Smartphones are certainly convenient! Their multifaceted features, ranging from detailed calendars to various social media apps help many people organize their lives, while at the same time staying digitally connected to friends and family via pictures and video chats. It seems like there is an app for everything these days! Most of the time, these games and other apps seem harmless. Unfortunately, however, a growing body of evidence suggests that frequent smartphone use may lead to a shorter life expectancy. Furthermore, there are multiple immediate health problems linked to spending too much time using mobile devices. While not life-threatening at first, these diseases do tend to decrease quality of life and may lead to early death if left untreated.
In addition to discussing the huge body of scientific research related to smartphones and how they are linked to a shorter lifespan, I will also give you a list of easy-to-implement tips for keeping your mobile phone use under control.
5 WAYS MOBILE PHONES THREATEN YOUR WELL-BEING
If you feel a little sheepish about the amount of time you spend staring at the screen of your smartphone, you are not alone. The average adult spends about four hours a day using their mobile device, and more than 24 million Canadians own mobile phones. Half of all Canadians who engage in online shopping do so on their smartphones, and trends show that more and more people are beginning to use mobile devices for banking, job searching, shopping, and watching shows. While it is convenient to do all these things on one small device, the health effects can be devastating. There are five major ways mobile phones threaten your life expectancy, as well as your physical and mental well-being. After perusing the list below, you may be inspired to think twice before using your phone for everything!
1. Smartphones Increase Cortisol Levels, Which Can Shorten Your Lifespan
One of the most critical health problems is the correlation between smartphone overuse and elevated cortisol levels. Cortisol is your body’s primary hormone for regulating stress. Spikes in cortisol levels are normal in certain situations, such as encountering a dangerous animal in the woods. They are one way your body keeps you safe and alert to potential threats, activating your brain’s “fight or flight response” so you can escape life threatening situations. Cortisol levels may also surge as a result of a strong, intense emotions like fear or anger. For example, reading an upsetting text message from a friend or a stressful work email may cause your cortisol levels to rise.
Again, occasional elevation of cortisol levels are healthy when they spur us into a necessary action to protect our own well-being. However, chronic high cortisol levels threaten your well-being by setting off a chain of events that can ultimately shorten your lifespan.
When your cortisol levels increase, so does your blood pressure, blood sugar, and heart rate. Having high cortisol levels for a prolonged period of time may cause or worsen a myriad of conditions, including:
- Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Obesity or unexpected weight gain
- Autoimmune diseases
- Heart attack
- Metabolic syndrome
- Impaired memory and concentration
- Weakened immune system
Ability to be creative and problem-solve
Many of the conditions listed above shorten life expectancy, even if the connection does not seem obvious right away. For example, insomnia is far more than a nuisance that leaves you feeling sleepy during the day. In one comprehensive review of over 15 sleep studies, researchers concluded that people who sleep less than seven hours a night have a 12% increased risk for death. In a 2015 article entitled “Persistent Insomnia is Associated with Mortality Risk,” scientists report that chronic insomnia lasting for multiple decades can increase the risk of early death by 97%.
2. For Many, Smartphones Are an Addiction
Addictions are serious public health problems, and they are not limited to psychoactive substances alone. Now that you understand the relationship between smartphones and cortisol, the science of smartphone addiction will make more sense.
According to David Greenfield, the founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, your smartphone is a dangerous source of high cortisol. This is because even the mere sight of your phone, or just imagining the sound of it ringing causes your cortisol levels to rise. These stress responses often cause people to check their phones, “just in case” there is an important message.
Looking at their phones does cause momentary relief, as it temporarily eases the anxiety of wondering what is waiting for them the next time they check their phone. However, people often feel even more distressed after checking their phones. Common smartphone stressors may be due to comparing oneself to someone else’s Facebook profile and feeling inadequate, or receiving yet another task from work or family to add to an already-full “To Do” list.
High cortisol levels interfere with the brain’s “decision making center,” called the prefrontal cortex. This means that chronic stress can lead to poor decisions and a reduced ability to exercise willpower in the face of unhealthy temptations, including the temptation to zone out and play mindless games on your phone for hours!
This cycle of feeling anxious prior to phone use followed by increased worry after use can be punctuated by feeling a sort of “smartphone withdrawal,” causing compulsive phone use. This, of course, increases your exposure to potential stressors. This can become a vicious cycle for some.
Multiple studies have concluded that smartphone addiction is a real public health problem. Consider the following study conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois: Researchers interviewed more than 300 college-aged students about their phone use. The data revealed an alarmingly high connection between frequent mobile phone use and increased rates of depression and anxiety.
The key point of this study’s conclusion is that depression and anxiety occurred as a result of people using smartphones in order to numb uncomfortable feelings. When escaping reality is the motive for use, researchers found, it becomes an addiction. Interestingly, using phones to relieve boredom is not associated with addictive patterns.
