Health & Fitness

Cellphone addiction a pain in the neck – and more

Attendees check their phones at Outside Lands Music Festival on Aug. 8 in San Francisco. A survey by Dignity Health found that people look at their phones 134 times a day.
Attendees check their phones at Outside Lands Music Festival on Aug. 8 in San Francisco. A survey by Dignity Health found that people look at their phones 134 times a day. The Associated Press

For most people, each day starts with a violent buzz, a loud boing or a blaring tune from the cellphone on the bedside table. Sleepily, they might pick up the phone to swipe the snooze button, or jump headfirst into a pile of texts. They’ll see that screen 133 more times before falling asleep that night, according to a new Dignity Health survey on smartphone habits.

Dignity Health questioned 2,000 U.S. cellphone users in October, and found that, on average, people checked their devices 134 times daily. Factoring in 16 waking hours, that means a check 8.4 times per hour, or roughly every seven minutes.

Our obsession with technology is often likened to an addiction. It makes us feel socially engaged and accepted, and can distract us from the mundane drag of our daily routines. Some studies have even found that levels of dopamine – the same happy chemical often released by food, sex and drugs – increase in our brain after our phones beep or ring.

Which begs the question: So what? Is it actually harmful to be addicted to cellphones? Physicians and therapists say yes.

Too much screen time can deprive us of much-needed interaction with other humans as well as with the world around us, said Dr. Ashley Sens, a pediatrician at the Dignity Health Medical Foundation – Davis Care Center. When our head is burrowed down and our fingers are typing ferociously, we miss opportunities for the self-reflection and learning that keep us happy and healthy, she said.

To help people combat their tech addictions, the medical group launched #TakeBackYourMorning, a campaign to inspire Americans to add a few device-free moments to the beginning of each day. When surveyed, 55 percent of respondents admitted to checking their phones before brushing their teeth. More than one-third said they check their phones before they say “good morning” to a loved one.

Here are some reasons why heavy technology use might not be the best idea:

It pains you physically

Ever felt sore and tired after too many rounds of Candy Crush? You’re not alone. Fifty-six percent of Dignity Health respondents said they experienced neck pain from cellphone use. Seventy-one percent reported tired eyes, and half had felt headaches.

Looking down at a phone puts about five times as much pressure on the neck as not looking down, according to a 2014 study from Surgical Technology International. In a neutral position, the neck carries about 12 pounds of weight from the head. When flexed at a 60-degree angle, it carries as much as 60 pounds, the study found.

Being glued to a phone can also lead to accidents. Fifty-six percent of respondents said they had accidentally tripped or bumped into another person because they were distracted by their phone.

Sens, of Dignity Health, said her biggest concern with the tech takeover is its contribution to obesity. She also suspects that many of her adolescent patients’ sleeping troubles are related to looking at their phones and iPads right up until bedtime, which leaves them unable to wind down.

Sens recommends donating a portion of time each day, be it in the morning or the evening, to meditation or physical activity sans screens.

“One of the things I’d love to see happen with this campaign is people giving themselves the right to unplug their devices at specific times,” Sens said. “Give yourself the freedom and grace to take these moments back, that really belong to you. I’m looking forward to helping my adolescents and their parents to be kind to themselves.”

It disrupts your romantic life

When it comes to relationship issues, cellphones do more than just distract – they destroy communication between partners, said Kathleen Oravec, a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in midtown Sacramento.

Oravec regularly sees couples struggling because one partner is using his or her cellphone to check out from the relationship, or because both partners are plugging into Netflix rather than engaging in conversation, she said.

In the Dignity survey, 21 percent of respondents said they feel frustrated that their significant other or romantic partner is looking at their phone instead of engaging with them daily, and 38 percent said they’ve created an in-house rule aimed at reducing overall mobile phone use.

“It’s basically like having another person in the relationship,” Oravec said. “When you’re on the phone, be it in a restaurant or on the couch, it’s really disruptive. … You’re not connecting. You’re really not allowing space and time to just be there, because you need to be occupied. It causes a lot of anxiety, and people don’t even realize it.”

It makes you miss real-world connections

Picture a family of four at a dinner table. About a decade ago, all four family members would have been chatting and making eye contact with one another, said Sens. Today, at least half are likely to be on a phone.

Cellphones cause people to disengage from the world around them, she said. Almost half (47 percent) of respondents in the Dignity survey said they missed an exciting moment, for example a last-minute touchdown, because they were distracted by their smartphones. More than half (56 percent) of respondents said time on their smartphone took away from their hobbies.

It’s particularly problematic for young children, who may not be learning natural social cues or developing language correctly if their parents are constantly on their phones instead of interacting with them, Sens said.

“If we have a generation of young kids who grow into the adults who don’t know how to read the cues of another individual, that could have implications in the workplace,” she said. “The kids are just attached to these devices. I worry that they’re almost living virtually and not living in reality.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola