Computers are making you ill

By Jack Flanagan on November 27th, 2013

Facebook, Tumblr and other user-generated sites are bringing us closer daily to our devices through the sheer weight of content they produce. They aren’t the only ones – new sites and magazines are desperate to bring you to their sites and keep you there. Retailers would strangle their own grandmother if it meant one more unique browser – the key metric of a website’s success. And bloggers? Forget about it.

At the end of the day, it’s all a bit of a mechanical Turk. An internet user is in a precarious position, like a ball in the arena of Hungry Hippos. They’re being pulled in all directions. And what, exactly, is this doing to their health?

A glaring issue

The prognosis isn’t good. Glare from screens has been shown to lower the age before we need glasses, as well as mess with our circadian clocks, or our body clocks. Our body clocks are ruled by a number of factors which include light, specifically blue light. We’re evolved to behave according to the behaviour of light, because that used to be the only metric for time.

The modern day is notorious for throwing such a “traditional” lifestyle out of the window. In cities, it is extremely common for people to work late into the night or very early in the morning as a product of a ruthless metropolitan culture. While this is already acknowledged to minimise sleep and stress individuals, it is compacted by the ubiquitous use of computers, laptops and smartphones – both for work and leisure. Then they walk home, beneath street lamps and in the glare of brake lights, before diving into bed with their smartphone and/or TV. The combination of work lifestyle and technologies presence make a bad lifestyle worse.

The difference between a TV and, say, lamplight reflecting off of a book cover is one of stimulation. You are more stimulated by the TV – it literally wakes the brain up. Because, of course, that’s what your brain expects: light means daytime, and the chief time of a typical person’s activity. Recreating this effect shudders the brain into daytime mode. And the only thing that brings it back? Sheer exhaustion.

And while the same work culture is often centered in the cities and not outside, it is not the same case for technology. Today the expectation is that even infants will have 1 electronic device (ranging from phones to laptops to desk computers). The difference in such expectations between cities and the countryside – which classically is very high – is very small. The drive – from a number of organisations with products like internet.org – is to bring devices to every corner of the Earth. We are a world of tech-users.

There’s some attempt to reel in the damage this does to our eyes. The app Flux (http://justgetflux.com) is a good example of something proactive. Flux changes the shade of your screen between daytime and evening (blue and orange light) to mimic what’s happening outside. It’s a weird one, because while its website thrusts research at you, none of that is on the app itself. The idea – in principle – is secure albeit without a thumbs-up from an official study. It may move toward tailoring tech toward us, and not the other way around.

Digital posturing

Another consideration is that of ergonomics – the way we sit while using device. Craning your head over a laptop or smartphone can cause massive stiffness in the shoulder and neck, slowing circulation in these areas and leading to lifelong back injuries. Typing at a poor angle (very high, or unsupported) can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome (trapped nerves causing numbness) and/or cysts in the hand.

The ergonomics for typing have existed for close to a century, but tech has moved in the direction of UI and “gadgets” rather than healthy use. I mean, the only app currently around to tackle the blinding lights of a computing screen is (wonderfully) simple but poorly understood. Doctors – confronted with this issue – can either recommend spending less time on a computer or wearing polarised sunglasses for screen glare, or even the cumbersome standing desk, as an answer to back problems.

innovation is going toward increasing our dependance on these machines, not decreasing it

The way we work is massively affected by our health, a sleepless night can do a number on our productivity the next day, and niggling back and neck pains can nuisance otherwise productive behaviour. And yet, innovation is going toward increasing our dependance on these machines, not decreasing it or, favourably, making it safer.

There is – naturally – some responsibility on the tech user. If you’re suffering from information overload or burnout while working a 9-to-5 it might be because you check Facebook or Twitter too often. The irony of the digital age is you can within seconds sweep topics as diverse as twerking and niche diseases – for all the good and evil that does you – or fill up on the internet’s bread: cat memes and a friend’s whispers of the heart. And if you’re ruining your heart with social anxieties like minimum condolences on a breakup, not enough likes on a status, 1 favourite from your mum; than maybe social media’s not for you.

Equally, there are those who think $2 is too much for an app that keeps you active while working (‘Stretch’). Some people don’t want to be helped. (Or some aren’t turned on by the sexual, somewhat robotic model).

So culpability cuts both ways. When someone invents shit-hot tech, or a brilliant web-comic or whatever, criticising them is like a fat person walking into a bakers and shouting “what the fuck are you playing at!?”. It’s not on. Especially when said person has every brain cell needed to not pick up the dangerous treat.

This kind of addictive behaviour is often lobbied at video gamers, who more than evidence prejudices of the addictive prospects of games. Apart from extreme examples – like death – videogames can arch up an impressive list of painful afflictions. Screen glare – of course – can damage your eyes and leave you an insomniac. Back problems, hand damage and headaches can also be brought on by extensive gaming.

But the difference between gaming and internet surfing is that they are very different hobbies. An internet surfer is often just a chronic procrastinator: he/she gets up, stretches, goes for food. Videogaming is often a very intense experience, and one that brings most of the body into unnatural stillness. It’s recommended that office workers spent a quarter of every hour spent standing up, or moving around; video-gamers have been known to spend upwards of 10 hours in weekend-binges. Video game manuals often suggest gamers take a break every thirty minutes or so (the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation is 2 hours tops for video/TV), which is laughable: the games are neither designed into thirty minute segments and may actively disable a player from doing so e.g. by limiting rest points. TV, also, keeps people stuck in the same place for several hours, and when binging on box sets (outdated) or Netflix (common).

A study which looked at the potential for disrupting attention spans also showed that, on average, people watching television were an hour over the recommended 2 hour maximum. Video gamers, generally, were thirty minutes under (the sample may have included non-gamers, however).

This isn’t like smoking. The damages of smoking take place slowly and accumulate. The damage of using technology in this manner can take just days if you find yourself working for long stretches with a poor posture. The strength of a child’s eyesight can be reduced from great to glasses within a couple of years.

Work, play and love are now often exclusively conducted online

But we forgive technology because it’s so good to us. Like an awful case of Stockhausen Syndrome: we keep coming back to the beast that beats us. To be fair – this abusive partner is the reason we can operate in the modern era. Work, play and love are now often exclusively conducted online or via technology. But we pay for this with our wellbeing.

What are the answers? There needs to be new focus on health technologies for people that actually use technology. By the by, there needs to be more research into the area, which has so far groped dumbly with a lack of resolve. Possibly because the area is a little unsexy – university PR needs “hot” research – but also because a long-term study like this would be hard to gauge. It’s hard to know whether a man’s chronic back problems are a result of his video-gaming, office work, smartphone or just poor posture. Videogaming is the one exception to this, where great scares have fuelled plenty of research in this area.

Until then it’s up to the users. Get up once in a while, stretch. Go running before you sit down at your laptop. Keep fit, drink water etc. etc. The point is tech can be dangerous, and we’re not used to telling ourselves that. Keep it in mind.