8 Ways Your Tech Is Hurting You, and How to Stop It

It’s pretty easy to find yourself addicted to your smartphone and feeling palpable anxiety if you lose track of your device — just as easy, it seems, as it is to use Facebook so much that it threatens your relationships with others. Your favorite gadgets can have negative effects not only on your mental health, but on your physical health as well. There are plenty of bad gadget habits that can lead to poor sleep patterns, bad posture, and even vision problems. Read on to check out some of the numerous ways that your gadgets may be hurting your health, and incorporate some of these ideas on how to keep your tech addiction in check and your gadget usage healthy.

1. Problem: The blue light emitted by screens can negatively impact your sleep patterns

Solution: Avoid using devices before bed, and reduce your blue light exposure

Man with insomnia lies awake at night in his bed

The blue light emitted by your devices can disrupt your sleep patterns and change your circadian rhythm | iStock.com

As Jessica Schmerler reports for Scientific American, the blue light exposure you get when you watch TV or scroll through a news app before bed has a detrimental effect on your sleep. Scientists caution against using light-emitting devices before bed. That’s because they emit blue light, which has been shown to affect levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.

Changes in sleep patterns can not only leave you tired in the morning, but can affect your circadian rhythm. Shifts to your circadian rhythm can have “devastating health effects” according to Schmerler, because this internal clock “controls not only our wakefulness but also individual clocks that dictate function in the body’s organs.” Your late-night Netflix habit may have more serious consequences than you thought.

Schmerler consulted two neuroscientists, George Brainard and Anne-Marie Chang, and learned that “light is the most powerful cue for shifting the phase or resetting the time of the circadian clock.” If you read on your phone or watch Netflix on your computer before bed, it’ll likely take you longer to fall asleep. You’ll also get less REM sleep. The next morning, you’ll be sleepier and take longer to wake up. The best bet, for your short-term and long-term health, is to avoid using your devices before bed. You can also use apps and OS features to reduce the amount of blue light you’re exposed to if you need to use your devices shortly before your bedtime. 

2. Problem: If you spend three hours a day or more on the computer, you may develop computer vision syndrome

Solution: Adjust the positioning and brightness of your computer screen to minimize symptoms

Man straining to see his computer screen

Looking at a computer screen for three or more hours a day can result in all kinds of vision symptoms | iStock.com

Jane E. Brody reports for The New York Times that  up to 70 million people worldwide are at risk for computer vision syndrome, a condition that can affect anyone who spends three hours or more each day in front of a computer monitor. The condition manifests itself with common complaints like blurred or double vision, as well as eye burning, itching, dryness, and redness. All of these symptoms can interfere with work performance, particularly if you’re one of the many people who needs to be on the computer to complete your job.

Studies have indicated that somewhere between 70% and 90% of people who use computers extensively, either for work or for play, have one or more symptoms of computer vision syndrome. The effects of prolonged computer usage extend beyond vision-related symptoms, too. Other complaints include neurological symptoms like chronic headaches, or musculoskeletal problems like neck and back pain. Using a computer for three hours a day has been shown to result in eye symptoms, lower back pain, tension headaches, and even psychosocial stress.

The eye symptoms associated with computer vision syndrome are caused by the difficulty with which the eye maintains focus on electronic characters, which have blurred edges, as well as a greatly reduced frequency of blinking. The distance between your eyes and your computer screen is also a risk factor, and experts recommend keeping the screen 20 to 26 inches away from your face. You should also consider placing your monitor so that its center is four to eight inches lower than your eyes, and make sure that your screen is brighter than the ambient light.

3. Problem: Headphones can damage your hearing

Solution: Keep the volume below 60%, and choose over-the-ear headphones instead of earbuds

Man listening to music

Listening to loud music via headphones can quickly and irreversibly damage your hearing | iStock.com

Susan Donaldson James and Kathryn Nathanson report for NBC News that according to doctors, the steady onslaught of sound you get from your favorite pair of earbuds is damaging your hearing — and you may not realize the extent of the damage for years. The World Health Organization warns that 1.1 billion young people are at risk of permanent hearing loss because of personal audio devices, like smartphones, as well as the damaging levels of sound at entertainment venues like electronic music festivals.

