Recently, I’ve been struck by the number of people who mindlessly fiddle with their smartphones, literally in any context. This really hit home when the other day I was at a restaurant waiting area, and instead of families and friends talking to each other (which usually is the point of going to dinner), they were all on their phones. As I sat there, I observed a sad but poignant moment: a mother brushing off the questions of her 5-year-old daughter as she was completely engrossed in her email. While I walked to our table to be seated, I observed more of the same—people disconnected from each other, and fixated on their little screens.
Then I saw a commercial from the "Designed by Apple in California" campaign, showcasing a young woman on a road trip, extolling the virtues of the iPhone that had her completely absorbed and distracted from the actual, real-world experience of the trip. Her hair is blowing in the wind, the background is beautiful, and she’s more concerned about taking a picture to send to her 500-plus Facebook friends than with enjoying the moment.
As a psychiatrist and the founder of a Silicon Valley tech company, I find this type of technology habit both disturbing and curious. I fear that, in our effort to fully experience the promise of technology, we are overusing it and abusing our bodies and relationships in the process.
This is an inflection point for our society. We depend so desperately on technology to make our lives more efficient, and in many ways, it has. Yet these gadgets also control us, luring us back again and again to stare and interact with them. And that is not without consequences for our relationships and for our bodies.
Data is trickling out that reveals some of the harmful consequences of the way we use technology. Earlier this year, researchers from two German universities found that one in three visitors to Facebook leaves feeling envy, misery, or loneliness.
- 60% of respondents said they have experienced adverse health symptoms that they believe are tied to their use or overuse of technology or sitting at a desk.
- Eye strain (36%), back pain (30%), neck pain (27%), and headaches (24%) are the leading symptoms those surveyed feel are being caused by their use of technology.
- 44% of those surveyed said they have resorted to taking either over-the-counter or prescription medication in an effort to resolve their Silicon Valley Syndrome symptoms.
- But only 36% said they had actually reduced the amount of time they spent actually using technology to resolve their tech-related health issues.
Imagine 20 years from now: What could life look like? Even though humans evolved over millions of years to move and stay moving, many of us have now unfortunately diminished into sedentary creatures. This will lead to much more physical discomfort than we once experienced. Data from people wearing our LUMOback posture and movement device indicates that officer workers sit 6.2 hours out of a 9-to-5 workday on average. Sitting for more than 75% of the time while at work, sitting in the car while commuting, then sitting a few hours each night watching television means increased rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart attacks.
And that’s not to mention the pandemic-scale neck and upper back pain we’ll see from millions and millions of people having spent years constantly staring down at their screens.
Since we are all so involved with our technology, consider that many people will lose the ability to actually connect appropriately with people since they spend most of their time connecting with their devices. Maybe we’ll even lose the art of conversation. In short, we will have created a more disconnected, unsociable society, when in fact most people are striving for the opposite.
How do we fix this? In a word: awareness. Many of us don’t recognize the powerful habits we have created around technology—for example, using our phones as alarm clocks means inviting these devices into our beds as we keep checking emails and status updates, all while losing more sleep and potentially increasing our anxiety levels right at bedtime.
It is critical for each individual tech user to cultivate their own practice of awareness and discipline to prevent their lives from being overrun by technology. Ideally, we should have moment-to-moment awareness of how technology is invading and disrupting our lives at any given instant, a solution that isn't too much to ask unless you are a mindfulness master. Intermittent technology "detoxes" are appealing, but aren't always realistic, given work and home responsibilities.
With that said, utilizing technology to fight technology is a major potential solution. Let’s awaken ourselves back to a more mindful state when we have gone down our device rabbit hole; we can have a notification tell us we’ve been stationary for more than 30 minutes. Or a computer or phone generated sound to remind us to take a quick walk. Or a program that literally prohibits us from visiting ‘time suck’ sites.
This is happening now. Microsoft’s "Focus View," sites like KeepMeOut.com and mood tracking software already exist to promote focus and mindfulness, even while we are engaged in using tech. LUMOback uses tracking to give the body a voice and coach users to stand up, move more, and have correct posture during their desk-bound workdays.
We can reverse the emerging picture of society in which we’re all staring at screens, all the time. I have a vision for a world in which technological innovations help humanity evolve into a new generation of health that is facilitated by (not counteracted by) the smart use of technology. We all need to think about how simple personal practices and technology might be able to help cure the problems technology abuse is creating.