The impacts of technology on physical health are vast and complicated. Some claims are based on studies whiles others are based on interpretations of data and understandings of how the human body works. Here is our attempt to summarize the overwhelming amount of information, recommendations and opinions of people much smarter than us on very complicated issues.
For suggestions and solutions, see Empower: Protecting Health.
One key takeaway
One rather large study that investigated the impacts of different types of technology on four types of well-being of three different age groups, found that teenagers are most affected by technology.
This section is divided up as follows:
Information Overload - Too much information makes processing what’s important difficult which, in turn, prevents that information from entering our long term memory.
Use it or Lose it - Over-reliance on technology as a storage place for important information and the act of accessing information online instead of accessing information in our brains contributes to a decline in memory skills and strength.
Attention - Media-multitasking and the constant onslaught of information through various mediums negatively affect our ability to sustain attention, resulting in truncated attention spans and difficulty performing tasks that require attention to detail.
Metacognition (Thinking) - Studies have shown that reading and writing through digital platforms negatively affect comprehension and understanding of materials. This contributes to a decline in deep thinking and understanding.
Addiction - The World Health Organization and many medical and research professionals compare digital addiction to substance addiction in the way it affects our brains.
Inactivity, Obesity, Cardiovascular Health - Inactivity as a result of screen use contributes to obesity and illness regardless of other factors.
Sleep - Blue light decreases the production of melatonin which is related to immune function.
Eye health - Blue light and technology use is responsible for a host of eye problems, including myopia (nearsightedness) and dry eye.
Worth Watching: 60 Minutes Examines the $300M NIH Study -
Researchers are studying 4,500 9- and 10-year olds and found that many of those who spend more than 7 hours a day on screens such as smartphones, tablets, and video games showed premature thinning of the cortex which is the outermost layer of the brain.
This is the part of the brain where executive functioning takes place. Babies are born with many more neurons that are needed and those neurons are pruned over time as children and then adults adapt to their environments and learn more about the world around them.
Neurons that are not used or needed are pruned.
Researchers also found that thinning of the cortex was correlated with less crystalized knowledge. Crystalized knowledge is knowledge gleaned from living, like vocabulary.
Although it is not yet clear what these findings mean, many medical doctors are concerned about how technology is changing the brain and perhaps children’s capacity to develop knowledge as they age.
Wow! That seems concerning.
You can Learn More here:
Dr. Delaney Ruston breaks it down on the Screenagers Website.
two main ways technology overuse affects memory:
Information Overload: From internet searches to social media feeds, we consume an immense amount of information. Our brains are literally overflowing with information. How does our brain distinguish between what information is valuable and what is not? How does this affect our brain’s bandwidth and our ability to process that information? Can our brains contextualize this information for deeper understanding?
Use it or Lose it: The old adage, use it or lose it, is very relevant to how technology is affecting our memory. Gone are the days of remembering phone numbers, appointments and other bits of information. No need to remember, we can just consult our smartphones or Google it. But when we stop memorizing information, our brains stop being very good at that very necessary skill. Research shows this may be to our detriment.
1,463 Possible Restaurants Choices on Yelp!
That’s some Information overload
Erik Fransan, Professor of Computer Science at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, whose research focuses on short-term memory, says that a brain exposed to a typical session of social media browsing can easily become hobbled by information overload. The result is that less information gets filed away in our memory. At any given time, the working memory can carry up to three or four items, Fransan says. When we attempt to stuff more information in the working memory, our capacity for processing information begins to fail and the information is forgotten rather than processed for long term memory.
In a New York Times op-ed Losing Our Way In The World, Harvard physics professor John Edward Huth argued that the Internet may have a greater effect on our sense of meaning than we realize. He explained that an over-reliance on technology has a tendency to encourage us to isolate pieces of information without fitting them into a broader cognitive schema. Without this process, our short and long term memory suffers.
What is that actor’s name? When is my next doctor’s appointment?
Use it or Lose it (over-reliance on technology and memory)
Our increasing reliance on the Internet and the ease of access to the vast resources available online are affecting our thought processes for problem-solving, recall and learning. In a new article, researchers have found that 'cognitive offloading', or the tendency to rely on things like the Internet as a memory aid, increases after each use.
