I’LL NEVER FORGET THE TIME I FIRST DISCOVERED AND DOWNLOADED INSTAGRAM (ACTUALLY, MAKE THAT THE FIRST FEW TIMES, SINCE ADMITTEDLY IT TOOK ME A MINUTE TO FIGURE IT OUT).
But back to my point: After delving deep into the abyss of likes and hashtags, suddenly I came up for air—with an intense craving for avocado toast. I looked at the clock and realized an hour had passed by. An entire hour. I was left wondering where the time had gone, how I’d spent 60 minutes scrolling and following, barely taking a breath and certainly not taking a break. (And then I went to make that toast, obviously.)
If only the effects of engaging in social media, and the vast universe of apps, emails and texting, began and ended with avocado toast. Sadly, all of that time spent in front of screens is harming our health, both physical or mental, in both small and life-threatening ways alike.
No need to take my word (or your tense neck and shoulders) for it; there’s plenty of science that points to the unfortunate ramifications of too much screen time on the mind and body. To wit: In 2018, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that minimizing social media use adds up to a significant decrease in loneliness and depression. That same year, a study in the journal Scientific Reports pointed to blue light exposure from screens killing photoreceptor cells in your eyes, which can lead to macular degeneration. Recently, research in the journal Brain Imaging and Behavior linked media multitasking (when you switch back and forth between devices, such as going from your cell to your laptop) to a greater chance of developing food cravings and a decreased inability to resist them, which could up your obesity risk.
A 2009 analysis from the University of California Los Angeles found a correlation between the increase of the digi-verse and a decrease in critical thinking and analysis (though the upside was
an improvement in our visual literacy). A small (19-person) study out of the Radiological Society of North America in 2017 discovered that tech–obsessed teens demonstrate an imbalance in their brains, not to mention a markedly higher level of depression, anxiety, insomnia and impulsivity, compared to the control group.
Sadly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, with studies suggesting that too much screen time might be connected to other health issues, including carpal tunnel, back and neck pain, migraines, poor sleep quality, low self-esteem, even suicide.
So how do we thrive in a culture that pretty much requires us to log on to our devices? Plug into these tips and tricks from our panel of experts.
TECH EFFECT #1: Chronic stress
LAURIE WARREN: With digital technology, there’s this constant connectivity that creates stress and affects us physically. [Stress hormones] adrenaline and cortisol now course through our bodies every day, all day. People who are under stress experience bloating, headaches and digestive problems, and our immune system goes south.
We don’t even give ourselves a break from the people we do like. Say you have a friend who is emotionally needy. They used to have to make a phone call or come over; now they have 24/7 access to you. People face a hurdle in maintaining boundaries. There’s this status symbol of being busy, and it’s taking us down at the knees.
What we see in adults is that they have become more irritable, more angry—there’s less emotional equanimity and more drama. Stress is, at its core, a feeling of being a victim (“I can never get a break”), that these things are happening to me and I can’t do anything about them. This can lead to both depression and anxiety.
HOW TO REBOOT
WARREN: It’s about changing your mind-set. Set boundaries with yourself, such as, I’m only going to check email first thing in the morning, midday and when I close up shop. In terms of time spent on social media, don’t set rigid doctrines, set guidelines.
Having a regular meditation practice, while focusing on eating healthy foods, movement and getting a minimum of 7.5 hours of sleep, can help us feel more balanced and better able to handle stress caused by technology.
TECH EFFECT #2: A disconnect in our relationships
ALEX LICKERMAN, MD: Like anything else, the Internet can be both good and evil. There’s a tremendous amount of educational material, but it can also be a black hole and suck you in, completely disconnecting you from life. It’s way too soon to say digital technology is causing depression, but it might be correlated.
WARREN: Digital technology can also manifest in cyber bullying, meanness and hostility. With kids, there’s the issue that they don’t even know how to question [what they read online]. The suicide rate is up 70 percent for white kids and 77 for black.
LICKERMAN: It’s very easy to hide behind digital media, to avoid negative emotions such as having a difficult conversation. Being anonymous [on social media] also gives people the license to say things they wouldn’t otherwise say. There’s no shame involved, which ordinarily would regulate behavior; you’re unable to see the immediate effects of your vitriolic tweet. When you’re communicating digitally, you can’t communicate sarcasm, nuance or tone and that leads to tremendous miscommunication. If you were in the room together, there would be a level of respect.
WARREN: It’s really sad how much we see this among the adult population, people writing things they would never say out loud.
