Average smartphone use has climbed so high that, as Vox reported in December 2020, when major tech companies like Facebook and Google tried to implement services to moderate daily use by their customers, the efforts were unsuccessful. If even the very entities that stand to profit from constant online engagement admit there is a problem, make efforts to correct it, and fail, then it seems likely that the problem isn’t going to at least endure if not exacerbate. So let’s try to get a more solid understanding of the nature of the harm excessive access to the internet through mobile phones is causing us.
We’re not talking about the social or psychological harm of phone addiction. We’re not even talking specifically about disrupted sleep patterns. We’re going to go body part by body part, describing the damage overuse of the mobile device does over time. As the old saying goes, let’s start from the top.
10. Pineal Gland
While the constant access to updates is well-known to have negative effects on a users’ ability to relax and fall asleep, many phones have more direct negative physical effects. The blue light that is the default on a smartphone screen mimics the color temperature of sunlight, and thus it subconsciously tells the pineal gland that the user is in daytime conditions, which blocks the flow of melatonin that induces a sleep state. Even for many people who can get the sleep needed anyway disrupting the chemical flow can induce tiredness during the day.
On the bright side, if you’ll pardon the expression, tests showed that very effective countermeasures exist for those who can’t kick the habit of using their smartphone in bed. An evaluation published by the American Academy of Optometry in March 2020 found that switching a smartphone to night mode for bedtime usage lowered the potency of the effects by about 93%. Additionally, an article on the subject by Cleveland Clinic reported that not using the smartphone as little as 30 minutes before bedtime offset the effects.
9. Temporal Lobes
Temporal lobes are involved in the control of involuntary biological processes, most notably the beating of a heart. Among epileptics, they are the portions of the brain that are malfunctioning during blackouts, chest pains, and other symptoms of a seizure. According to Economic Times, prolonged use of smartphones has been found to aggravate seizures. This is no trivial matter for epileptics, as there is roughly an annual 0.1% chance of becoming victim to Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy, and that’s among those that are otherwise healthy.
Fortunately, according to A. K. Sahani, the senior consultant for the Indian Spinal Injuries Center, keeping phone calls under an hour’s length significantly reduces the deleterious effects. Even for those who need to use the device for that long, using earpieces instead of holding the phone up to the head is a largely effective means of preventing the negative effects to the autonomous systems. For those who are not epileptic and think this is not advice that matters for them, bear in mind that a 2016 study reported by the Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences found evidence that prolonged exposure left mice more vulnerable to seizures, indicated even those who are not diagnosed epileptics can suffer similar damage.
It turns out evidence indicates that the blue light of smartphone screens doesn’t only negatively affect the pineal gland, as you’ll soon see. Or perhaps as you may not see. In 2018, researchers at the University of Toledo tested exposing cells to the shorter wavelengths of blue light. The results were that those infused with retinal, a chemical released by the eyes, suffered damage that tissue without retinol in it did not. This could be disastrous for photoreceptor cells in the eyes, as damage to those cells is permanent.
The sort of damage it is postulated that smartphone blue light worsens is called macular degeneration. This condition is most prevalent among people above the age of 60. So for our older viewers that are hesitant to begin using a mobile device, Dr. Ajith Karunarathne just gave you a great medical excuse.
No it’s no surprise that pumping loud music directly into your ear canals is at the worst extremely risky for the quality of one’s hearing. However research from the University of Arkansas for Medical Services found that even if the volume is kept low, it can still damage hearing. As Dr. Allison Woodall explained, using a phone for over an hour a day can lessen a listener’s ability to hear sounds between 2,000 and 8,000 hertz (which includes a wide range of human speech) because of the electromagnetic waves emitted by the device rather than the strict sound waves.
As with other entries, there are solutions to those whose lifestyles make it infeasible to just decide to use a smartphone less. Woodall highly recommended the use of the hands free option or speaker phone to get the device away from the ear. Additionally, in 2021 Reuters reported that studies found that wireless bluetooth ear pieces lowered the electromagnetic exposure by as much as 1,000%, and that AirPods were an equally safe solution.
6. Teeth and Jaw
If the thought of a smartphone habit is making you anxious enough to grind your teeth, research by Tel Aviv University has given solid evidence that many if not most heavy smartphone users can relate. Tel Aviv University’s School of Dental Medicine was in an especially good position to test the hypothesis. There are many ultraorthodox Jews in Israel who use more basic cell phones without access to social media platforms, so it was a relatively easy matter to acquire a substantial study group of non-Smartphone users.
A study of 600 participants found that among smartphone users, 45% reported that they suffered from teeth grinding, compared to 14% among the orthodox, a more than 200% higher rate. Additionally, 29% of smartphone users reported that it was severe enough that they felt noticeable jaw pain while among the orthodox it was only 14%. In many cases, the harm was severe enough that joint damage occured in the jaw. It’s not standard practice for Toptenz to give religious advice to our audience, but it must be said, it seemed like orthodox Judaism led to stress relief for many in this group!
