If you’re sending work emails from your phone late at night, or waking up to check your Facebook before you’ve even fully opened your eyes, chances are this behaviour is damaging a lot more than just that good night’s sleep. According to the UK-based Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, people have become ‘screen slaves’ in recent years, a trend no doubt fuelled by the advances in the capabilities of on-the-go technology.
In the UAE, the latest figures available show there were more than 11 million mobile phone subscribers in 2011, and nearly 800,000 Blackberry users alone – a rise of 50 percent compared with the previous year, which is anticipated to continue at the same rate in years to come. On the whole, there are just over one billion smartphone users worldwide. And the advice from most angles is that we need to learn to switch them off, for the sake of both our physical and emotional wellbeing.
‘Research has shown that as a population, we are developing an addiction to smartphones,’ explains Dr Amy Bailey, a Dubai-based clinical psychologist. ‘Though they have their advantages, there [can be] significant downsides to smartphones [if not used properly]. Being available to others 24-7 can be highly stressful, and we can develop an obsession with our phone. This can reduce our engagement in other tasks and, in severe cases, affect our daily functioning. As a society, [we are in danger of becoming] more isolated individuals with less and less face-to-face contact.’
Though the tendency can be to blame employers for setting staff up with technology that allows them to respond to work situations at all hours, Dr Bailey believes the biggest problem isn’t work-related. ‘Personal use of smartphones is considered to be more addictive than use for work purposes, because social networking sites themselves can be highly addictive,’ she says. Though they provide an easy way to stay in touch with friends, she explains that for some people social networking sites provide social validation if they are dissatisfied with relationships in their lives. ‘For others, it’s a way to express feelings they would otherwise keep to themselves, and it becomes an emotional support.’ An individual’s relentless need to immediately review and respond to every incoming message or alert is an example of the ‘obsessional’ behaviour that Dr Bailey notes researchers have uncovered while examining smartphone-related stress, which can interfere with our skills in communicating in other ways.
Physically, our bodies are starting to suffer from a variety of new problems brought about by an increase in our reliance on technology. ‘We’ve seen many patients coming in with symptoms related to over-use of smartphones,’ explains Dr Katie Gross of Atlas Spinal Centre. ‘Especially here in Dubai, many people have not one but two devices. When they’re using them for email, texting or internet browsing, they usually have the phone in their lap or on a table, so their head is down so they can look at the screen.’ The problem is that the neck is not designed to be in this position for long periods, and by forcing it into this position, we’re effectively reshaping ourselves – as Dr Gross explains, ‘we begin to lose the curve in the cervical spine’. Of course, you’re unlikely to be aware of this, but you’ll probably be familiar with the symptoms, which include neck pain and stiffness, headaches, eye pain and numbness or tingling down the arms into the hands.
Dr Gross understands that asking people to give up technology altogether is impossible, but she offers some advice that’s worth considering if you want to look after your body and avoid permanent damage. ‘The key to using a phone properly is posture. When using your phone, make sure to hold it at, or slightly below, eye level. When talking on the phone, earphones are the best option – holding the phone up to your ear with your shoulder can increase muscle stiffness and pain in the neck.’
As for your emotional wellbeing, Dr Bailey urges smartphone users to monitor themselves honestly. ‘It’s important to notice signs that you may be becoming addicted to your smartphone – do you check it first thing when you wake up? Do you feel empty without it? Are you using it to escape reality?’ she explains. ‘It’s also important to know when to unplug from your phone. Try to set aside designated times each day and at the weekend when you don’t have access to it, and start spending time doing other activities – most importantly spending quality time with loved ones. Weigh up which has been more beneficial for you in terms of your overall wellbeing.’
Dr Amy Bailey is a clinical psychologist based in Dubai. Atlas Spinal Centre is open Sat-Thu 9am-6pm. Dubai Healthcare City (04 451 8877).