Cell phones, and even more so smartphones, are incredible devices that keep us entertained and connected to our social networks. But with more and more people using cell phones world over, phone addiction is also emerging as a problem. These mini computers have eliminated our need for alarm clocks, address books, notepads and cameras.
These benefits, however, come with a downside as they seem to come with several disadvantages. Because of its extensive impact on daily life, some new terms were invented in popular culture to describe this problem, such as, nomophobia, short for “no-mobile-phone phobia, or smartphone zombie.
Rachna Pande, an internal medicine specialist, says although it is not yet included in the diagnostic and statistical manual, overuse of phones has been considered as an addiction akin to gambling.
Some of the major signs and symptoms of smartphone addiction, according to Pande, include the need to use the cell phone more and more often in order to achieve the same desired effect, persistent failed attempts to use cell phone less often, preoccupation with smartphone use and turning to the cell phone when experiencing unwanted feelings such as anxiety or depression.
Other signs of phone addiction include, excessive use characterised by loss of sense of time, putting a job or relationship at risk due to cell phone use, urge to have latest versions of cell phones, feeling of anxiety when a cell phone or network is not available, as well as feelings of anger, irritability or depression, neck pain and digital eye strain resulting from using the cell phone.
How phones are becoming hazardous
Several studies conducted overtime reveal that the overuse of mobile phones may come with profound implications on mental, physical, social health wellbeing.
The overuse of smartphone can lead to a series of problems. Studies have shown that, excessive smartphone use is associated with depression and anxiety disorders.
According to Celestine Karangwa, a physiotherapist at TCM Technology Clinic in Kigali, chronic slouching over one’s phone for hours can ruin their neck, ears and hurt their back muscles, as well as cause migraines.
Research done in New York University has validated that too much screen time can be problematic for people with migraine. While it’s hopefully just a small headache, a migraine is usually recurring and severe enough to make you feel nauseous or sensitive to light.
“Looking down at your phone can add up to 60 pounds of pressure on your spine, depending on the angle. Tilting your head forward puts a strain on your neck and back which results in a permanently disturbed posture and puts a lot of stress on your neck, shoulder, and cervical spine, which can turn into chronic back pain in the long run,” the research says.
The study also found that people bend their necks at around 45 degrees, when they use their phones and it becomes even worse as they sit, versus standing. The impact on the spine increases at higher flexed postures.
Emmanuel Nkusi, a neurosurgeon at King Faisal Hospital, Kigali, defines posture as a dynamic pattern of reflexes, habits and adaptive responses to anything that resists you being more or less upright and functional.
“The spine is the basis of posture. If your posture is bad, your spine can be misaligned. Spinal misalignments may cause interference in nerve function,” he says.
Cell phones might also be hazardous to our sleep, with the latest evidence suggesting that individuals with smartphones in the bedroom sleep less each night.
The reason, according to Daniel Gahungu, a general practitioner at Polyclinique de I’Etoile in Kigali, is that phone-related activities stimulate our brains and keep us alert, as the type of light emitted by most modern phones and influence over our sleep patterns.
“When we use our phones during bedtime, we realise consciously that it is time to sleep. Our bodies however absorb the blue light emitted by screens and this can confuse the daily sleep-wake cycle which we are used to, leading us to feel wide awake when we should be sleeping,” he says.
Mobile phones, he further explains emit blue light that the brain may interpret as daylight. The blue light suppresses melatonin which is a hormone that prepares one for sleep and as a result, the brain feels stimulated.
Karangwa also says many people are unaware of the harmful electromoblie magnetic radiation (EMR) that comes with mobile phones, which can be hazardous to the ears and brain. The EMR radiation may cause DNA damage, brain dysfunction and hearing impairments.
In addition, radiation from cell phones can reduce sperm vitality and count in males. Phones are carriers of different microbes as well, hence contaminated phones can cause diarrhoeal diseases, skin infections, boils and even life threatening infections. Using cell phones while driving can cause accidents similar to drunk driving.
Preventing the health risks
Over usage of mobile devices may be hazardous but can sometimes be inevitable. Health experts recommend appropriate phone usage to avoid health risks.
Karangwa advises that while making or receiving calls, phones should be put in loud speaker or ear phones used. This he says will prevent direct contact of the phone with the ears hence avoid transmitting radiation.
Pande also advises that a close friend or family member should be aware of the signs and recognise them if the individual displays them.
“An individual addicted to cell phone use needs counselling to get rid of this addiction. They should be told about the physical and mental hazards, as well as the need for improving human contact. They should be weaned away from the telephone starting from say an hour daily and increasing the time gradually. It is important to keep them engaged in other activities so that the mind is diverted away from the phone. Yoga and meditation help one to improve self-determination and can help him to overcome this addiction,” she says.
Increasing font size according to Gahungu, is a simple yet effective trick to make content on the screen easier to read. This can help reduce the likelihood of eyestrain, which can be a trigger for migraine attacks.
A more practical recommendation, he adds, would be frequent rest breaks or some physical exercise that can strengthen the neck and shoulder muscles. “Phone users should try to hold their phones at least 16 inches away from their faces. Every few minutes look up from your screen at something far away for short breaks, and don’t forget to blink.”