There was a particularly cutting meme in 2016 which portrayed a player of Pokemon Go suffering from a grotesquely elongated neck that a Pokemon rode on. Turns out that was probably more cruelly accurate than the artist intended. As reported by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy in 2014, when smartphone users look down to type out a text message, the forward tilt of their head shifts more strain to the top vertebrae. We’re talking substantially more strain here. A model published by The Guardian went into detail on the effects: Tilting down 15° adds 125% more strain then holding a head level. At 30°, it’s about 233% more. By a 60° tilt it is up by 400%. The degree of pain, numbness, and general dislocation this can lead to has been known to require surgery to correct. A study published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found problems have set in for heavy users as early as adolescence or even in childhood.
Solutions for this have included switching more to old-fashioned audio calls over texting. Of course, we saw in entries such as #7 that holding the phone up to the user’s ear can have some negative effects too. For those who’d rather continue texting, there are a number of exercises that can be used to treat the effects. For example there’s “chest opening,” which involves clasping the hands behind the head and squeezing shoulder blades back for 10 to 20 seconds. There are also multiple yoga stretches that are productive treatments. It could be argued, though, that all this will use up the time that a smartphone user saves by texting. Still, better than pain or surgery.
It’s nothing new that mobile devices are not good for heart health, considering federally funded research into the subject began in 2010. The study surprisingly found that younger members of the control group tended to suffer the most extreme cases of heart arrhythmia, palpitations, flutters, and other conditions. The effects of smartphones have been so pronounced that they’ve been put forward that they have changed both the most common day of the week and the time of day for cardiac arrests.
We do wish to caution that the findings indicate that the effects are from behavioral changes instead of due to the electrical processes of the devices. A 2012 study by Annals of Medical and Health Science Research found that the electromagnetic processes of a smartphone do not significantly affect hearts. However, the US Food and Drug Administration recommends that anyone with a pacemaker keep it at least six inches from their smartphone at all times.
As if Text Neck weren’t enough, by 2009 “Cell Phone Elbow” had become a commonly used nickname for the discomforts of heavy smartphone use. It was actually a rebranding of Cubital Tunnel Syndrome, which had been recorded in medical journals since at least 1958. How it works, or fails to work depending on how you look at it, is that holding up a smartphone for a prolonged period pinches the ulnar nerve in the forearm and at times moves it out of the proper position and into a place where it can be damaged. It’s similar to carpal tunnel syndrome though much less common before people began propping the arms up on their elbows to watch their smartphone screens at night.
Once again, for those who want to avoid surgical procedure Cubital Tunnel Release, exercises are there to come to the rescue. Popular Science suggests putting arm curls and overhead presses into a workout routine as a preventative measure. User who have already noticed mild pain or numbness should begin to heavily massage their forearm and outer forearm.
If you were worried that people are becoming so weak that just the effort exerted to hold up a phone is becoming an issue for us, it’s not the act of holding up the phone that’s the problem. It’s swiping the fingers that we should worry about. The unusual ways that fingers move to scroll across sites on smartphones have been linked to conditions such as tendonitis, chronic pain, and even loss of use of the index finger and thumb, a malady nicknamed “trigger finger.” An October 2021 Washington Post article on the subject boosted the phrase “smartphone pinkie” for the impact of excessive phone use on the digits, but fortunately that doesn’t seem to have caught on.
John Hopkins University’s orthopedic surgeon Duc Nguyen’s suggested treatments included often changing position on how the smartphone was held, using handheld devices, or getting a pop socket to distribute the weight more evenly across the fingers. It should be mentioned, though, that Ventura Orthopedics surgeon Josh Gluck told Slate magazine that the fingers are not connected to the ulnar nerve, so looking out for the fingers and wrist doesn’t risk causing more trouble with Cell Phone Elbow.
1. Sciatic Nerve
And now we have reached the end, both of the list and the rear. See, the sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the human body, and it runs from the lower spine down to the foot. Placing smartphones in back pants pockets has been determined to put unnatural pressure on the sciatic nerve, like a more direct version of the discomfort heavy smartphone use places on the ulnar nerve.
If you’re wondering why smartphones would cause this problem and not something like, say, a gun belt or a tool belt, well, those actually do as well. In all cases, a simple and effective treatment seems to be moving the problem device to the front. For those who are worried that a front pocket smartphone presents a risk to the sperm, don’t. In 2014 the University of Utah Health Hospitals and Clinics reported that mobile devices had at most an 8% effect on sperm counts, meaning more than enough healthy sperm that avoiding sciatic nerve problems were worth the tradeoff.
Dustin Koski wrote this entire list and his portion of the sci-fi comedy Return of the Living on his smartphone.