There are about 7.26 billion cell phone users around the world (1). There are over 31 million cell phone users in Canada and over 327 million in the United States (2). This means that there is a cell phone for almost every single person on the planet.
According to a 2014 survey, about a quarter of children in Canada get their first phone by age 9, and half of them by age 12 to 13 (3). Statistics are very similar in the United States and Europe (4, 5, 6, 7).
Tablets are required for school more and more. And with virtual and hybrid learning becoming common during the pandemic, children end up spending even more time on technology than ever before.
The average person touches their mobile devices 2,617 times a day (8). For some people, this number is a lot higher. These statistics, of course, don’t include laptop and computer use.
We are clearly connected to technology all the time. Is this a good thing? How do your smartphones and technology affect your health? What are the negative health effects of technology? And what can you do about it?
In this article, I will talk about the potentially negative health effects of technology, including your brain health, mental health, relationships, addictions, and sleep. I will offer some digital detox strategies to reduce your technology use and improve your health.
Your Brain on Smartphones: Negative Health Effects of Technology
One of the negative effects of technology, including smartphones, is related to your brain health.
Screens and Brain Development
Research suggests that digital devices may affect the development of your child’s brain. The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study published in Neuropharmacology Reviews looked at over 11,000 children’s brains who spent over 7 hours on digital screens (9). Researchers found that spending too much time on digital devices may result in premature thinning of the cortex of teh brain, where higher functions take place. They also found that over 2 hours on digital screens can reduce children’s language and learning skills.
Focus, Attention Span, and ADHD
According to a study by Microsoft, the attention span of the average Canadian has fallen from 12 to 8 seconds, which is less than the attention span of a goldfish (9 seconds) (10). A 2019 study published in PLoS One has found that digital screen-time is linked to inattention issues in preschoolers (11). A 2020 study published in the Italian Journal of Pediatrics has found that the more a child spends on screens, the more likely they will develop ADHD or other behavioral problems (12).
Stress, Email, and Overworking
Checking your email and working online can be a great source of stress. If you feel like you have to check your email, or respond to every message you get, you are not alone. A 2017 study published in the International Journal of Occupation and Environmental Health has found that increased use of devices may be linked to stress, mental health issues, and burnout (13). According to a 2021 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, high smartphone or technology use at night can lead to lower productivity and issues at work the next day (14).
Relying on your phone and other digital devices can lead to ‘mental laziness’. You don’t have to think deeply, look up information in a book, think conceptually, or contemplate ideas. Every answer is just a click away. According to a 2018 study published in Neuropsychologia, our brain is wired for laziness, which makes us even more susceptible to mental laziness and googling our way out of everything (15). This may be an even bigger issue for the younger generation that doesn’t know what life is like without information at their fingertips.
According to a 2021 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, youth in the United States spend about 7.5 hours each day multitasking on digital devices (16). Multitasking may sound like a good thing at first, but it is not when it comes to media multitasking. According to the study, multitasking on digital devices can lead to self-regulatory failure. Media multitasking can affect our attention, cognition, and brain health.
Digital Devices & Mental Health: Negative Mental Health Effects of Technology
Since digital devices affect your brain, it’s not surprising that there are some negative mental health effects of technology, including a risk for anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, social anxiety, and brain chemistry.
Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety and depression are on the rise, and digital devices may not be helping. A 2019 study published in BMC in Psychiatry has found a connection between smartphone use and depression (17). A 2020 study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry has also found a link between smartphone use, depression, and anxiety in young people (18).
Self-Esteem and Social Anxiety
Electronic devices, especially social media, are a constant source of comparison and impossible standards that can lead to low self-esteem and social anxiety. A 2020 study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry has also found a link between smartphone use and social anxiety in young people (18). A 2021 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health has linked the use of digital devices to an increased risk of social anxiety and trust issues (19). A 2020 study published in Nursing Open has found that 95.8% of nursing students reported addiction to their smartphones, and about one-third of them report low self-esteem and depression related symptoms (20).
Devices and Addictions
The constant stream of notifications, continuous scrolling, and the never-ending ‘fun’ on the internet can lead to technology cravings, dependency, and addictions. A 2020 study published in Nursing Open has found that 95.8% of nursing students reported smartphone addiction, which is probably not unusual in other groups either (20). A 2019 study published in BMC in Psychiatry has found a connection between smartphone use and addictions (17). A 2019 study published in Excli Journal has linked cell phone addiction to an increased risk of psychological health issues (21). In those who use technology primarily for video games, gaming disorder or an addiction to gaming is on the rise and can feel similar to substance addiction.
Smartphones and Brain Chemistry
Smartphones, social media, gaming, or internet addiction can also lead to brain chemistry issues. According to a 2017 study published by ScienceDaily, smartphone addiction can cause serious imbalances in your brain (22). It may disrupt your GABA and glutamate neurotransmitter levels and, as a result, increase the risk of depression and anxiety.
Devices and Your Relationships
Human relationships and social connections are essential for your mental and physical health. However, digital life can disrupt that. An increasing amount of our social interactions are happening online instead of in person. According to a 2015 study at Elon University, the face-to-face connection of students is impacted by digital devices (23). Students often use texting, FaceTime, and social media, and are generally immersed in the digital world even when face-to-face. Digital devices may reduce our ability to read nonverbal emotional cues or reduce our ability to connect intimately. Depending on the online activity, online addiction may also reduce our overall social connections, even those taking place online.