Overuse of Technology Can Lead to Digital Dementia: Individuals who rely heavily on technology may suffer deterioration in cerebral performance such as short term memory dysfunction. This leads to the development of the rational, linear, fact-finding skills of the left side of the brain at the expense of the right side which is more intuitive, imaginative and emotional.
It’s not brain science! Or is it?
Multitasking, particularly media-multitasking, feels like an efficient way to get things done. Studies are now showing it has the opposite effect.
Neuroscientist Daniel J Levitin explains how technology affects our brain:
“Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new - the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens. The irony here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: the very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted. We answer the phone, look up something on the internet, check our email, send an SMS, and each of these things tweaks the novelty-seeking, reward-seeking centers of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids (no wonder it feels so good!), all to the detriment of our staying on task. It is the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy. Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.”
Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain, says, “What psychologists and brain scientists tell us about interruptions is that they have a fairly profound effect on the way we think. It becomes much harder to sustain attention, to think about one thing for a long period of time, and to think deeply when new stimuli are pouring at you all day long. I argue that the price we pay for being constantly inundated with information is a loss of our ability to be contemplative and to engage in the kind of deep thinking that requires you to concentrate on one thing.”
Georgetown Professor Cal Newport agrees, telling the New York Times, “The ability to concentrate is a skill that you have to train if you expect to do it well...If you always whip out your phone and bathe yourself in novel stimuli at the slightest hint of boredom, your brain will build a Pavlovian connection between boredom and stimuli, which means that when it comes time to think deeply about something (a boring task, at least in the sense that it lacks moment-to-moment novelty), your brain won’t tolerate it.”
A group of Stanford researchers has found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.
Some studies suggest that heavy digital media use leads to not only a loss of attention but also a loss of cognitive control - our ability to control our minds and what we think about.
A researcher from Stanford states that the more you acclimate yourself to technology and the constant flow of information that comes through it, you become less able to figure out what’s important from what’s new. What’s new may be completely devoid of meaning, but the part of the brain that responds to it tends to trick us into thinking it’s significant.
“Each time we dispatch an email in one way or another, we feel a sense of accomplishment, and our brain gets a dollop of reward hormones telling us we accomplished something,” says Daniel J. Levitin, neuroscientist and author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. “But remember, it is the dumb, novelty-seeking portion of the brain driving the limbic system that induces this feeling of pleasure, not the planning, scheduling, higher-level thought centers in the prefrontal cortex.”
So, in a sense, the more we pursue empty rewards like Facebook “likes” and Twitter “favorites,” the dumber we get, and the harder it is to maintain some level of self-awareness over our habits.
According to a new study published in the proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, reading on digital platforms might make you “more inclined to focus on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly.” Jordan Grafman, chief of cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, explains it this way: “The opportunity for deeper thinking, for deliberation, or for abstract thinking is much more limited. You have to rely more on surface-level information, and that is not a good recipe for creativity or invention.”
Dr. Victoria Dunckley, Children’s Screen Time Action Network Advisory Board Member and author of Reset Your Child's Brain is even more concerned suggesting overuse of technology can cause brain damage in the form of brain atrophy.
Through our research, we have found that professionals (doctors and researchers) in the field are mostly split on the true addictive nature of technology, with more agreeing that it is addictive. World Health Organization recently added Gaming Disorder to the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases.
As new products are released, the addictive nature of these products is being perfected by developers. This is called “Persuasive Design” and is a key component in what many call “The Economy of Attention.”
This explains why some people can spend two hours watching cat videos on YouTube.
To learn more, see Media Overuse and Addition.
Here are what some researchers and medical professionals are saying about technology addiction:
“Make no mistake,” neuroscientist and author Daniel J. Levitin warns, “email, Facebook, and Twitter checking constitute a neural addiction.”
Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, author of “Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids and How to Break the Trance,” agrees there’s a very real reason why it’s so hard to coax people away from their devices: “We now know that those iPads, smartphones and Xboxes are a form of digital drug. Recent brain imaging research is showing that they affect the brain’s frontal cortex which controls executive functioning, including impulse control in exactly the same way that cocaine does. Technology is so hyper-arousing that it raises dopamine levels - the feel-good neurotransmitter most involved in the addiction dynamic - as much as sex.”