Tips to Safeguard Your Cortisol Levels:
Of course, mobile phones are just one part of the puzzle when it comes to life stressors! Life is not easy. Fortunately, there are proven ways to deal with stress in such a way that you are still able to live a happy and fulfilling life. The following are a few of my favorite methods for reducing stress:
- Make sleep hygiene a priority
- Exercise regularly
- Practice mindfulness
- Explore Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, on your own or with a professional
- Do gentle yoga or slowly stretch all of the muscles in your body in a quiet, peaceful space
3. Smartphones Often Trigger Mental Health Problems
Individuals suffering from clinical anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, depression, or other forms of mental distress may be especially susceptible to unbalanced cortisol levels. People with mental illnesses often experience higher-than-average feelings of stress due to chronic, extreme emotional reactivity. I suggest coping with severe stress by practicing daily meditation, journaling, yoga, or an Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) referred to as tapping.
There are multiple reasons for this particular population’s sensitivity to smartphones and cortisol. One cause is the link between elevated cortisol levels and psychiatric illnesses. As I explained earlier, chronic high stress wreaks havoc on the health of anybody, manifesting in various illnesses and conditions.
But individuals with serious psychiatric problems are more vulnerable to the negative effects of chronic stress. Because of this, they take longer to recover after stressful events and endure more intense stress-related symptoms.
A fascinating article published in the Journal of Computers in Human Behavior illuminates the devastating impact of social media apps and the “Fear of Missing Out” phenomenon. Many individuals with severe mental health problems are socially isolated, and they fear missing out on social opportunities. They may also feel ashamed if their condition makes it harder to connect with others in social settings. Often, looking at other people’s curated pictures of “exciting lives” on social media makes the socially isolated people feel more depressed. They may consider the people on social media to be more successful and happier than they are, which increases the risk of even more serious isolation, depression, and anxiety.
Furthermore, the study found that anxiety and smartphone use can be a vicious cycle for people struggling with anxiety disorders. Many individuals with anxiety find it helpful to distract themselves by using their phones. Paradoxically, frequent use usually worsens anxiety because of the cortisol-smartphone correlation. The study notes that people often use their phones in order to suppress emotions.
While this distraction technique is an effective short-term solution, it is not a sustainable long-term plan, and it will likely worsen the condition. These suppressed emotions often reduce anxiety and depression when they are dealt with through psychotherapy, journaling, or some other form of self exploration.
Another component of smartphones and mental health is the undeniable connection between excessive time spent using phones and sleep problems. According to an article published in PLOS ONE journal, the more time spent using phones correlates with more difficulty falling asleep and poorer sleep quality. Insomnia is a well-documented cause of new or worsening symptoms of anxiety and depression.
4. Smartphones Are Interfering with the Lives of Children and Teenagers
Children and teenagers are not immune to the challenges of smartphone overuse. In fact, they may be the most at risk group. According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, young adults and teenagers are experiencing more psychological disturbances than ever before. Between the years of 2008 and 2017, the rate of adolescents with “serious psychological distress” increased by 71%. Furthermore, researchers found that the number of teenagers having suicidal thoughts, attempts, and other “suicide-related outcomes” increased by an astounding 47%. Jean Twenge, co-author of the study, reports that adolescents who are on their phones for five or more hours a day are 71% more likely to have at least one risk factor for suicide.
According to the American Psychological Association, mobile phone use may have a more profound impact on youth because of their heavy reliance on social media. Teenagers and kids may also be more prone to using electronic devices at night, thus disrupting their sleep and consequently harming their mental health.
5. Smartphones Increase Your Risk to Potentially Dangerous Electromagnetic Radiation
You can read an in-depth explanation in my article entitled Here’s What You Should Know About Electromagnetic Radiation, but here’s a brief overview of the dangers of electromagnetic radiation (EMF) from mobile phone usage:
- Mobile phones emit constant low-level radiation that actually changes the way your cells behave.
- Your brain is the most vulnerable organ to damage via radiation. In fact, multiple studies have linked EMF exposure to mood, memory, and concentration problems. A separate study found that EMFs emitted from everyday items like microwaves and mobile phones increase oxidative stress. They also cause harmful changes to the levels of blood antioxidant markers in humans. Both of these effects can contribute to developing cancer.
- More examples of health problems caused by EMFs from smartphones include male fertility problems, trouble sleeping, and thyroid problems.
As recent as last month, the Chicago Tribune investigated over ten popular mobile phone brands and their radiofrequency radiation by using accredited lab tests in order to imitate real human tissue. They discovered that the radiofrequency radiation released surpassed the U.S. Federal Communication Commission’s legal limit, which permits no more than 1.6 watts of radiation per kilogram of tissue. In stark contrast, researchers supported by the Chicago Tribune found an average of 1.6 watts of radiation per gram of tissue!
Researchers in Canada discovered similar data. Despite these discoveries, Health Canada has been slow to acknowledge the problem at hand. Similarly, the Federal Communication Commission still states publicly that mobile phones are safe.
I cannot control the seemingly willful disregard for factual evidence exhibited by these two large health organizations, but I do want to urge you to take a look at the independent scientific reports for yourself.
