Weighing the pros and cons of modern technology
Technology may have emerged as an unsung hero of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Practically overnight, our laptops, tablets, televisions, and smartphones became our best friends. Our social media accounts became our lifelines.
And once lockdowns swept across the globe, these devices were often the only thing keeping us connected to the outside world.
It’s true that now screens are more than just a way to pass some time. They’re indispensable fixtures of daily life.
But for all of the benefits this modern technology brings, it comes with a dark side, too.
That’s especially true where your health is concerned.
Let’s review some potential dangers of technology that you can’t afford to ignore. Then, I’ll offer a few simple strategies to help minimize your risk.
Cellphone radiation may raise cancer risk
Scientists have been exploring links between cell phone use and brain cancer for years now, without much consensus. But the results of one recent study raise new questions about the potential harms of cell phone radiation.
Yale researchers looked at more than 900 subjects in Connecticut. They found a link between cell phone radiation and thyroid cancer among those with specific genetic variations called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, or “snips”).
In fact, these scientists examined more than 175 genes, and found ten SNPs that appeared to increase thyroid cancer risk among cell phone users. And among users with SNPs in four of the genes studied, risk more than doubled.1
This study appeared in the journal Environmental Research in 2020. It’s the first to look at the dangerous combination of cell phone use and thyroid cancer risk.
It’s important to note, however, that the researchers used data collected between 2010 and 2011, back when smartphones weren’t the norm. So it’s possible that older generations of phones carried some risk that today’s versions don’t.
But at the same time, rates of thyroid cancer have more than tripled in the U.S. since 1980. From as few as two out of every 100,000 men and six out of every 100,000 women… to almost eight out of every 100,000 men, and more than 22 out of every 100,000 women.
Skyrocketing rates of obesity are likely a factor behind this rise, but this latest study offers some serious food for thought.
Of course, radiation isn’t the only reason to start putting some space between your body and your cellphone…
Bright light hijacks your sleep
Research shows that the bright-light diodes that illuminate devices like smartphones, e-readers, and tablets impede secretion of melatonin—the hormone that regulates your sleep-wake cycles (among other critical roles).
As we’ve discussed before, your pineal gland releases melatonin in response to darkness. Without it, your body can’t properly wind down.
A 2013 Mayo Clinic study looked at the effects of two different tablets and a smart phone when used in a dark room. Results showed that the highest light settings caused sleep disruptions… pointing to at least one culprit behind the widespread sleep deficit.2
(You run the same risk by watching TV at bedtime.)
So the most obvious solution here is also the simplest one: Keep technology out of your bedroom.
Of course, I realize that won’t work for everyone. And if your entire library is stored on your Kindle and you can’t resist a good e-book before bed, don’t worry. You’re not necessarily doomed to an endless struggle with insomnia.
According to this study, you just need to dim the brightness settings on your phone or tablet. Then, be sure to keep it at least 14 inches from your face.
But let’s go back and talk a little bit more about the effects of watching TV in bed—or any time, for that matter…
Too much TV is a major problem, any time of day
Binge-watching television is a major contributor to “sitting disease.” And you already know how detrimental a sedentary lifestyle is to your long-term health. But it carries a more immediate risk, too: blood clots.
Clots are so dangerous because they can break off and block other veins in different parts of your body. And if that part happens to be your lungs—a condition also known as a pulmonary embolism—the outcome could be fatal.
This is the main risk of deep vein thrombosis (or DVT)—the most common type of venous thromboembolism (VTE), where clots form in the deep veins of your legs. (This is a known problem associated with long trips in the car or a plane.)
But ultimately, any prolonged period of sitting poses this potentially lethal risk. And yes, that includes an “innocent” Netflix binge.
In fact, a recent analysis reviewed data from three different studies featuring more than 131,000 subjects, all over the age of 40, and all without pre-existing VTE.
Subjects reported the amount of time they spent watching TV. Researchers placed them into two groups: prolonged viewers (at least four hours of TV daily) and never/seldom viewers (less than 2.5 hours of TV per day).
