Cell phones may be the most significant blessing/curse combo technology has ever produced. Providing unlimited information at our fingertips, they prevent us from getting lost, waiting hours for a friend who’s running late or choosing a terrible restaurant for dinner (well, some of the time). They enable us to stay in touch with far-flung friends and family and discover amazing culture we otherwise wouldn’t uncover.
But researchers have found that our day-in, day-out reliance on the ubiquitous devices can have serious negative consequences on our physical and mental health. Eat This, Not That! Health asked experts to tell us how your phone may be ruining your health, and how you can reverse that without going rotary. Read on, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had Coronavirus.
Your phone makes contact with your face, ears, fingers, and countless public surfaces all day long—the average American touches their phone 47 times a day. So maybe it’s no shock that studies have found the average cellphone is 10 times dirtier than a toilet seat. “A dirty phone can definitely impact your health and spread germs,” says Alain Michon, MD, medical director at Ottawa Skin Clinic in Ottawa, Canada. “Just like any other object, a phone has an astronomical amount of bacteria on it, and putting it directly on our face isn’t the healthiest thing to do.” The bugs an average phone harbors: E. coli, staph, strep, and common cold and flu viruses, and coronavirus.
The Rx: “I recommend cleaning your phone as often as you can since different types of germs and bacteria are continually making their way back on to it throughout the day,” says Michon. “I suggest using a UV light phone sanitizing device daily or sanitizing phone wipes between two and three times a day.” Wash your hands thoroughly and often. If your hands are always clean, they’ll transmit fewer germs to your phone and face.
“Dirty phones can cause skin breakouts, as you’re putting germs directly on your face—near your mouth, nose, cheeks, and ears,” says Michon.
The Rx: “A great way to limit this would be to use headphones or the speakerphone option instead of pressing the phone directly up against your face,” says Michon. “If don’t have headphones and are forced to use your cellphone the old-fashioned way, clean your face as soon as you get home or once you’re done with your call.”
“High energy visible light comes from your computers, LEDs, cell phone, and TV,” says Wendy Kar Yee Ng, MD, FRCSC, a board-certified plastic surgeon in Orange County, California. Also known as HEV, or “blue” light, “this wavelength is responsible for up to 50% of macular degeneration,” says Ng. “This type of light is likely why more children are nearsighted earlier now—from playing too many video games or excessive amounts of cell phone screen time. HEV light also causes premature skin aging.”
The Rx: “If you have an iPhone, you should put it on night shift mode to protect your eyes from these rays,” says Ng. “Certain brands of sunglasses protect your eyes from HEV light, and some medical-grade sunscreens, such as the ZO line, contain fractionated melanin, which protects from this wavelength.” Above all, minimize your screen time to protect your eyes and skin.
“Cell phone use may have a negative impact on our mental health,” says Stephanie J. Wong, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in San Mateo, California. “The use of social media leads people to engage in social comparison. People are posting pictures or descriptions of their successes, vacations, weddings, and families, which may lead others to question, ‘Am I doing enough in my life? Why am I not married or have a child? Should I?’ Social comparison can adversely impact self-esteem and self-efficacy.”
The Rx: Limit your use of social media to 30 minutes a day or less. Be mindful as you use it—does someone on Facebook or Instagram give you negative feelings more often than not? It might be time to unfollow them.
“Cell phones are interfering with our ability to connect with each other emotionally,” says Rebecca Cowan, Ph.D., LPC, NCC, a licensed professional counselor in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “Ultimately, this lack of connection can increase feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression.”
Those omnipresent devices can distract us from what’s important around us: “Cell phones may lead us to be less present with our loved ones,” says Wong. “People may be absorbed in reading news, going on social media, and answering work emails that they may be missing out on what’s happening in front of them. For couples who use their phones when they’re together, it can limit positive interactions between the partners and can exacerbate communication issues.”
The Rx: “Putting boundaries in place such as not allowing phones at the dinner table or downloading apps that help to track screen time might be helpful,” says Cowan. “Taking technology breaks for 48 to 72 hours is also a good way to detox and reset.”
“Excessive cell phone use prior to bedtime can negatively impact sleep,” says Wong. “Since your attention has been focused on the screen, it will be more difficult to fall asleep.”