HEATHER SENIOR MONROE: I think that digital technology can be a great tool, but it should in no way replace authentic connection between humans. Unfortunately we’ve taken that tool as more of a lifestyle and connection replacement. We’re seeing higher levels of depression, low self- esteem and ADHD, to name a few issues.
HOW TO REBOOT
SENIOR MONROE: As human beings, we’re biologically hardwired for connection. A baby,
while being held, actually releases endorphins and dopamine and all these chemicals that tell us that connecting with a human being is necessary for survival and safety. With disconnection, it releases cortisol and adrenaline, which teaches our body to get back to that connection. The way that you can create empathy and connection is with face-to-face quality time. Instead of texting for an hour, plan to meet up with a friend.
LICKERMAN: My rule of thumb is, if it’s a tough conversation to have, have it in person. And don’t ever say anything on digital media that you wouldn’t say in real life.
SENIOR MONROE: If you want to do a digital detox and erase your apps, go for it. But another thing we can do is to set limits on how much screen time we have per day. Become mindful of how you feel, and if your mood dips, then you know it’s too much. Maybe 10 minutes is too much, let’s try for five next time. You can set an alarm, or there are apps that track how much time you’re spending; Instagram and the iPhone have a weekly summary of the hours you’ve spent. I also think it would be great to get friends involved and start a challenge, to see who can spend the least amount of time on their devices. Powering down your phone, especially if you don’t need it, is another smart idea, say, if you’re going to spend a few hours with your kids.
TECH EFFECT #3: Weight gain
SENIOR MONROE: Weight gain can be a side effect of too much screen time because it leads to a more sedentary lifestyle. [Excessive screen time] can also lead to depression, which can make you less likely to exercise and eat well.
HOW TO REBOOT
SENIOR MONROE: Take breaks during the day. Instead of looking at your phone, go for a walk or call a friend. There are so many other things we can be doing rather than sitting on our couch for a weekend.
TECH EFFECT #4: Poor sleep quality
SENIOR MONROE: Our minds need a wind-down period to go to sleep, and looking at a screen keeps us stimulated. When you get off your screen, you’re feeling less than, which is not a feeling that promotes melatonin production.
WARREN: When you and I look outside, the sun has yellow light that helps to regulate our circadian rhythm. But blue light [from a screen] is a human- invented thing and can mess with our rhythm and impair sleep.
HOW TO REBOOT
SENIOR MONROE: Invest in a separate device like an alarm clock that helps you wake up, and give yourself that 40 minutes to focus on self-care before you look at your phone.
Editor’s recommendation: A quality pair of blue-light– blocking glasses can work wonders, protecting your peepers from strain and dryness, as well as headaches. We love the BLUblox BluLite range, which stylishly filter out harmful blue light. Need more help winding down? The Sleep+ line also filters out green light, which helps the body produce melatonin (blublox.com).
TECH EFFECT #5: Neck issues
MARY KATE CASEY, PT, DPT: The average human head weighs approximately eight to 10 pounds. With an increase in neck flexion—i.e., looking down at your device—it can feel like your head weighs 27 pounds at 15 degrees of neck flexion, 49 pounds at 45 degrees of flexion and a whopping 60 pounds with 60 degrees of flexion. This strenuous load makes your muscles work harder than they should, causing undue tension, headaches or muscle strain.
HOW TO REBOOT
CASEY: Position your device or computer at eye level to avoid excessive stress and load to the head, neck and shoulders. While working, sit upright with an awareness of your body positioning; make sure to support the natural curvature of the spine, head and neck. Try to avoid prolonged periods of work and static postures by taking a break every hour or doing a few stretches.
TECH EFFECT #6: Low-back pain
CASEY: The increase in device use can cause “creep,” or excessive stretching of the passive structures of our skeletal system, and poor mechanical loading on the joints and ligaments of the spinal column. Weakness through the glutes, core and scapular stabilizers can often lead to stiffness and poor mobility and stability during daily activities.
HOW TO REBOOT
CASEY: Try postural exercises, such as squeezing your shoulder blades together, and chin tucks to align your head and neck.
TECH EFFECT #7: Elbow, wrist and thumb tendonitis/arthritis
CASEY: While we don’t often think of daily activities as simple as texting or typing as the cause of our injuries [that’s not always the case]. Prolonged use of small muscles and poor positioning can often lead to mechanical overload and overuse of muscles and tendons.
HOW TO REBOOT
CASEY: To avoid tendonitis, think about proper positioning of your wrists and elbows and maintain upright posture. If you have a flare-up of the wrist or thumb pain, wearing a brace is a great way to manage the symptoms when you are unable to eliminate or reduce your activity.