Follow-up ranged from five to 20 years—during which, nearly 1,000 subjects developed VTE. And no surprises here: Prolonged TV viewers were 35 percent more likely to develop VTE than those who watched little to no TV.3
And this association held independently of key risk factors like age, sex, body mass index (BMI), and even physical activity levels. In other words, binge watching could be dangerous no matter how healthy and active you are.
Dodging this bullet doesn’t require giving up your favorite shows for good, though. You can start standing instead of sitting, whenever possible. Or at the very least, commit to walking around for five minutes or so between shows or episodes—at least once every hour. (Set a timer if you need to.)
And of course, keeping the television out of your bedroom will help you fall asleep—AND get you up and moving the next day. As long as you don’t start “doom-scrolling” instead…
“Doom-scrolling” crushes mental health
If you’ve found yourself spending more time scrolling through social media in the last few years, you’re in good company.
As I mentioned above, lots of folks turned to online communities like Facebook to stay in the loop. And while it made it easier to stay connected to friends, the data collected during the pandemic’s early days suggests it takes a toll on our mental health.
Researchers surveyed more than 300 subjects living in urban areas of Wuhan, China back in February 2020. They asked participants how they used social media to access and share health information with their family, friends, and colleagues. (Most notably, WeChat—China’s most popular social media app.)
Then they used a tool designed to measure Facebook “addiction” in order to assess WeChat use, including its perceived informational and emotional value to users. (For example, participants were asked whether they used WeChat to get answers to questions about coronavirus, and whether the app helped to alleviate stress or loneliness.)
Researchers also assessed for health behavior changes—like mask-wearing and handwashing—related to social media use. Then they assessed emotions using the Depression Anxiety Stress Scale and the Secondary Trauma Stress Scale. (It’s called “secondary trauma” when it’s the result of hearing about a traumatizing experience suffered by a significant other, rather than one suffered firsthand.)
Results revealed a mixed bag, to say the least.
On one hand, social media offered a high amount of informational and peer support. On the other, emotional support was lackluster, at best.
In fact, more than half of the survey’s respondents reported depression, which was moderate or severe in 20 percent of cases.4 Similarly, secondary trauma was moderate to high in another 20 percent.
The bottom line? Social media appears to be a tool with diminishing returns—especially in these anxious times.
Your Facebook feed may be incredibly rewarding and beneficial… to a point. But once you cross over to excessive use, your mental health is bound to suffer.
Small changes, big reward
At the end of the day, there’s a lot you can do to minimize any health risks modern technology may pose.
And no, it doesn’t require ditching the devices altogether. (That wouldn’t be practical, especially nowadays.)
Here’s a breakdown of my top critical tips to help protect yourself:
- Use hands-free devices whenever possible.
- Always keep your devices away from your body whenever possible… and especially away from your head, neck, chest, and genital area.
- Don’t sleep with your devices right next to you. Power them down and give your body a break.
- Keep blue light out of your bedroom.
- Insert “technology breaks” to your busy schedule. Instead, fill that time enjoying some exercise, cooking a delicious meal (see page 8), or running some errands.
These small changes can make a big difference. And ultimately, they may even save your life.
- Luo J, et al. Genetic susceptibility may modify the association between cell phone use and thyroid cancer: A population-based case-control study in Connecticut. Environmental Research, 2020; 182: 109013 DOI: 10.1016/j.envres.2019.109013
- Mayo Clinic. “Are smartphones disrupting your sleep?.” ScienceDaily, 3 Jun. 2013. Web. 26 Jun. 2013.
- Kunutsor SK, et al. Television viewing and venous thrombo-embolism: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 2022; DOI: 10.1093/eurjpc/zwab220
- Zhong B, et al. Mental health toll from the coronavirus: Social media usage reveals Wuhan residents’ depression and secondary trauma in the COVID-19 outbreak. Computers in Human Behavior, 2021; 114: 106524 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2020.106524