When it comes to health, technology is making big impacts. Just not all of them are positive. On the one hand, technological advances in pharmaceuticals and medical devices are transforming healthcare and adding new ways to diagnose, treat, and prevent diseases. Think AI-powered X-ray analysis, liquid biopsies, and revolutionary gene therapies. But on the other hand, at the personal level, the picture is not always so rosy.
There are increasing signs that technologies like smartphones and social media are causing physical and mental health problems. Technology use (and especially overuse) is linked to everything from mental health issues to increased accident risk to recurring headaches.
Here are some areas where new research has found disturbing links between technology and health:
- Decreased happiness and life satisfaction. One study into the links between Facebook use and well-being found that time on Facebook was linked to lower moment-to-moment happiness and overall life satisfaction. The more people used Facebook in a day, the more these two variables declined. The study’s authors wrote: “Overall, our results showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being. These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year. We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.”
- Distraction increases risk of accident. By now you’ve probably seen a billboard or heard a radio ad talking about distracted driving. Public service announcements like that are the result of data about how serious distracted driving has become, including not only texting, but also reading maps, adjusting music, and using navigation apps. In 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,477 people were killed as a result of distracted driving, 391,000 more were injured, and as many as 660,000 drivers were found to be using electronic devices while driving during the day.
- Social media leads to social isolation. On the surface, social media should improve a person’s feelings of connection. But one study of social media use and social isolation found that the opposite is true. Across all major social media platforms—Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Vine, Snapchat, and Reddit—increased usage correlated with the perception of social isolation. These feelings are known to stress a person’s physical and mental health by triggering fight-or-flight stress responses that can lead to illness and premature death.
- Googling symptoms has a name. Hypochondria is a recognized psychological disorder that involves excessive worrying about health. In the Internet area, there’s also cyberchondria, the state of health anxiety fueled by inaccurate or incomplete self-diagnosis using online health resources. Cyberchondriacs are said to schedule unnecessary doctor’s visits and health tests. One study in the UK found that the problem may be costing the British health system more than $500 billion annually.
- Comparing yourself to your peers has links with depression. Many people share their best selves on social media, whether it’s their perfect vacation or picture-perfect dinner party. These posts inevitably lead us to comparing our own lives to what we see. Data suggests that this act of comparison leads to mental health issues. One study looked at how we make comparisons to others posts, in “upward” or “downward” directions—that is, judging ourselves to be better off or worse off than our connections. It turned out that both types of comparisons made people feel worse, in contrast to real-life social interaction where only upward comparisons make people feel bad about themselves.
- Teens slower to learn indirect communication. Hanging out at the mall turns out to have important developmental benefits for teenagers. Because behind all of that chatting and aimlessness are unconscious social experimentation, trying out one’s skills, and succeeding and failing in real-time interactions—all of which serves as training for adult relationships later in life. Modern teenagers are learning (or not learning) to do all of that communication via screens rather than face-to-face. So they’re missing out on developing indirect communication skills like intonation and body language that are the foundation of strong communication and stable relationships.
- Giving up Facebook improves perceived well-being. Another way to illustrate the impact of social media on our lives is to look at what happens when we say “enough”. A Danish studyinto the effects of quitting Facebook demonstrated that taking a break had positive effects on the two dimensions of well-being: our life satisfaction increases and our emotions become more positive. That data showed that these effects were greater for not only heavy Facebook users but infrequent users as well.
- Now we’re worrying about ‘screen face.’ Researchers are investigating whether digital device screens impact the health of your skin. There are two main lines of inquiry: whether sunlight reflecting off of screens contributes to skin damage, and whether high energy visible light (so-called blue light) affects the skin. As of yet there is no conclusive evidence to suggest high risk, but to play it safe one dermatologist commented, ‘Until more research is done, people are better off just using broad-spectrum, five-star UVA protection every day.’
- Yes, staring at a screen too long gives you headaches. If you stare at a screen for too long, you may experience tension headaches as another result of digital eye strain. So that means a lot of headaches given the fact that Americans spend 6 or more hours a day in front of computing devices. Neurologists recommend limiting screen time, avoiding high contrast views, and using anti-glare shields.
- Does Internet addiction exist? “Everything in moderation” is a pretty reliable ethos, but one that’s a challenge for some Internet users. A study on Internet addiction was funded by the U.S National Institutes of Health, signaling a new level of concern by the mental health community. The study is focused on evaluating whether Internet gaming addiction qualifies for inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the compendium of mental health disorders that serves as the basis for diagnosis and healthcare insurance funding.
Entefy has previously shared a roundup of research into the ways new technology is impacting our physical health. We also looked at the accumulating evidence that digital devices have a strong effect on our behavior and mental health as well.