Can your smartphone make you sick?

Does our ever-growing affinity for mobile devices constitute actual addiction? Science-ish investigates

A dim view of movie texting

A dim view of movie texting

Last year, over a midsummer’s supper, Science-ish had a conversation with a prescient friend. As our smartphones buzzed on the table, she expressed a worry that these omnipresent devices were becoming a public health hazard. “People are addicted,” she said, noting they not only disrupt our dinners, but our work, sleep, and sex lives, too. “It’s like the early days of smoking: a total free-for-all.” Known to soapbox about modern problems, she called for an Emily Post 2.0 to step up and establish some social norms. Until then, she vowed to go back to a no-frills mobile phone that could only be used for calling and texting.

Tellingly, a year later, she hasn’t quit her smartphone. But the signs of social and cultural disruption are now as ubiquitous as the devices themselves. You’ve surely seen co-workers so distracted they miss their floor on the elevator, people at bus stops so engrossed they scarcely notice the world passing by, and strangers holding up the line at the grocery store or bumping into each other on the street—all because the lure of the glowing screen outweighs quotidian interactions. Perhaps you are one of these people, and have asked yourself: If there were smartphones in 1989 Berlin, would anyone have noticed the wall coming down (that is, if the event wasn’t broadcast on a mobile device).

As companies—even in Silicon Valley—encourage workers to silence their smartphones, Science-ish wondered what that means for the rest of us and about the science behind these decisions. Are smartphones bad for our health?

In a headline that reads like an Onion outtake, South Korean researchers proposed the “Development and Validation of a Smartphone Addiction Scale (SAS).” But the science about our relationship with the Web and these devices is so embryonic and contradictory, the psychological community can’t agree on whether it  can constitute actual addiction.

Still, some of the new studies related to Internet and smartphone addiction are pretty interesting. In one recent paper—based on data from Finland and the US—the authors found that people form “checking habits” with their smartphones, repeatedly popping open email, app, or text screens for less than 30 seconds multiple times a day, and then putting them away. Sound familiar?

The lead author, Dr. Antti Oulasvirta of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, told Science-ish, “Some but not all signs of a clinical addiction were there, so our conclusion was that checking habits are more like a nuisance than a real problem.” Still, he noted, it may just be that his sample population was biased and that we need further study. “A key question is to what extent people can regulate their habits with smartphones if they decide to do so, versus to what extent they are victims of the ‘automaticity of behaviour’ associated with habits.” This, we don’t yet understand.

Dr. Oulasvirta’s had some simple advice: People should try to be mindful about how often they are checking their smartphones, and the size of the return on all that time spent. “If, most of the time, you don’t get anything interesting but end up wandering between applications and sites, that’s a signal that you’re checking the phone maybe a tad too often.”

Another study, published in the journal Psychological Science, looked at how often more than 10,000  participants experienced various desires, how often they tried to resist conflicting desires, and how successful they were in that fight. The researchers found that, relative to cigarettes and alcohol, social media and email were actually more irresistible.

There are the well-known public-health hazards of walking across streets or driving while using a mobile. There is also an emerging science on how dirty smartphones can get— little bacteria ‘art projects‘ if you will—which is of particular interest to those who bring them into hospitals and operating rooms.

One area where the evidence is quite robust relates to how smartphones impact our sleep. Last year, the American Medical Association adopted a new policy on the “adverse health effects of nighttime lighting” in recognition of the fact that exposure to bright light before bed messes with people’s slumber. Dr. Russell Sanna, of Harvard Medical School’s division of sleep medicine, explained to Science-ish, “The light emanating from these screens is in the blue spectrum. In terms of our biology and circadian clock, light is the strongest biological clue, and blue light—the colour of the sky—is the highest alerting factor, telling you to wake up.” This is particularly troubling, since many people sleep with or near their mobiles, surfing the Web and sending emails from bed.

Interestingly, private businesses—not public health agencies—are stepping in and encouraging people to disconnect. A lot of the science about the impact of these devices is coming from consultancy reports, too. That’s because businesses stand to gain the most from awake and focused employees. Take, for example, Sleeping With Your Smartphone, a recently published book by Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow. She was hired by the Boston Consulting Group to figure out why the company had a retention issue, and found that part of the problem was the burden of hyperconnectivity. The firm introduced new rules about staying offline for a night every week, and retention rates improved.

Dr. Sanna remembers when he was growing up, and the national anthem came on the TV at midnight signalling it was time to go to bed. “We need to recreate that,” he said. “Within my lifetime, it was once normal to sit around a business meeting and smoke and have three martini glasses. Now those things don’t happen.” Even with our own recognition about compulsive smartphone behaviours, it’ll take an Emily Post rewiring of social norms and work-life expectations to bring change. “The science,” said Dr. Sanna, “is about a century ahead of the cultural shift.”

Science-ish is a joint project of Maclean’s, the Medical Post and the McMaster Health ForumJulia Belluz is the senior editor at the Medical Post. Got a tip? Message her at [email protected] or @juliaoftoronto on Twitter.