How do you feel? Honestly, when was the last time you thought about your health in a way that extended beyond one thought? You might be something of a health nut or you could have not gone to the doctor in years. Yet it’s important, and we hope this article gives you a chance to pause and reflect on the simple question of how you are feeling. We promise the time will be worth it.
And while your diet, sleep, and amount of exercise all matter a great deal when it comes to your health, they aren’t the only things. There is also the matter of your environment, and what you spend your time doing. And if you’re anything like the average person, you spend a lot of your time on your smartphone. Perhaps you do so for work or leisure, but that digital environment has effects on its own. How is it affecting you, and what harm could it potentially be causing?
You will want to consider whether your phone habits are helping or hurting you, and then consider what to do about it. Here is the information to help you:
Perhaps this is heavily related to the changes in work and entertainment made over the last few decades, but there are a lot more issues related to people living too sedentary a life. And more people might be spending their time on their phones instead of doing something outside or even going for a walk. There might not be too much relief from this as people have had difficulties going outside so much in the last few years, but there are also trends that are generally alarming. There are high levels of inactivity across the United States. Inactivity is responsible for more than $117 billion a year in healthcare costs. It contributes to 1 in 10 premature deaths in the United States. This is a massive problem.
Some problems that can occur from not getting enough exercise include:
How do smartphones contribute to all of this? It is indeed a complex issue that brings in everything from street design to childhood physical education programs. Yet our smartphones give us one more excuse (and a deeply tempting one) to just stay in bed or on the couch instead of getting up and getting active. They take our attention from the things that matter, including our health and physical fitness. And while they can be used as a helpful tool (more on that later), the truth is that this is not the case for many of us.
In a study on Chinese adolescents, it was found that problematic smartphone use was positively correlated with an increase in sedentary behavior. Even as early as early last decade we knew that there was such a link. Smartphones and fitness as they are generally used simply do not mix well. Ask yourself whether you’ve fallen victim to the same trap, and what you can do about it.
The term “smartphone addiction” is something of a controversial one in that people debate whether it is a real addiction by the standards set by physical substances or things such as gambling addiction. And that debate is still ongoing and reaching its conclusion as more information comes in. Yet overall, people certainly feel as though there is a problem, and most of us can easily point to problematic use among at least one person we know.
Depending on the study you consult, many of us would admit to feeling “addicted” to our smartphones. Most of us (74 percent) feel uneasy or anxious without it. It is one of the first things most of us reach for in the morning after waking up. For many, there are no breaks, no moments of calm, and no more important possession. Sounds like there could be a problem.
Yet with all the above information, we have to ask why this is the case. What makes smartphones and apps so special? After all the devices in the past, why are smartphones suddenly devouring our time and making us feel uneasy without them? Cars are very important, too, but most of us aren’t checking our car the second we wake up or get out of bed.
It comes down to the design of the smartphone. Everything is immediately accessible and searchable. The entire breadth of the internet is simply a few words or a voice command away. People as a rule love information and contact, and smartphones provide both in near-infinite quantity. User interfaces have gotten better and more intuitive over the years, making it easier than ever to use one and open an app quickly. Additional features such as better cameras or more stunning screens remove the limitations of the past cell phones and smartphones.
And there are apps, most of the successful ones, that have plenty of features that are meant to keep you engaged with the app for as long as possible (and either viewing ads or spending money). They could come in the form of video game mechanics that keep the next reward one roll or five minutes away or a dating app that treats love more like a lottery than a life decision. Social media apps are designed to give you a feeling of satisfaction whenever you get a response to your post. Social interaction releases dopamine. And because likes, comments, etc. are not regular and could come at any time, we check our phones frequently. Similar principles apply to all types of apps.
They are similarly designed to ensure a great amount of reuse if we keep notifications up. All we need is a slight nudge or reminder. Why do nothing when you can do something pleasurable instead? It’s so easy to just open up a smartphone, so why not? And then we spend minutes or even hours on the phone, only to wonder where the time went. And we get used to it, so we need to do it more to feel anything. It becomes a habit, and then, some would say addiction. This is all perhaps an oversimplification of the subject, but we do encourage you to read more on the topic.
And part of it is because they are always available. Even computers in the past were mostly tied to an indoor room or a desk. We couldn’t go online in bed two decades ago, or it would be extremely inconvenient to do so. Your phone is either right in front of you to read this, right within reach, or in your pocket. You can check it at any time. You might just feel compelled to fidget with it to relieve stress.
Being reliant on something unnatural such as smartphone use is rarely a good thing. What happens if something happens to the phone? What if someone just wants to take a break? It can lead to an anxious time and poor decision-making.
In addition, the feelings you get when using your smartphone can be monetized. You see this with mobile games that rope you in for free or low cost but give you fewer rewards as time goes on unless you pay. Depending on the severity, this can lead to a lower budget for more fruitful pursuits or outright financial ruin. Children who don’t know the full meaning or value of money have been known to spend thousands on mobile games, not entirely aware of what they are doing.
