June 28, 2017

Know the health hazards of your smartphone

Kaiser Permanente physicians debunk the myths of smartphone-related health issues and set the record straight.

On June 29, it will have been 10 years since the release of the first iPhone. Since then, consumers have seen a steady increase in the number of options available for smartphones. But there has been another increase: in the number of people complaining of eye strain, neck pain and other health problems.

But when it comes to smartphone-related health issues, there is a lot of conflicting information available to consumers. That’s why we asked a few Kaiser Permanente physicians to weigh in, debunk myths and set the record straight.

Phone separation anxiety

photo of Doug Newton
Doug Newton, MD

Plain and simple, smartphones and other devices are ingrained into our daily lives. We use them to be more accessible at work, to capture life’s most precious moments and to communicate with friends and family.

“That anxious feeling people get when they go without their phone for a day or even a few hours is legitimate,” says Doug Newton, MD, Kaiser Permanente pediatric psychiatrist in Denver. “It’s alarmingly common for children to experience that feeling too.”

That’s because smartphones are built to be easy to use, something teens and kids can pick up quickly, suggested Dr. Newton. The devices are also a pipeline to social media.

“Couple ease of use with instant access to social media on a mobile device and you have kids checking their phones hundreds of times a day without a second thought,” he says. “Constantly checking for alerts on the phone can, among other things, release dopamine — a chemical released by your brain that makes you feel good. Over time, children can become dependent on that feeling. When you remove the trigger — a smartphone — kids can feel sick or even anxious because in some cases the dopamine is not being released as frequently.”

photo of Chris Fellenz
Chris Fellenz, MD

If you’re looking to limit your little one’s smartphone use, take baby steps, advises Chris Fellenz, MD, Kaiser Permanente family medicine physician in Westminster, Colorado.

“It’s a good idea to have your kid take a break from their smartphone or other devices. I do this with my own children, but it’s important that you start slow — cutting back an hour a day, gradually moving toward only having your kid using all electronic media, including their phone, for less than two hours a day,” says Dr. Fellenz. “I’ve suggested this technique to patients before. The key to getting this method to work is having parents model the behavior.”

'Phubbing'

Phubbing is popular term used to describe the act of snubbing another person during a conversation in favor of using your smartphone. Phubbing is becoming more common, says Dr. Newton.

“As humans, we crave face-to-face interaction — it makes us feel good. We want to see, hear and interact with the person we’re speaking to. But phubbing directly interferes with these elements of a basic conversation,” he says. “When you dissect it that way, it’s no surprise that relationships deteriorate when someone is using their phone instead of engaging in the conversation. The other person is left carrying on a one-sided conversation. They’re not having their need of human interaction met.”

Even though this information is known and widely shared, people continue phubbing.

“That chemical release of dopamine in your brain brought on by use of the smartphone can be seductive,” says Dr. Fellenz. “Sometimes the pull of the dopamine response can be strong enough to lead people to ignore others they’re speaking with. They can prefer that strong chemical reaction — the instant gratification — over the face-to-face interaction they are currently engaged in.”

There are many ways to break the phubbing habit though, says Dr. Fellenz.

“I tell my patients young and old that the best way to stop phubbing is to make an agreement. If you’re out to dinner, agree to turn phones off after ordering your food so you can have an hour to truly engage in conversation," he says. "If you’re at work in a meeting, leave your smartphones at the door so you can engage in the work. Explore other options and what works best for you in each situation. Breaking the habit will lead to healthier relationships.”

The 'eye' phone

photo of Lee Schelonka
Lee Schelonka, MD

Itchy, puffy, red, sore and dry eyes? You’ve been staring at your smartphone for far too long.

“I see people every day with concerns of dry eyes and in Colorado’s dry climate, that’s to be expected. But over the last decade, I see more patients coming in with dry eyes because of excessive smartphone use,” says Lee Schelonka, MD, Kaiser Permanente ophthalmologist in Lone Tree, Colorado.

Dr. Schelonka says complaints of dry eyes from smartphone use are common, but patients can avoid this uncomfortable condition by following a few simple tips.

“I tell my patients to take short breaks from their phone. I know it’s tough, but taking just 20 seconds every 20 minutes to look at an object across the room or out a window will help relax your eye muscles,” says Dr. Schelonka. “If your vision gets blurry after a period of using your phone, consider using an artificial teardrop in each eye. Artificial tears soothe and moisturize your eyes, and can extend your comfortable reading time.”

There are apps available on smartphones that can turn your screen from blue to red light to help ease strain on your eyes at night, he notes.

“Blue light, like what your smartphone emits, causes your brain to be tricked into thinking it’s daytime. This is especially harmful to your health when staring at your phone at night,” says Dr. Schelonka. “In addition to causing strain on your eyes, blue light suppresses the release of melatonin, a hormone produced at night to help get your body ready for sleep. Lack of sleep leads to restless nights, more stress, weight gain and a host of other health problems.”

The solution, he says, is the red-light filter.

“Red light helps to block the amount of blue light coming through your smartphone screen. You should try and avoid smartphone or any other screen use at least an hour before bed. But if you cannot avoid it, the red-light filter is a great option,” says Dr. Schelonka.

Text neck

Poor posture is to usually blame for backaches, neck pains and sore feet. Now, doctors suggest that your smartphone may be to blame for the bad posture.

“This is no joke. I’ve seen many patients come in with severe neck pain and even arthritis in their thumb because of excessive smartphone use,” says Dr. Fellenz.

When you’re on your phone for hours at a time, you tend to find somewhere comfortable to sit, slouching down into the chair. Because the screen is too small, you’re more likely to bend your head down and move your hand up to your chest to see clearly.

“The combination of trying to get comfortable while being able to see clearly causes us to develop a habit of using bad posture over time,” says Dr. Fellenz. “The same was true for heavy backpacks on children in school. Over time, the weight shifted the spine and caused bad posture. We’re seeing the same thing with smartphone use. Many of my patients are concerned about their neck pain or soreness in their hands. Often, that pain can be avoided by putting your phone down a few hours out of the day or keeping your head and neck upright and holding the phone in front of your face.”

Adding to the source of neck pain, Dr. Schelonka says, your reading glasses may also be at fault.

“If you use bifocals, your correction is in the bottom half of your glasses. Often, people tip their neck forward to see their screen through their glasses. This could lead to neck strain and headaches. Try holding your phone farther away from your body and reading it at eye level,” he notes.

It’s not all bad news …

While smartphones can cause a strained neck, dry eyes, and even rifts in your relationships, there are some positive health benefits.

“Having instant access to a loved one on your phone can be comforting. I’ve seen smartphones help isolated or infirmed patients feel more connected and safe,” says Dr. Fellenz. “It’s all about moderation though.”

There are also a variety of apps that can help you track your health, diet and fitness level. These apps can help you share your fitness goals and progress with friends and family through social media — a function, Dr. Newton suggests, that can help you stay honest and on track with your goals.

“When you’re able to publicly share your goals with others — whether it’s weight loss, muscle gain, or a mental goal of enjoying life more — it encourages you to reach your goal because others are watching and can call you out when you’re not doing what you said you would,” says Dr. Newton.

For more information on smartphones and healthy apps, talk with your primary care doctor or visit: kp.org.