Many doctors regard the constant use of earbuds as the largest cause of hearing damage. Some advise patients to stop wearing headphones, especially earbuds, since they place the sound closer to your ear drum and enhance volume by as much as 9 decibels. Repeated exposure to sound over 85 decibels has been shown to cause hearing loss. Permanent damage can occur in minutes, and once it happens, it’s irreversible.

According to experts, the best way to protect your ears is to follow the “60/60 rule.” You should keep the volume on your phone or MP3 player under 60%, and only listen to it for a maximum of 60 minutes a day. Resist the temptation to turn the volume up when you’re using your headphones in a noisy place like a bus or a subway. It’s safer for your ears to opt for noise-cancelling headphones instead. And switch out the damaging earbuds for a safer pair of over-the-ear headphones. 

4. Problem: If you overuse your electronics, you could end up with repetitive strain injuries

Solution: Make adjustments to your posture, and rest strained body parts

Man taking self portraits with his smartphone

Repeatedly making the same motion, whether you’re posing for a selfie or swiping at your smartphone, can result in repetitive strain injuries | iStock.com/cyano66

Repetitive strain injuries (RSI) are nothing new when it comes to electronics. In the 1980s, people complained about “Nintendo thumb” or “gamer’s grip.” In the 1990s, those complaints gave way to symptoms of “BlackBerry thumb.” And in the 2000s, doctors started seeing their first cases of “iPhoneitis.” Joshua A. Krisch reports for Popular Mechanics that holding a tablet too long or swiping at your smartphone too many times in a day are some modern ways to develop repetitive strain injuries.

Krisch spoke with researcher Debra Milek, who says that misusing your devices is the real danger. Bad postures evolve with regular use of computer screens. Keyboard and mouse users develop carpal tunnel syndrome and other arm disorders. And tablets and smartphones cause tension and pain in the neck and shoulders. Texting prolifically can inflame the tendon sheath in your dominant thumb. And some people develop “cell phone elbow” by holding a smartphone to their ear for long and, in the process, compressing their ulnar nerve.

Milek explains that repetitive strain injuries of all kinds (not just those brought on by gadget usage) are caused by overuse of a particular body part. The risk of injury increases the more you deviate from neutral posture, the more force you use, and the longer and more frequently you perform the task while in the same position. What begins as “minor heaviness” can turn into pain, burning, stiffness, or even numbing and tingling. So it’s a good idea to listen to your body, make adjustments, give strained body parts a rest, and seek medical help for pain that doesn’t resolve.

5. Problem: Using a Wi-Fi-connected laptop can lower your sperm count

Solution: Keep your laptop off of your lap

Buying online with a credit card

Using a Wi-Fi-connected laptop on your lap can hurt your fertility | iStock.com

It’s not a great idea to place your laptop on your lap during usage simply because it doesn’t allow the heat to dissipate, which may result in damage to the device. But guys who are worried about their fertility may have another reason to rest their laptop on a table or desk instead: Researchers have found that using a Wi-Fi-connected laptop on your lap decreases sperm motility and increases sperm DNA fragmentation.

The researchers wrote, “Ex vivo exposure of human spermatozoa to a wireless internet-connected laptop decreased motility and induced DNA fragmentation by a nonthermal effect.” They noted, “We speculate that keeping a laptop connected wirelessly to the internet on the lap near the testes may result in decreased male fertility. Further in vitro and in vivo studies are needed to prove this contention.”

The solution is pretty simple: Avoid using your computer on your lap, especially if it’s connected to Wi-Fi. Instead, place your computer on a desk or a table, where you can place it on a stand that will put it at the optimum height for your eye level (and keep it away from your genitalia). 

6. Problem: Electromagnetic radiation can cause health problems, or at least psychosomatic symptoms

Solution: Minimize your usage of tech gadgets

Man thinking as he sits

Some people suffer from Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity thanks to common electronic gadgets | iStock.com

Michael Rundle reports for Wired that a growing number of people experience symptoms of a disorder called Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS). Sufferers says that they experience symptoms including headaches, nausea, tiredness, and tingling sensations when exposed to the electromagnetic radiation emitted by cellphones, Wi-Fi, batteries, and screens.

Scientific studies haven’t yet demonstrated a clear link between the kind of radiation emitted by common gadgets and health problems in humans, and EHS isn’t a widely recognized condition. However, many people claim to suffer from the condition, and some scientists have suggested that “it could be a real — though essentially psychosomatic — response to a fear of the effects of radiation, rather than a symptom.” There’s an ongoing debate over the science behind the symptoms that sufferers experience.

If you’re concerned about the condition, it’s always a good idea to read up on the studies that do exist and examine what’s going on. It may also help to consult a doctor about your concerns, and a common sense approach may be to reduce or minimize your usage of gadgets that tend to produce unpleasant symptoms. 

7. Problem: Technology use is a factor in rising rates of obesity

Solution: Stay physically active no matter how much time you spend in front of screens

Womans feet on weighing scale

Increasing gadget usage, combined with lower levels of physical activity, can lead to obesity | iStock.com

It’s no surprise that people spend lots of time using computers, playing video games, watching TV, and looking at their smartphones. But what may be an unpleasant surprise is the fact that researchers think that the increasing amount of time people spend with their gadgets is a major factor in rising rates of obesity. According to U.S. News, researchers at the Milken Institute in California, an independent think tank, found a direct link “between spikes in adoption of new information and communications technology and the dramatic rise in obesity in 27 countries between 1988 and 2009.”

Milken researchers looked at the effect that “knowledge-based technology” had on obesity rates in 27 countries by comparing the level of investment and communication technology (ICT) for each of the countries and their obesity rates. They found that for every 10% increase in ICT investment as a share of gross capital formation, the obesity rate climbed an average of 1.4%. The authors also explained that in countries with high ICT investment rates, a 1% increase in the number of physically active people can prevent a 0.2% rise in obesity — which means that even if you spend a lot of time with your gadgets, it helps immensely to pay attention to staying active.

Of course, our computer and smartphone habits aren’t the only factor to blame. (Things like consumption of processed foods, the consumption of snack foods, and the likelihood that we’re getting less exercise are also major factors.) But being overweight and obese can lead to chronic diseases and disability. The study’s authors also pointed out that obesity is the fifth leading cause of death worldwide — so it pays to be vigilant about the amount of time you’re spending in front of screens and ensure that you’re staying active.

8. Problem: Smartphones distract people who are driving and walking, and lead to traffic accidents

Solution: Don’t use your phone while you’re driving, and stay alert when you’re traveling on foot

First person point of view of driving a car

Being distracted by your phone while you’re driving or walking is a hazard for you and those around you | iStock.com

You’d have to live under a rock (and not an internet-connected one) to be unaware of the fact that people are constantly distracted by their smartphones to the point that many traffic accidents are caused by distracted drivers. Owen Guo and Mike Ives, reporting for The New York Times on a recent case of “hand-wringing on Chinese social media about the perils of overusing smartphones,” note that people in China, the United States, and elsewhere are “clicking, texting and shopping on their smartphones in droves, and many do so while on the move.”

Being constantly distracted by your smartphone is dangerous to you when you’re walking on busy city streets. It’s also dangerous to your children if you aren’t paying attention to where they’re walking, whether you’re in a busy urban area or just in the parking lot at a suburban mall. Being engrossed in the content on your phone is dangerous to you and to others when you’re driving.

The solution is obviously pretty straightforward: Stop using your smartphone when you’re behind the wheel, and also when you’re walking. Establishing some space between you and your smartphone will not only improve your personal safety, but may also help you remember to talk to the friends and family you have around you.