People of all ages are spending more time interacting with hand-held technology that ranges from pocket-sized smartphones to 20-inch tablets. Advancements in mobile technology over the past decade has significantly increased the capabilities of hand-held devices—from making phone calls and basic text-messaging to providing real-time information, live-streaming programs and instant access to email.
The technology is with us constantly. It provides entertainment and games that can be played with family and friends (and strangers) near and far. It gives those with vision issues the ability to increase the text size or convert text to voice. Specially designed hand-held devices allow physicians to scan patients who have experienced head injuries to predict bleeding. Other devices currently undergoing testing can be connected to smartphones to help quickly (and accurately) diagnose diseases such as HIV in at-risk populations. Hand-held devices are also being used for cognitive therapy.
Hand-held technology in its current form has been around only a few short years. However, Nikola Tesla first envisioned the idea of combining telephones and computing in 1909. In 1971, Theodore Paraskevako patented the concept of combining telephones and computing, and was the first to think about incorporating data processing and screens to display data into telephones. In 1992, IBM developed the first mobile telephone that incorporated personal digital assistant (PDA) concepts, and included applications such as maps, stock quotes and newsfeeds onto the devices.
In 1996, NOKIA created a digital cellphone with web browsing, and then in 2000 Ericsson created and marketed the first “smartphone.” In 2003, the Blackberry was released, and only 10 years ago, in 2007, did Apple introduce the iPhone.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Unfortunately, there can be too much of a proverbial “good thing.” Hand-held device usage is starting in some people as infants, before they even start to talk. A research study published earlier this year by the American Academy of Pediatrics looked at nearly 900 children between the ages of six months and two years old. On average, 20% of the subjects used a hand-held device 28 minutes per day. When these children were evaluated with a screening tool used to identify delayed speech, researchers found that the more time spent using a hand-held device, the greater the risk that a child would experience speech delays. In fact, for every 30-minute increase in hand-held use by young children, researchers found a 49% increase in delayed speech.
In a 2013 article, Time magazine reported that, in the prior decade, the number of children diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) rose by nearly 50%. At the same time, while a causal relationship has not been established, the amount of screen time experienced by children rose by about 20%.
Academics are also seeing other issues with the use of hand-held technology. Australian researcher Dr. Santha Rajarathnam states that the more people use hand-held technology, the less they sleep. This reduction in sleep is caused by the stimulation the body receives from the bright screens of hand-held devices, which in turn makes it more difficult to fall asleep. Couple these details with fatigue research, and a vicious cycle of perpetually sleep-deprived children and adults can result. This sleep deprivation can affect performance in school, on the job and while operating vehicles or other equipment. Many of these devices are being used right before bedtime, or literally in bed, which can make it even more difficult for a person to achieve adequate amounts of sleep.
A study published in 2013 in Hong Kong showed that 70% of adults and 30% of children have experienced symptoms of possible musculoskeletal disorder from the use of hand-held and electronic devices (The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, “Health Effects of Electronic Devices, Shared Science Daily, September 5, 2013.) Ninety percent of the study’s adult subjects used smartphones, 74% used desktop computers, 61% used laptops, and 35% used tablets. Most people (70%) in the group reported neck pain, shoulder pain was reported by 65% of the subjects, and 46% had wrist and finger pain. In addition, most of the subjects used more than one device.
In a second part of the survey, focused on children ages 10 to 15, 84% reported using smartphones, while smaller percentages used other devices. Of this group, 30% used smartphones between one to four hours daily, and nearly 28% reported musculoskeletal issues from the use of electronic devices. Of persons reporting physical issues, nearly 80% reported neck pain.
The challenge is that the effects of using hand-held devices do not stop with pain. An Australian chiropractor has discovered neck deformities in children as young as seven, due to how they position their spine when using hand-held technology.