Jordan Grafman, chief of cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says that this kind of addiction is especially dangerous for youth: “The problem is that judicious thinking is among the frontal-lobe skills that are still developing way past the teenage years,” he says. “In the meantime, the pull of technology is capturing kids at an ever earlier age, when they are not generally able to step back and decide what’s appropriate or necessary, or how much is too much.”
On the flip side, one local doctor and author of “Free to Play,” Dr. Peter Gray disagrees and even goes as far as to suggest that playing video games enhances cognitive skills.
Our conclusion is this: Like anything, technology should be used in moderation and that kids should have plenty of time for and be encouraged by parents and teachers to participate in other activities, such as face-to-face interaction, outside play, physical activity, literacy development through physical books, and hands-on creative play.
In our own personal experience and based on what we have heard from parents, it doesn’t always take research studies to prove what we already intuitively know. When you make decisions for your family, consider the research but also consider your own personal experiences with technology, as well as your children’s.
If you think your child may have a problem, speak with a health care professional.
Technology, Physical Inactivity and Ill-Being
It’s not enough to limit screen time. We have to encourage our kids to get moving for at least 1 hour each day.
Research has shown that twice as many children and three times as many adolescents are suffering from obesity than just 30 years ago based on increased body mass index scores (National Center for Health Statistics, 2012; Ogden, Carroll, Kit, & Flegal, 2012). In particular, during that same 30-year period, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the percentage of obese 6- to 11-year-olds increased from 7% to 18% while the percentage of obese 12- to 19-year-olds increased similarly from 5% to 18% (CDC, 2013a).
Media and technology use predicts ill-being among children, preteens and teenagers independent of the negative health impacts of exercise and eating habits: Screen time has been linked to increased obesity among children (Anderson & Whitaker, 2010; de Jong et al., 2013; Fitzpatrick, Pagani, & Barnett, 2012; Pagani, Fitzpatrick, Barnett, & Dubow, 2010) and adolescents (Arora et al., 2012; Barnett et al., 2010; Bickham, Walls, Shrier, Blood, & Rich, 2012; Casiano, Kinley, Katz, Chartier, & Sareen, 2012; Do, Shin, Bautista, & Foo, 2013) as well as a reduction in exercise which research shows is predicted by increased media consumption (Anderson, Economos, & Must, 2008; Boone, Gordon-Larsen, Adair, & Popkin, 2007; Cox et al., 2012; Martin, 2011; Sisson, Broyles, Baker, & Katzmarzyk, 2010; Tandon, Zhou, Sallis, Cain, Frank, & Saelens, 2012).
The Impact of Prolonged Sitting on Vascular Function in Young Girls: “Children are spending more than 60% of their waking day sedentary. The consequences of excessive sedentary behavior are not well understood in the child, but there is growing evidence that with increasing sedentary time, cardiovascular risk in childhood also increases. What is the main finding and its importance? These findings show that a 3 h period of uninterrupted sitting causes a profound (33%) reduction in vascular function in young girls. Importantly, we also demonstrate that breaking up sitting with regular exercise breaks can prevent this.”
High Levels of Screen Time Linked to Cancer and Heart Disease: “A scientific statement published by the American Heart Association says smartphones, tablets, TVs and other screen-based devices are making kids more sedentary – and sedentary behavior is tied to overweight and obesity in young people.”
Computer game playing assessed as valid psychological stressor to induce physiological effects of stress, including changes in autonomic tone (heart rate and blood pressure), EMG (muscular activity), Galvanic Skin Response (skin conductivity), and cortisol levels (Sharma et al., 2006).
Computerized games can impair blood sugar control and delay digestion (Blair et al., 1991).
Screen time is associated with narrowed vasculature of the retina (narrowed vessels at the back of the eye, a cardiovascular risk) in children, while time spent outdoors is associated with healthy retinal vasculature (Gopinpath et al., 2011).
Screen time is associated with metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, blood sugar dysregulation, high lipids, obesity) in adolescents independent of physical inactivity (Kang et al., 2010).
Video game playing is associated with increased food intake in adolescents (Chaput et al., 2011).
Exposure to EMFs (electromagnetic fields) from cell towers is associated with perceptual speed increase and accuracy decrease (consistent with a fight-or-flight response), as well as sleep problems (Hutter et al., 2006).