And given how much time we spend on our smartphones, one has to ask about the opportunity cost. In top markets, people spent an average of 4.8 hours per day on their smartphones. How else could that time be spent? What could be created or how could one live a better life with that time? The answer is unique to each person, but compulsive smartphone use is probably not the best use of one’s time. Also, keep in mind that’s the average. There are certainly people on the upper end of the data set who spend more than a dozen hours a day on their phones. It is hard to imagine living a healthy life with that much usage.
Given the above points and how overuse can contribute to the other problems discussed in this piece, overuse of smartphones can easily affect someone’s physical or mental health, if only by lost time. And we are still learning more every year.
While you may feel as though your smartphone brings you closer to the outside world and the apps on it can help you connect to people, this isn’t always true. What you see on social media is a curated feed of what people want you to see, and what the algorithms want you to see on top of that. The algorithm does not have your best interests at heart. On many networks, it often directs people to what will anger or sadden them. Whatever causes a visceral and emotional reaction is what gets the most engagement, and not necessarily what is the most empathetic or rational. Misinformation or emotional bait can get to the top of the algorithm just like anything else.
In short, all of this isn’t good for your mental health. Your social media usage could simply be a way that you are trying to connect to the outside world, but you may also be dealing with a system that doesn’t ever want you to feel satisfied. After all, if you feel completely satisfied, you might put the phone down. The text format of many social media feeds doesn’t portray the nuance of human connection. Even with an image or video-based sites, one will be likely to get a highly curated selection of one’s life. There is no neutrality or reality in what most people see with their smartphones.
Then there is another side of the equation of disconnection: someone using their phone when other people are trying to connect to them in person. The appeal of a smartphone might make someone ignore the social opportunities around them, or even ignore a date or a friend they’re supposedly spending quality time with. Smartphones can be a handy tool for keeping in contact or making plans with someone, but smartphones can sabotage those plans as they happen as well. Classes have people on their phones instead of talking to each other before they start. It can hurt feelings and relationships, leaving people on the other side of the phone wondering if they are truly valued.
And while some people are less bothered by this (probably because they engage in the behavior themselves), it does lead to an overall sense of disconnection among many people. This, in turn, leads to poorer mental health and social skills for many.
Many of the phone's apps are meant to be a distraction, and that’s perfectly fine. We often need to be distracted from life’s worries. However, there is a difference between the times when we should be distracted and when we shouldn’t. Many people using their phones compulsively do not know the difference (or perhaps do not care).
Distracted driving is one of the biggest concerns that came about with the invention and adoption of regular cell phones. There were and are massive campaigns about texting and driving. And with smartphones, the options for distraction while driving have only gotten worse. There are plenty of hands-free options these days, but any form of distraction has some effect. Driving often requires split-second decisions. If someone’s mind is somewhere else when that second rolls around, it can lead to disaster.
It's not just on the road that people have reason to worry about being distracted by their phones. There are places where people should absolutely have an eye on what’s in front of them. People should move to the side if something comes up on their phone, lest they knock someone over. The comics of teens walking everywhere with their phones in their noses are a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s a problem with the general population.
And finally, while there are some jobs where people need to be on their smartphones, there are others where people should not be on their phones all the time for. Would you feel safe if a police officer or nurse constantly checked their phone while doing their job, for reasons that have nothing to do with their job? What about a construction worker who might be checking their phone while operating machinery? It can lead to avoidable accidents, which is why there are regulations and rules against such practices. Whether these are followed is a matter of enforcement and individual responsibility.
Perhaps the biggest and most obvious issue that comes about as a result of smartphone usage is worse sleep patterns or less sleep overall for the users. It’s not hard to follow that someone using their phone right before bed for two hours might be losing out on sleep because of that. It might be too engaging outside of certain apps or soundtracks designed to help us go to sleep. A phone can provide helpful white noise, but most people don’t use it like that.
And even if someone isn’t using their phone as they are going to bed, the blue light or light coming from the phone can still signal to the brain that it is still daylight outside (even though it could be midnight). The cues to go to sleep are held off far later than they should be. As a result, people find it harder to go to sleep. This can be the case with any screen, so it isn’t an issue related just to smartphones.
Similarly, much of what people read or find on their smartphones can be distressing or anxiety-producing, even if someone isn’t looking for that sort of content. It can help keep someone awake at night. On the opposite side of things, something you’re watching on your phone can be so exciting that it keeps someone up against their better judgment. Whatever an app wants to provide you to get your engagement, it likely will not benefit by having you go to sleep.
In any case, the problems associated with a lack of sleep are numerous, including the following:
Considering all the above, you will not be able to perform your best if you don’t have enough sleep, and you cannot “make up” sleep over the weekend. And your phone could be contributing to that. Putting it far away on the nightstand or in a different room could make all the difference for you.
While they might not get the most headlines and are easily solved, you should be aware of the rest of these things as well:
Your phone is ultimately a tool, and there are plenty of apps and options to make things not only easier for yourself but also make your phone a tool for your overall health. You may find that there will still be temptations, but aim for a net positive before you seek perfection. These are some ways that can help:
Your health matters, and it matters more than your smartphone. While we certainly aren’t telling you to throw it away, we hope that you have a clearer idea of the adverse effects it can have on you and that you take a break now and then. We promise that nearly everything will still be there whenever you get around to it, and news of an emergency will find its way to you if it needs to. Think about how you can change habits as you want to today, so the rest of your life will be better for it.