The Rx: Avoid looking at your cellphone for two to three hours before bed.
“Either when using the speakerphone function or when using our phones in noisy environments, we often speak more loudly or forcefully than we otherwise would in person,” says Michael Lerner, MD, a Yale Medicine laryngologist and director of the Yale Voice Center. “This forceful or loud talking can be traumatic to the vocal cords and result in swelling and hoarseness.”
The Rx: If you find yourself shouting to be heard, move to a quieter area, or postpone your conversation until you can. Using headphones with a mouthpiece can help, especially if you take a lot of calls with your phone connected to a speaker in your car—it’ll prevent you from yelling into the void.
“Sometimes we hold unusual postures when using our telephones,” says Lerner. “For example, when we use our shoulders to hold the telephone up to our ear. This can result in muscle tension, spasm, and temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ).” TMJ is marked by pain in the muscles and joints of the jaw.
The Rx: Don’t cradle your phone between your ear and shoulder. Take calls with a pair of wired headphones or with your phone on speaker.
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“People often use their cell phones as personal entertainment devices to watch media and listen to music. Many raise the volume to very high levels, which, over time, can lead to noise-induced hearing loss,” says Lerner. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2050, 900 million people worldwide will have hearing loss, partly because of headphone misuse.
The Rx: Limit your headphone time and turn down the volume. If you’re in the market for a new set, noise-canceling headphones can mitigate damage by reducing the amount of external noise that reaches your ears.
“Ever lost your phone and panicked?” says Cali Estes, Ph.D., MCAP, MAC, ICADC, an addictions counselor in Miami, Florida. “We’re expected to constantly be able to check our work email, even on non-work hours and weekends, and we are completely fascinated by social media. As we’re already sleep-deprived and overworked, now we’re on social media watching others photos, check-ins, and happy appearances. This is leading to anxiety and depression.”
The Rx: Set professional and personal boundaries: Limit your availability for work emails or texts as much as you can after business hours. Replace it with personal or family time, not social media.
“There has been a fivefold surge in the number of people searching for help with back pain since smartphones launched in 2007,” says Julian Nenninger, an osteopath and head of research and development at Percko. “Research has revealed that this is due to ‘text neck,’ where the effective weight of the human head increases as we tilt it to look at our phones. The strain is equivalent to increasing the weight of our head from 12lbs upright to 60lbs at a 60-degree angle—equivalent to four bowling balls.”
The Rx: Hold your phone at eye level and move your body often when you’re reading a long article or watching movies or TV. “Changing your position frequently, and varying the tilt of your head, can reduce the impact on your neck and back,” says Nenninger. “It’s advisable not to stay in the same position for more than 15 minutes, so set reminders to move around if you’re liable to get lost in what you’re doing—your Siri or Bixby can make that quick and easy.”
“The technological advances of the 20th and 21st century are challenging our brains,” says Joanne Fruth, MD, FAAFP, a family medicine physician and medical director for Avance Care in Raleigh, North Carolina. “The screen is substituting for the physical playtime and human interaction which characterized childhood a generation ago. The fear is that exposure to excessive amounts of screen time may have long-lasting, detrimental effects on brain development.”
The Rx: If you have younger children or grandchildren, encourage them to limit their screen time—and set an excellent example by ungluing yourself from your phone or tablet when you’re around them. “I support the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations to limit screen-based media because we don’t know the long-term effects of screen stimuli and input,” says Fruth. “Our one-million-year-old brains may need more time to catch up.”
“One impact of phone use that has been recently recognized is the elimination of solitude from our lives,” says Dr. Michael McLaughlin, Ph.D., RTC, director of the Center for Healthy Internet Use in Vancouver, Canada. “Solitude is being alone with your thoughts. One is never alone with a phone. Every opportunity for solitude has us reaching for the device. Clinical research has shown many benefits of solitude, including self-awareness, increased empathy, improved cognition, and decreased stress.”
The Rx: “At least an hour alone with your thoughts per day is recommended,” says McLaughlin. “An added benefit is the restoration of the parts of the brain that get fatigued by screen manipulation and short-term, staccato attention fueled by distractions. Couple some solitude with a natural surrounding, and double the many benefits of a time out.” As for yourself: To get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these 35 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch COVID.