may also be associated with sleep disruption and impaired performance at school or work. Though smartphones offer many valuable tools, individuals must avoid neglecting present experiences and relationships at the expense of over-engaging with their phones.