In addition to the neck issues, and “Blackberry Thumb,” which is a common malady affecting intense users of smartphone technology, other hand-wrist disorders, as reported by The Telegraph, include “Smartphone Pinky” and “Text Claw.” In “Smartphone Pinky,” the small finger of the hand clutching the device begins to deform and dent, due to the grip the user has on the device. “Text Claw” results in the entire hand being affected, as the tendons that move the fingers become inflamed, thus causing the fingers to become claw-like.
Unfortunately, the issues with high usage of hand-held technology does not end here. An article published in The New York Times reported that, from January to June 2016, as compared to the same period of 2015, highway deaths increased 10.4% (“Biggest Spike in Traffic Deaths in 50 Years? Blame Apps,” Nov. 15, 2016). This is believed to be due to applications that allow motorists to report (or to confirm one way or the other) disabled vehicles, traffic cameras, police and emergency vehicles, etc., at particular locations on a given route.
Given the aforementioned issues, some people use hand-held devices as electronic “babysitters.” In particular, this is done to keep young children quiet and occupied in various social settings. Other times hand-held devices are used even more inappropriately.
I have witnessed large percentages of adults using hand-held devices while walking and driving. Many times, while in a restaurant, even where a table is occupied by several people, 100% of the table occupants, instead of conversing with each other, are focused on a hand-held device. This, in turn, can affect interpersonal relationships and skills.
In years past, when hand-held devices first became prevalent, one could expect to hear the occasional telephone ring during religious services. Now it is common for people to be checking social media and other applications during services.
Many people like the smaller size of the smartphone, while others like the larger size of a tablet. In fact, many tablets are capable of every smartphone function, including making calls. Other people prefer something between the sizes of a traditional smartphone and tablet. In modern slang, these are considered “phablets.” Too small to be a tablet, and yet too large to be a telephone.
There are significant benefits to the widespread use of mobile technology, but care must be taken to use the technology safely and effectively, so as not to impact interpersonal relationships, workplace productivity or personal safety.
How We Should Use Hand-held Technology
The preceding paragraphs outline the challenges we face with the use of hand-held technology. We gain many benefits from using hand-held devices, however misuse can lead to broken relationships, physical deformities and death.
Appropriate use includes holding them with a light grasp, in a portrait (upright) versus landscape (sideways) orientation. The light grip reduces indentations in the fingers, and the portrait orientation reduces the reach of fingers and thumbs.
Many companies have banned using mobile devices while walking—to protect employee health and safety, a person must be standing still to talk or text on a smartphone. In some Chinese cities, authorities have installed texting and non-texting lanes...on sidewalks!
Choosing the correct device also makes a difference. For instance, until recently, my nonagenarian uncle, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, preferred to use a smartphone. Prior to getting a stand for it, his larger tablet hurt his thumbs and fingers, which are not always as cooperative as desired. He now uses the phone to make and receive calls from family and friends, and the tablet to play the therapy games that he once avoided due to the physical pain he had experienced.
Another rule of thumb is for people using hand-held devices to set them down in social settings, to put them away and turn them off during religious ceremonies or services, and to put them away at night. I leave my devices in a home office at night. When traveling, I place them in an end table drawer so the lighted screens do not provide a distraction, which allows for better sleep. Plugging them into a wall charger and closing the drawer limits lost items and still achieves the goal of improved sleep.
The devices should never be used while driving unless in a hands-free mode, and applications that encourage drivers to make instant updates should be modified to allow passenger-only operation. Some companies ban all employee mobile use while driving.
To improve spinal postures, the devices should be held at about eye level. Manufacturers offer several varieties of portable stands that can hold hand-held technology closer to eye level, and allow people to use the devices without hunching forward and deforming their spines. My uncle particularly benefits from the portable stand, as it steadies the tablet and holds it securely. Others with various needs may also benefit from simple stands, whether floor-based or wheelchair-mounted for those who are mobility limited.
At the end of the day, care must be taken to view our hand-held technology as tools, not as body appendages. To achieve proper balance, we must control the devices and make them a boon, rather than allow the devices to control us, and be a bane.