How to Protect Yourself from Excessive EMF Exposure:
- Knowledge is the most empowering way to protect yourself, so familiarize yourself with the symptoms of excessive EMF exposure. These include an impaired ability to learn new information, difficulty concentrating, headaches, and fatigue. If you notice these symptoms, meet with a naturopathic doctor immediately.
- Use “hands-free” devices and limit the length of phone calls.
- Instead of carrying your mobile device in your pocket, carry it in a bag. When you are at home, leave it in a different room.
THE KEY TO RESPONSIBLE SMARTPHONE USE IS BALANCE
As you can see, a significant amount of time on your mobile phone can seriously damage your health. However, I do not want to give you the impression that smartphones are 100% unhealthy. Smartphone technology has become so intertwined with our culture that it is virtually impossible to ignore them. It is our challenge to follow a mindful approach to using mobile phones.
When used in moderation, smartphones can actually benefit your health! Here is a list of apps that may help you with a variety of health concerns:
TOP 12 STRATEGIES FOR HEALTHY PHONE USE
Although I have highlighted some beneficial tips for each of the specific problems described above, there are a few more promising strategies to help you use your smartphone in a healthy manner.
Of course you might find creative ideas on your own, but here are twelve tips to get you started:
- Using “bare-bone” phones with less features, like the lite phone. This minimalist phone reduces extra stressors because its interface has no social media feeds, email notifications, or “suggested” news articles.
- Consider apps that monitor your phone use. For example, apps like Moment remind you to step away from your phone and pay attention to self care and relationships with friends and family.
- Schedule brief mobile phone “vacations.” This is a proactive way to help reduce stress and keep addiction at bay. Some people choose one day a week to abstain from mobile phone use. Others designate an hour a day. I encourage you to experiment to find what works best for you!
- Whether you eat alone or with friends and family, implement a “no phones at the table” rule. This helps protect face-to-face interaction and gives you a break from screen time.
- Another way to reduce the number of times your smartphone vibrates or beeps everyday is to manually turn off notifications on your apps. You can leave on notifications for a select few apps, of course, but minimizing the number is helpful.
- “Mindfulness” has become a bit of a buzzword these days, but for good reason! By simply paying attention to how you feel before and after using your phone, you can get an idea of what triggers negative emotions.
You might even find it helpful to keep a log in which you record what you did on your phone and how you felt afterward. Over time, you will likely notice a trend. For example, maybe your daily Happify game keeps you feeling grounded. By all means, keep that one! But if you realize that scrolling through your Instagram feed consistently leaves you feeling unsettled, maybe it’s time to uninstall this one.
So, the next time you reach for your smartphone, pay attention to your motivation. Are you driven by anxiety? This is a red flag that you may be at risk for addiction, and perhaps it is time to seek alternative coping methods.
- Next time you start texting or instant messaging friends, challenge yourself to add more face-to-face time by planning a time to actually meet up in person. Too much time on social media naturally reduces actual human interaction, which can cause loneliness and damage mental health.
- Keep your phone outside of the bedroom. Remember, even the sight of it on your bedside stand can be a stress trigger. Removing your phone also lowers your exposure to EMF radiation.
- Avoid using your phone for more than one to two hours per day.
- If you have children, use apps like Norton Family Premier or Kaspersky Safe Kids. Since kids’ nervous systems are still developing, they are more likely to experience depression as a result of too much screen time. Encourage them to read, play with toys, or explore the outdoors instead of staring at screens..
- Boredom is a major cause of mindless smartphone use. In order to combat this problem, make a list of alternative activities to try when you are bored. For example, your list might include walking around the block, reading an interesting novel, painting, or having tea with a friend. You can always carry a book in your briefcase or purse for times when you are stuck standing in line or on the subway! As you become more accustomed to doing these activities when you are bored, you will likely feel less and less drawn to your phone.
12. If you absolutely must check your phone before bedtime, wear protective glasses or dim the screen.
LEARN MORE WAYS TO PROTECT YOUR HEALTH AT THE DEMPSTER CLINIC- CENTER FOR FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE
A shorter life expectancy and mental health problems are serious issues, and they are often fueled by unhealthy phone use. But the ubiquitous nature of smartphones is complex, and each and every one of us has a unique biochemical makeup. Because of this, your own personal phone use may be affecting you in ways not discussed in this newsletter. For example, back pain and neck pain may also occur due to uncontrolled phone use. It is all about understanding your incredibly unique lifestyle and creating a health plan specifically for you.
Furthermore, a variety of factors contribute to life expectancy and disease prevention. Smartphones are just one of the many factors to consider. As a functional medicine practitioner, I specialize in working with patients to develop an individualized healthy lifestyle plan.
I am delighted to provide a Complimentary 15-minute Discovery Session for all prospective patients. This session can take place over the phone or at the clinic in person. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have about your own smartphone use. It also provides an opportunity for you to learn more about the services I offer and how I can help you achieve a state of optimal health and well-being.
Please schedule an appointment today!
Dr. John Dempster
The Dempster Clinic- Center for Functional Medicine