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October 8, 2015

Your body on tech: The ups and downs of being connected

Find out how to enjoy your tech gadgets while avoiding unintended health consequences.

Smartphones, tablets, apps: they make our lives easier. But being connected 24/7 has its downsides. Find out how to enjoy your tech gadgets while avoiding unintended health consequences.

This is Your Brain on Tech

The combination of light from the screen and constant info input can hype you up and make it harder to calm down, particularly when it comes to falling asleep. All electronic screens give off blue light, which stimulates the brain, says Natalie Dautovich, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. Looking at a screen near bedtime (or worse, in bed) can interfere with your brain’s signals that it’s time to wind down. The light also suppresses production of melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate your sleep cycle.

To ensure you’re prepped for sleep, check email and social media one last time at least 30 minutes before bed — and outside your bedroom. (Ideally, all devices should be banned from the bedroom, especially after lights-out.) If you read on a phone or tablet, dim the brightness or put it in night mode; some smartphones let you set a time to switch from blue light to a warm, reddish tone.

Carve Out Some Tech-free Time During the Day

Always being connected can make you feel … more connected. But it also disconnects you from real life. The average person checks their phone 150 times a day. With a hit of dopamine every time you check, it’s like an addiction that impacts how you experience life. “When you continually look at your phone, you’re checking out and distracting yourself from the present moment,” says Nancy Colier, author of The Power of Off. Constant checking can create anxiety and conflict in relationships; we end up not being totally present for friends and family.

Take stock of your screen time. “Awareness is the first step toward making a change,” says consumer behavior expert James Roberts, Ph.D., a professor at Baylor University. Then, aim for at least three tech-free waking hours a day, advises Mike Dow, Psy.D., author of The Brain Fog Fix. “It doesn’t have to be all at once — turn your phone off for an hour at work, during dinner, in the bedroom,” he says.

Protect Your Neck and Back From Your Phone

Tech neck is real: Tilting your head forward and down to look at your phone can put 40–60 pounds of extra force on your spine, according to Ken Hansraj, M.D., chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery. Even tilting your head just 15 degrees forward can add the equivalent of 27 pounds of extra load. Over time, this added force can stress the ligaments and muscles in your neck and back, causing pain and inflammation, which can speed the wear and tear on the discs in your upper spine.

When looking at any handheld device, hold it at eye level or only as far as your eyes can look down without tilting your head. Increasing your neck’s mobility (to avoid stiffness) helps, too. Try this move while waiting in line or sitting at your desk: Sit or stand straight, then turn your head to the left and hold for a count of five. Face forward, then turn your head to the right and hold for a count of five. Repeat twice. Also, try gently rolling your head from left to right and back again. You should feel the stretch in your shoulders.

Give Your Eyes a Break

Constantly looking at a screen causes you to blink about a third less often, which can make your eyes feel dry and worn out, says Mina Massaro-Giordano, M.D., a professor of clinical ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania Scheie Eye Institute. You can even develop Computer Vision Syndrome, with symptoms including eyestrain, headaches, blurred vision and dry eyes.

To give your eyes a break, follow the 20–20–20 rule: Every 20 minutes, focus on something at least 20 feet away for about 20 seconds. And make sure screens are clean. “A dusty or dirty screen may potentially force your eyes to focus more, causing strain,” Massaro-Giordano says.

Use Your Phone to Track Your Health

Research shows that frequent mobile phone users are in worse shape than those less tied to their devices. The light from the phone can also interfere with sleep quantity and quality, messing with the production of hormones that regulate appetite and metabolism — making you more likely to gain weight.

To combat this, put that phone to good use: Research suggests that tracking your eating and exercise habits via apps is a key strategy for changing behavior. “Aim for a certain number of steps daily, or set up a competition with friends or family to eat more vegetables,” says Devin Burns, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychological science at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. Having a record of your activity and food habits at your fingertips can be a useful way to improve or maintain your health.

Used with permission. © Meredith Corporation. All rights reserved.