Take the time to look around at any coffee shop, or even while walking down the street – you’ll see most people are busily clacking away on their phones, typing up emails, chatting with someone or lost in the sea of social media. In America alone, 95% of the population owns a mobile phone, and 77% of those have a smartphone, according to Pew Research Center.
The cell phone is ubiquitous, and its rise to prominence has been exponential. So fast, in fact, that many people haven’t taken the time to think about the effects these mini computers have on human health.
Cell phone health risks: physical and mental
Cell phones, and in particular smartphones, are incredibly addictive devices. Studies have shown that when a cell phone buzzes with a notification, the happy chemical, dopamine, is released in the brain. This effect is similar to the classical conditioning effect with Pavlov’s dog experiment. When you hear that cell phone buzz or ding, you’re rewarded. Instead of food, you’re rewarded with possibility. You get excited and happy that someone is contacting you or liked a new photo you posted on Facebook. This chemical release is addictive and causes you to crave the feeling again and again, which in turn makes cell phone usage spike.
So is all this screen time a detriment to your health?
According to a number of studies, cell phone usage can, indeed, contribute to these health risks:
- Changes in brain activity – Poor concentration, slower reaction times and limited focus can all be a result of cell phone usage, as well as constantly craving instant gratification in the form of knowledge and communication.
- Disrupted sleep patterns – Using cell phones before bed has been shown to suppress melatonin, hindering your ability to fall asleep because of the blue light effect. Not to mention, a buzzing or ringing phone could wake you in the middle of the light and disturb your full sleep cycle.
- Anxiety and depressive disorders – According to a cohort study by BioMed Central, young adults were assessed over a period of one year to see if mobile phone usage impacted their mental health in the form of stress, anxiety, depression and sleep disturbances. The results concluded that a high frequency of cell phone usage contributed to a higher level of anxiety as well as depressive symptoms.
- Phone addiction – Nomophobia is a relatively new term for those who get anxious, angry or upset if they cannot access their phone or have it near them.
- Traffic accidents due to distracted driving – Hand-held and hands-free devices can both be distracting while driving. And unfortunately, you could be a victim or the cause of an accident by not fully being present while operating a motor vehicle.
- Possibly cancer – It’s everyone’s biggest concern: do cell phones cause cancer? While the evidence is mixed, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research did classify radiofrequency fields (the type emitted by cell phones) as possibly carcinogenic to humans.
It’s worth noting a couple different cell phone studies where carcinogen factors could not be replicated:
- Cell phones emit a low level of radiofrequency energy (in the microwave frequency range).
- No association was found between cell phone usage and common types of brain tumors.
That said, because children’s nervous systems are still developing, and therefore more vulnerable to carcinogens, they may be at a greater risk than adults for developing brain cancer from cell phones.
The flip side of that flip phone
You probably don’t still use a flip phone (wink, wink). After all, technology has come a long way, which is why it’s important to recognize the good it’s brought to society.
You literally have the world at your fingertips. You can access information nearly instantaneously, including answers to every question you have. You can connect with those you love most but who live countries apart. And cell phones make you feel less lonely, because you can call or text a loved one any time, day or night. Ultimately, all this extra information and connection stimulates your brain, keeping it active and healthy.
And what about emergencies? Your phone can literally be a lifesaver when you’re just a couple quick taps away from doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers.
Balance is key
Cell phones have brought myriad benefits. So you don’t need to throw yours out just because your cell phone may come with a few health risks. Besides, teetotalling may make you feel good about your self-control, but a more measured approach is better for cell phone usage. In other words, you can simply dial back your screen time instead of stopping completely.
How to cut down on cell phone usage
Lowering cell phone usage will help alleviate many of the physical and mental health risks posed by these devices, as well as free you from the constant draw of attention your phone demands.
Consider implementing these steps to help you cut back your cell phone usage:
1. Set boundaries for yourself
Try not to immediately answer text messages or emails. Though you might feel pressured, you’re under no obligation to respond to messages immediately – especially if you’re interacting with other people, or are enjoying some alone time. And avoid using your phone before bedtime. If possible, keep your phone out of the bedroom entirely to avoid being disturbed.
See also: Is Light Exposure Wrecking Your Sleep?
2. Distract yourself with other activities
Physical exercise, meditation, reading – these are all healthy activities that keep you off your phone. As a bonus, they are also great stress relievers and can help improve your mental state of mind. Try distraction helper apps like:
- Forest – This app encourages users to not open their phones for extended periods of time, keeping them focused on other, more important activities.
- Moment – This is another app that helps you set daily limits on your cell phone usage, and lets you know if you’re getting close to overdoing it.
3. Make more social plans
Spending more time with family and friends boosts mental health and overall wellbeing. Go out for walks, coffee and drinks. You could even bring up the topic of cell phone usage and see what your friends and family think! Chances are, they feel much the same as you. And remember, try not to keep checking your phone while you’re with them, as this defeats the purpose of your social time.
Decide what’s best for you
More research is needed on what exactly are the cell phone health risks – especially among younger generations. However, it’s worth examining what science says so far. Maybe you could stand to cut back on your cell phone usage. Or maybe the opposite is true, and you could call your mother more often.
Be honest with yourself, weigh the good and the bad and commit to a cell phone (usage) plan that works for you!