Health Concerns in the Digital Age

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August 17, 2011
When it comes to our health, we should all take a closer look at the growing role of technology in our lives.
By Mia James

We love our technology. With mobile phones, computers, tablet computers, and e-readers, we’re spending an increasing number of hours in front of a screen. And though many of us who enjoy and have come to rely on technology are likely to declare its virtues, questions are also emerging about the impact that technology may have on our health. Can so much screen time lead to significant health issues?

If you’re concerned about screen time and its effects on your health and well-being, this may be a good time to consider how your favorite devices may be doing more than keeping you connected and entertained.
Cell Phones and Brain Cancer
Mobile phones have long been under suspicion for their possible link with brain cancer. Concern stems from the fact that cellular phones emit a form of radiation called radio-frequency energy, or radio waves. Radiation produced by X-ray machines is known to raise cancer risk, leading experts to question whether cell phones might also pose a risk. (Cell phones, however, emit low-frequency radiation, whereas X-ray machines emit high-frequency radiation.) The head (and thus the brain) is naturally most vulnerable to any possible radiation risk, given the way we hold phones to our ears.

Further research is needed to better understand whether cell phone use is associated with brain cancer. At present, findings exist both for and against a link between cell phone use and brain cancer.
• A 2010 study described the concern over the brain cancer- and cell phone link in the United State as “considerable” in light of the high prevalence of cell phone use—more than 290 million subscribers. This study, however, did not find a link between cell phone use and brain cancer.1
• On the other side of the controversy are studies that do suggest an increased risk of brain cancer with cell phone use. Researchers in Sweden, for example, recently found that when they evaluated cell phone use among individuals who had died of brain cancer, there was an association between malignant brain tumors and cell phone use.2
Should cell phone users hang up or keep talking? We’ll have to stay tuned for future research. In the meantime we can limit our exposure to potentially dangerous radiation by keeping cell phone conversations brief, using a conventional phone whenever possible, and using a hands-free device to maximize the distance between the phone and the head.

Other Risks of Cell Phones
In addition to cancer risk, mobile phones can pose safety risks such as distraction during activities. Cell phone distraction is a particular concern when driving, and this includes using phones both to talk and to send text messages.
How common is cell phone use among drivers? Given the potential for distraction, maybe too common. A study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Virginia, measured cell phone use while driving. Forty percent of people surveyed reported talking on a cell phone while driving at least a few times per week, and 13 percent said that they sent texts while driving. Texting rates were particularly high among young drivers.3

Frequency of cell phone use among drivers, such as the rates reported from Virginia, is especially concerning when we consider the impact of distracted driving on road safety. Researchers at the University of North Texas Science Center found that distracted driving is a growing public safety hazard and that distracted-driving fatalities have increased by 28 percent since 2005. An increase in texting in particular appeared to be related to this rise in traffic deaths.4

The safest way to use a phone while driving is not to use it. But if turning off your phone in the car is out of the question, use it sensibly. This includes using a hands-free device and any practices that keep your eyes off the screen and on the road, such as programming your phone to respond to voice activation. Texting while driving is never a safe option and neither is engaging in lengthy or distracting conversations. As well, hang up if you encounter hazardous road conditions.

Is Technology Making Us More Sedentary?
With dramatic increases reported in the past 20 years, overweight, obesity, and the accompanying health risks have become a critical national health concern. Our nation’s dietary habits have naturally taken much of the blame and so has the trend toward less physical activity. One suspected cause of our increasingly sedentary lifestyle is our growing use of technology, particularly in our leisure time.

As we spend more time communicating with our cell phones, monitoring social websites, playing video games, and the like, we’re less likely to get up and move in our free time. Such sedentary behavior, or lack of healthy amounts of physical activity, is a risk factor for obesity. Studies have linked physical inactivity with obesity, with some research evaluating the effect of TV viewing and other communication-based technology on inactivity. Though it’s been difficult for research to directly link media use with physical inactivity, technology remains under suspicion. The bottom line is this: more leisure time spent in front of a screen means less leisure time spent in motion.

It should be noted, however, that not all technophiles are enjoying screen time from the couch. Video games that require the players to move, called “exergames,” are a growing trend. Game systems including Nintendo’s Wii, Microsoft’s Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 use technology to track body movement so that users are actually simulating the motions of a sport instead of just operating a joystick.

Beyond Physical Health: Emotional and Psychological Effects
Impacts like driving hazards and obesity may be more obvious measures of technology’s influence on our health, but screen time may pose personal risks beyond the physical. How, for example, is our growing dependence on technology influencing our personal and family relationships?

Writer William Powers explores this question in Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age (HarperCollins, 2010). Among the issues Powers addresses is the impact our “ultra-connected” lifestyle has on our personal and family relationships. He says that our relationship with technology can affect our bonds with one another, explaining that “as screen time rises, direct human-to-human interaction falls off proportionally.” Powers experienced this in his own home with what he calls the “Vanishing Family Trick”—a phenomenon marked by family members disappearing, one by one, from a gathering to check e-mail, send a text, and so forth.

When Powers and his family started turning off their home Internet connection for an entire weekend, he says that his family was able to connect on a deep and fulfilling level. Though he admits that the transition to offline weekends was a little rough at first, he says that they soon came to appreciate having more focus and time for one another. “We were really there with one another and nobody else, and we could all feel it,” he says. With such a reward, it’s easy to believe that most of us could benefit from turning off our phones and computers—particularly when we’re sharing time with others.

Another social and emotional concern surrounding our connected culture is the use of cell phones and the Internet to emotionally hurt, harass, or humiliate someone by sharing malicious comments or embarrassing photos. Known as “cyber-bullying,” this trend can be terribly hurtful and has even been implicated in suicides. As well, the ease with which we can contact and gather information about one another isn’t always used for good purposes. Personal information can fall into the wrong hands, and it’s possible to be contacted or “cyber-stalked” by someone with whom you’d prefer not to associate.

Like many of the choices we make related to our health, how we use technology is ultimately a personal decision. We each know the benefits and the opportunities we’ve enjoyed by being connected, but with an understanding that technology may pose certain risks and limit certain innate abilities (such as bonding and sharing with one another) we can choose to use technology in balance with time away from the screen for improved safety and health and, perhaps, deeper bonds with those we love.

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