How too much technology affects health and well-being

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Most of us spend a large portion of our time on computers during the workday, check personal messages and social media on our smartphones during breaks, then sit in front of the television after dinner catching up on our favorite shows. On weekends, it’s more television, social media, e-readers and internet browsing. According to a Nielsen company study released in June, on average, U.S. adults spend nearly 11 hours per day in front of a screen.
 
The jury is still out on what the “average recommended daily allowance” for adult screen time should be, but numerous studies reveal a range of negative physical, mental, and social ramifications from too much screen time. This is an important issue for employers, including municipalities, as we work to ensure that employees are happy, healthy and productive.
 
Physical health
Eyesight is perhaps the most obvious area where screen time can have an impact on health. According to The Vision Council, the blue light emitted by most backlit screens can cause irritation, dryness and even long-term damage to the retina. The blue light has also been shown to suppress melatonin, the sleep hormone, which can lead to disrupted sleep patterns and even more eyestrain.
 
The National Eye Institute reports that more people in recent generations have myopia (nearsightedness), and by 2030 about 40 percent of all Americans are expected to be nearsighted.
 
Headaches and neck pain are also associated with too much time sitting at a computer. Experiencing any of these issues affects concentration, focus and productivity.
 
Too much time on electronics typically means more time sitting, and a more sedentary lifestyle is clearly linked to higher incidences of metabolic syndrome – the name for a group of risk factors that raises the risk for heart disease and other health problems, such as diabetes and stroke. One recent study shows a direct connection between screen time and metabolic syndrome in adolescents, even when they engaged in physical activity after the fact.
 
The long-running Nurses’ Health Study of middle-aged women shows that for every two hours spent watching TV, the risk of diabetes rises by 20 percent, heart disease by 15 percent, and early death by 13 percent.
 
Many studies correlate TV watching with higher calorie intake, and all of the food and snack marketing doesn’t help. Sedentary lifestyle and obesity are high health insurance cost drivers for municipalities.
 
Cognitive and mental health
Too much screen time also affects us neurologically. A 2012 study found that internet addiction is associated with “structural and functional changes in brain regions involving emotional processing, executive attention, decision making, and cognitive control.”
 
Even while not technically an addiction, too much screen time can create subtle damage. Multiple studies related to gaming addictions show that gray matter actually shrinks in users, particularly in the frontal lobe region. In general (outside of gaming), “excessive screen time appears to impair brain structure and function,” according to a 2014 article in Psychology Today.
 
Screen time, particularly with children, has been connected with dopamine release – or alterations to the brain’s reward pathways – which over time can lead to dopamine sensitivity and negatively impact behavior. Experts say that the effects of screen time on adults is similar, though they may be better able to cope and make behavior adjustments. In older adults, studies have shown that more time sitting or viewing TV raises the risk of memory problems and dementia.
 
From a social standpoint, too much screen time can make us feel depressed. For many years, sociologists have studied (and proven) that face-to-face personal interactions help us to stay happier – both with those we have close relationships with and with people we don’t know very well (e.g., those we encounter out running errands or acquaintances at work). The advent of social media has also affected how we feel about ourselves, with Facebook now being scientifically linked to depressive symptoms.
 
What we can do
Although computer usage in the workplace is essential for many and can’t be avoided for much of the day, there are steps we can take to reduce it and potentially mitigate some negative effects.
 
Managers can hold walking or active meetings at times if possible, and set an example by walking down the hall to touch base with nearby co-workers rather than emailing or calling. More face-to-face time means a happier (and potentially more productive) workplace.
 
Employers and managers can also consider adding free employee wellness programs that encourage movement, as well as those that teach disconnecting activities such as meditation. MIIA has recently launched a program challenging municipal employees in several communities to unplug (non-essential use) for a three-day period, known as a “digital detox.” The program aims to get participants off the phone and internet during off-work hours, and encourages them to engage in more mood-boosting, meaningful, and health-conscious activities such as reading, hobbies, playing with their children, and exercising.
 
Wendy Gammons is MIIA’s Wellness Coordinator.