By Erica Lamberg, AARP June 2022
Your smartphone may be increasing your risk of falls, ‘text neck,’ sleep problems, obesity, eyestrain and more.
Your cellphone can be a lifeline. You use it to stay in touch with your children, grandchildren, friends, neighbors and even doctors. You use it for navigation while you’re driving, or to research restaurants or shops. It can be an important health device — helping you track your steps, reminding you to take your medications and serving as a vital resource in an emergency.
But even though cellphones help with everyday safety and convenience, they can also cause health problems. Read on to learn about potential health and safety dangers and to get some tips for how to safely use your cellphone.
1. YOUR PHONE IS HURTING YOUR EYES
Your cellphone emits blue light, and with prolonged close-up use, your retinas might be affected, according to research from the University of Toledo published in Scientific Reports. To reduce the risk, try to avoid looking at your cellphone or other devices in the dark. If you want to use your phone while you’re in bed, make sure there’s a light source close to you to provide adequate light. To add a layer of protection, you may even want to purchase glasses that block blue light.
Excessive cellphone use can also cause eyestrain. According to a recent medical study, people who use their cellphone for more than an hour at a time experience tired eyes, sore eyes and sleepy eyes. The study found that symptoms worsen with increased cellphone use. The study defined eyestrain as discomfort, fatigue, blurred vision, headache, occasional double vision and sore eyes. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, your cellphone could be the cause.
To help prevent eyestrain and headaches, take regular phone breaks, recommends the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Follow the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look at an object at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. Short walks can be beneficial as well — just be sure to leave your phone behind.
2. YOUR PHONE IS MESSING WITH YOUR SLEEP
In addition to damaging your eyes by using your cellphone in dark settings, your phone could be disrupting your much-needed nightly sleep. “Sleep disorders increase with age, and nighttime screen use may interfere with sleep,” Howard Krauss, an ophthalmologist with the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California, said in an email, adding that it could disrupt circadian rhythms and, depending on the content you’re reading, cause increased anxiety levels.
So if your wind-down activity includes reading on your phone, playing Wordle or streaming classic TV sitcoms on one of your devices, you could be setting yourself up for a restless night.
According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, evening use of light-emitting devices, including phones and e-readers, hampers your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep, and also affects how alert you feel in the morning.
So instead of taking your phone to bed, use your devices in a well-lit area and avoid using your cellphone close to bedtime.
3. YOUR PHONE IS HURTING YOUR NECK, SHOULDERS AND BACK
You might spend hours on your cellphone streaming movies, writing emails and looking at social media, but the muscles in your lower back, neck and shoulders could be paying the price.
“Generally, we spend an average of two to four hours a day with our heads tilted over, reading and texting on smartphones and devices,” spine surgeon Ken Hansraj said in an email.
He says an adult head weighs 10 to 12 pounds in the neutral position. As your head tilts forward, pressure on the spine increases dramatically, and the force on the neck surges to 27 pounds at 15 degrees, 40 pounds at 30 degrees, 49 pounds at 45 degrees and 60 pounds at 60 degrees, he explains.
This direct pressure on your neck, shoulders and joints can cause what some are calling “text neck.”
This can cause more serious problems in those with osteoporosis. “Bending your neck forward on already weakened bones of osteoporosis can advance degeneration, microfractures and compression fractures of these already weakened osteoporotic bones,” Hansraj says. This can result in pain, reduced mobility and even the need for surgery.
“My message is that when you are texting, and using your phone, keep your head up,” says Hansraj. “Look down at your phone with your eyes and raise the device up a bit.”
4. YOUR PHONE IS HARBORING THOUSANDS OF BACTERIA
Your cellphone goes with you everywhere — to the store, the car, a restaurant, the doctor’s office, all your social hubs and even the bathroom. Because you bring your phone everywhere you go, it can be a breeding ground for contamination and dangerous bacteria. A small study found that there are a median of 17,032 bacterial organisms on a mobile phone.
So it’s probably a good idea to leave the phone behind when you visit the loo, and to sanitize it occasionally. According to Verizon, make sure you power off your phone, and then use disinfectant wipes or a clean microfiber cloth spritzed with 70 percent isopropyl alcohol or a similar disinfecting spray. Do not spray cleaners directly on a phone.
5. YOUR PHONE CAN TRIP YOU UP, CAUSE ACCIDENTS
For those distracted by their cellphones, there could be a greater risk of injury, including tripping or even a car crash.
If you’re texting and walking, your gait pattern can suffer. Research in the journal Gait and Posture found that using a cellphone while walking can increase the risk for falls and injury, particularly if you are negotiating stairs or complex environments. A better idea is to store your phone in your pocket, handbag or backpack while you’re walking.
The National Safety Council reports that distracted driving caused by cellphone use led to 1.26 million car crashes in 2010.
6. YOUR CELL PHONE IS MAKING YOU FATTER
Prolonged cellphone use could contribute to you have a more sedentary lifestyle, leading to weight gain. Physician-led research presented at an endocrinology medical conference found that cellphone use can cause people to forgo such beneficial activities as pursuing hobbies and socializing with family and friends. And research from Arizona State University found that people who use their cellphones excessively are unhealthy eaters. So if you find yourself choosing your device instead of enjoying healthy activities, this is the time to power down and start living.
To stay healthy and active, stop texting and scrolling on your phone, get out and enjoy the outdoors, eat healthy meals with friends, and pursue hobbies like reading, gardening or walking. Your smartphone is a vital accessory, but using it wisely will keep you safer and more secure. #cellphone