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October 23, 2014

Putting the smarts into smartphones

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Dr Muiris Houston

With technology invading more and more of our lives, including our sleep patterns, Dr Muiris Houston discovered some smart, expert advice on controlling its influence.

Ever since the emergence and popularity of smartphone technology, and as long as there is Internet access, we can surf the net, send text messages, manage emails and finances or even engage socially with friends and family at any time of the day or night. As a result, using Apps or texting has definitely become more pervasive, with a growing number of studies showing that this technology may be impacting on our health in a variety of negative ways.

Researchers from the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology and Intel Labs have found that smartphone use can be habit-forming. Their research shows that users repeatedly check their phones throughout the day, usually for periods of less than 30 seconds. These checks tend to be triggered by the same things. For example, a person may always check email while commuting or always check the news when bored. In the Houston household there has been a ban on smartphones use during mealtimes, to ensure that everyone physically present is mentally present too.

Using technology before going to sleep can also cause problems. American researchers have found that almost 95 per cent of those surveyed used technology in one form of other in the hour before trying to sleep on at least a few nights a week. However, the age of the person very much influenced their technology preferences.

While Mrs H often complains about my smartphone use before going to bed, her technology of choice (TV) may also be causing problems.  And it seems she’s not alone.

About two-thirds of those aged between 30 and 64 years, and half of 13- to 29-year-olds, watched TV before going asleep.

Et in Circadia
The problem with all these technologies is that any artificial light exposure between dusk and the time we go to bed at night suppresses release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin. This results in enhanced alertness and shifts circadian rhythms to a later hour, making it more difficult to fall asleep.

According to Charles Czeisler of the Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, light-emitting screens are in heavy use within the pivotal hour before sleep. “Invasion of such alerting technologies into the bedroom may contribute to the high proportion of respondents who reported that they routinely get less sleep than they need.”

Research is ongoing into how technologies that are ‘passively received’, such as TVs and music, compares with those ‘interactive’ ones like video games, smartphones and the Internet, and how they may affect the brain differently. Michael Gradisar of Flinders University, Australia, hypothesises that the latter devices are more alerting and disrupt the sleep-onset process.

There is no doubt that mobile phones and computers make our lives more productive and enjoyable. But we must also consider that casual overuse may be impacting on both ours’ and our patients’ health.

Smart advice
From a physical perspective, smartphone and mobile overuse can also cause problems, which is why the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) has issued guidelines for users of smart technologies to avoid pain and structural problems.

“As technology advances and our lives become seemingly easier, we are discovering the devices intended to help us also have the potential to do us harm,” says Debbie Amini, Director of Occupational Therapy (OT) at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, NC.

The OT Director added that smartphone fog, cellphone elbow and smartphone thumb were but a few of the maladies that were unheard of years ago, but which have the potential to cause us discomfort and place us in danger today. To reap the benefits of our age of communication, she believes there are several ways that we can surf, talk and play in a manner that does not lead to pain, numbness or “situations much worse”.

“Our thumbs were not created for the type of repetitive movement, static loading and joint compression that are called upon when utilising these devices,” Amini said. She advises limiting usage time, using alternate fingers and taking frequent rest breaks to decrease the incidence of pain and dysfunction in the thumbs.

The AOTA tips include keeping messages short by using abbreviations and word predictions when typing, taking time to stop, resting the hands and performing gentle stretches.

It advises not to cradle the phone between the neck and shoulder, but instead, to use a speakerphone feature or hands-free ear devices.

Switching hands frequently during extended phone conversations will also help prevent neck and shoulder problems. Holding the phone in one hand and typing with the other when text messaging may help avoid straining thumbs.

To minimise eye strain they advise to look at least 20 feet away every 20 minutes to refocus eyes. Using a smartphone with the largest screen possible may also minimise eyestrain.

It may be time to put some of these tips into practice. I’ll text you and let you know how I get on!