Sedentary Behavior, Obesity, and Disease Risk
It’s not surprising that the more time you spend on digital devices, the more likely you are to just spend time sitting around and staring at the screen instead of moving your body. According to a 2017 study published in Preventive Medicine Reports, spending too much time on screens can increase sedentary behavior in children (24). The same is true for adults, which increases our risk of obesity and disease. According to a 2012 study published in the Texas Heart Institute Journal, leading a sedentary lifestyle may increase the risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease (25).
Blue Light and Sleep
Too much time on digital screens can also affect your sleep. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care has found that using a smartphone close to bedtime can affect sleep quality (26). One major problem with digital devices is blue light exposure, which can disrupt your body’s internal clock and sleep rhythm by suppressing your sleep hormone, melatonin, and increasing a stress hormone, cortisol. A 2017 study at the University of Haifa has found that blue light emitted by screens can negatively impact your sleep, but the red light does not (27). If your sleep is interrupted, it can affect your energy, mood, memory, learning, and physical health.
Canadian 24 Hour Movement Guidelines
The Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines offer some great recommendations when it comes to sleep, physical activity, and screen time for children and youth (28).
Between ages 0 and 4, they recommend not being restrained in a high chair, stroller, or other sitting position for more than an hour per day. They recommend no screen time at all. They encourage reading and storytelling time with the caregiver instead.
Between 5 and 17, they recommend at least 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity per day. They also recommend several hours of unstructured or structured light physical activity. They recommend 9 to 11 hours of sleep between ages 5 and 13, and 8 to 10 hours between ages 14 and 17. They recommend no more than 2 hours of screen time per day for recreational use. Of course, when it comes to screens, the less is better.
Digital Detox Guidelines
Taking a long break from digital devices may be ideal, however, it’s not practical for most of us. This week, instead of staying away from tech use completely, you are simply reducing your phone use and internet time. My digital detox guideline offers some more attainable strategies for reducing your use of digital devices as much as possible and creating new, device-free, healthy habits instead. I recommend following these digital detox guidelines for 7 days.
Set a Digital Bedtime
Set a ‘bedtime’ not just for yourself but for your devices as well. Stop using all digital devices at least one hour before going to bed, ideally more. Your phone, tablet, or other devices should never enter your bedroom. If you must use your phone as your alarm clock, keep it out of arm’s length but still in earshot.
Designate Device-Free Activities
Designated device-free times and activities during the week. For example, no devices during meals is a great goal for your entire family. Staying away from checking your phone while cooking, exercising, working, or walking your dog is another attainable goal. Set your phone to do not disturb mode. If possible, leave your phone in another room or at home during the chosen tech-free activity.
Monitor Your Usage, Mindfully
Most phones have apps that can automatically track your smartphone use. You may also track it manually. Tracking your goal can help you see how much time you spend on your devices and what you do on them. This can help you identify areas that you may want to cut down on. Just 15 minutes less on social media can make a difference.
Identifying the reasons behind checking your phone, social media, or certain apps can identify areas that you may want to work on. Are you bored? Are you anxious? Are you lonely? Are you reaching for your phone out of habit? Depending on your answer, you may need to look for a new hobby, address anxiety, look for in-person social connections, or gradually create new habits.
Quiet or Quit Social Media
Ideally, you want to quit social media for 7 days completely. Removing social media apps from your phone completely is a consideration, or using an app that can block distracting websites for a certain period is an option. If you are unable to quit social media for any reason completely, I still recommend removing or blocking these apps on your smartphone, and only checking them on your laptop or computer when absolutely necessary. Setting a certain time period aside for social media may also help.
Tips for Digital Devices with Kids
Trying a digital detox can be difficult enough. Reducing your children’s social media use can be even more challenging.
Set Clear Boundaries
Telling your kids ‘less’ screen time means nothing and most likely won’t lead to real change. Setting clear boundaries and rules is more tangible. Adjust the rules as you need to depend on a specific household member, day, or device.
Set the Example
Leading by example is usually the best policy. If you have trouble sticking to your own rules, you may have to be honest with yourself and change them into more manageable ones. Talk to your kids honestly and let them know that you are in this together.
Don’t Make Devices a Reward
Don’t use screen time as a reward. ‘Getting through’ the digital detox shouldn’t mean that extra screen time is their reward. Choose another reward. Maybe they can pick out a new book or toy or you can plan a special activity with them instead.
Explain the Why
Explain the why behind this digital detox. Make sure that they know that this is not a punishment. Let them understand that though technology can be helpful and fun, constant connection and overuse are not good for them. There are so many fun things in life outside of screen time. Explain the benefits of using age-appropriate language. Make it into a fun challenge instead of a chore.
After the Detox: Post-Detox Tips
So what happens when you get through your digital detox protocol? Ideally, you won’t be going back to your old ways. What habits can you keep in your everyday life?
I recommend that you continue to keep at least an hour before bedtime device-free. Try unplugging for a period of time each day or at least a couple of times a week. I recommend keeping mealtimes device-free zones. You may want to try scheduling social media-free or device-free times. You may want to try to keep Sunday afternoons device-free times. And spend adequate time in nature and outdoors to offset any screen time hours.
Reflect on what you’ve learned and continue to stay mindful about your technology use. Remember, taking a break from technology is self-care.
I recommend becoming more mindful of the use of technology and trying my digital detox strategies. If you are dealing with chronic symptoms, health issues, or simply want to improve your health, wellness, and mental well-being, I welcome you to start a functional medicine consultation with me for further personalized guidance to improve your health. You may book your consultation here.