Wireless Radiation and Health
There is an immense amount of research related to WiFi, wireless radiation and child/adult safety. It’s complicated. We will keep an eye on the research and update parents as often as we can. Please reach out with any additional information you may have.
In May 2016, the US National Toxicology Program, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), released partial findings from a two-year study that exposed rats to the types of radio frequency radiation that cell phones give off and compared them with a non-exposed group: "The findings of brain tumors (gliomas) and malignant schwann cell tumors of the heart in the NTP study, as well as DNA damage in brain cells, present a major public health concern because these occurred in the same types of cells that have been reported to develop into tumors in epidemiological studies of adult cell phone users," stated Ronald L. Melnick, PhD, the National Institutes of Health toxicologist who lead the NTP study design and senior advisor to the Environmental Health Trust. "For children, the cancer risks may be greater than that for adults because of greater penetration and absorption of cell phone radiation in the brains of children and because the developing nervous system of children is more susceptible to tissue-damaging agents. Based on this new information, regulatory agencies need to make strong recommendations for consumers to take precautionary measures and avoid close contact with their cell phones, and especially limit or avoid use of cell phones by children."
In response to this study, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report, you can find it here.
In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a component of the World Health Organization, appointed an expert Working Group to review all available evidence on the use of cell phones. The Working Group classified cell phone use as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” based on limited evidence from human studies, limited evidence from studies of radiofrequency radiation and cancer in rodents, and inconsistent evidence from mechanistic studies (4).
The Working Group indicated that, although the human studies were susceptible to bias, the findings could not be dismissed as reflecting bias alone, and that a causal interpretation could not be excluded. The Working Group noted that any interpretation of the evidence should also consider that the observed associations could reflect chance, bias, or confounding rather than an underlying causal effect. In addition, the Working Group stated that the investigation of risk of cancer of the brain associated with cell phone use poses complex methodologic challenges in the conduct of the research and in the analysis and interpretation of findings.
In 2011, the American Cancer Society (ACS) stated that the IARC classification means that there could be some cancer risk associated with radiofrequency radiation, but the evidence is not strong enough to be considered causal and needs to be investigated further. Individuals who are concerned about radiofrequency radiation exposure can limit their exposure, including using an earpiece and limiting cell phone use, particularly among children.
In 2018, the ACS issued a statement on the draft NTP reports noting that the findings were still inconclusive, and that, so far, a higher cancer risk in people has not been seen, but that people who are concerned should wear an earpiece when using a cell phone.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) states that the weight of the current scientific evidence has not conclusively linked cell phone use with any adverse health problems, but more research is needed.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that studies reporting biological changes associated with radiofrequency radiation have failed to be replicated and that the majority of human epidemiologic studies have failed to show a relationship between exposure to radiofrequency radiation from cell phones and health problems. The FDA, which originally nominated this exposure for review by the NTP in 1999, issued a statement on the draft NTP reports released in February 2018, saying “based on this current information, we believe the current safety limits for cell phones are acceptable for protecting the public health.” FDA and the Federal Communications Commission share responsibility for regulating cell phone technologies.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that no scientific evidence definitively answers whether cell phone use causes cancer.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) concludes that currently no scientific evidence establishes a definite link between wireless device use and cancer or other illnesses.
In 2015, the European Commission Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks concluded that, overall, the epidemiologic studies on cell phone radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation exposure do not show an increased risk of brain tumors or of other cancers of the head and neck region (2). The Committee also stated that epidemiologic studies do not indicate increased risk for other malignant diseases, including childhood cancer (2).
California Department of Public Health:
Berkeley, California, to Require Cellphone Health Warnings: “The Federal Communication Commission recommends keeping your phone 5 to 25 millimeters away, depending on the model, to limit radio frequency (RF) exposure to safe levels….'If you carry or use your phone in a pants or shirt pocket or tucked into a bra when the phone is ON and connected to a wireless network, you may exceed the federal guidelines for exposure to RF [radio frequency] radiation," the Berkeley safety notice reads. "This potential risk is greater for children. Refer to the instructions in your phone or user manual for information about how to use your phone safely.’”
AAP Healthy Children.org Cell Phone Radiation & Children's Health: What Parents Need to Know
AAP responds to study showing a link between cell phone radiation, tumors in rats May 27, 2016
Environmental Health Trust - Overview of AAP Recommendations