By now, most people have a smartphone. You might not have the latest, greatest iPhone, but you probably have something that can access the internet and stores apps. But do you know what it’s doing to your health? For better or worse, it’s having an effect.
Smartphone Ownership on the Rise
The Pew Research Center has done a phenomenal job of tracking data on mobile devices and smartphones over the past 15-plus years. What they’ve discovered is that ownership and dependence on these devices continues to increase as the years go by.
In their most recent 2018 Mobile Fact Sheet, Pew Research Center found that 95 percent of Americans now own a cellphone, with 77 percent owning a smartphone of some kind. That latter statistic is up from just 35 percent in 2011.
While smartphone ownership rates are high across all demographics, they’re particularly robust in Americans under the age of 50. Approximately 94 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 have a smartphone, while 89 percent of those in the 30 to 49-age bracket are smartphone owners.
It’s also interesting to note that just over one-in-ten American adults are classified as “smartphone-only” internet users. In other words, they don’t own a personal computer or traditional home broadband service. They rely 100 percent on their smartphone and data plan for access to the web.
Positive Impact of Smartphones on Our Health
When you hear the term “smartphone dependency,” what comes to mind? Most people have been programmed to think that dependence on these devices only yields negative results. And while it certainly produces a number of negative outcomes – and we’ll touch on a handful of these in the following section – there are also some potential positives.
Let’s take a look at two of these value points.
- Predicting Personal Health Issues
Most people are acutely aware of their bodies and can tell when something is wrong with their physical health. Mental health issues, on the other hand, often go undetected by the individual and must be identified by someone else.
Could smartphones, which are the primary connection point to social media, be the answer to spotting mental health issues?
According to DentalSave, “Leaders at Facebook have developed artificial intelligence that scans posts and videos to find evidence of changes in mental health. For instance, if a person’s account receives several comments asking things like ‘Are you okay’ and ‘Do you need any help,’ Facebook’s AI may determine that the person is living through a difficult period.”
This AI technology is still quite new, but Facebook may eventually be able to send messages to users, or encourage them to call helplines in certain scenarios.
- Identifying Disease Outbreaks
Speaking of social media, researchers and epidemiologists believe they’re making progress in how they use data and can now do a reasonably good job of tracking disease outbreaks using things like social posts, keyword searches, and other data.
“Having these types of clues can help government agencies, and independent epidemiologists, understand how to allocate resources necessary for fighting and preventing illness and disease,” Health Administration Degrees explains.
In this sense, smartphone usage could actually lead to better localized care during health scares – such as flu season.
“There’s a lot of opportunity, but there’s challenges as well, and I think that’s where a lot of the science could be focused,” says Rumi Chunara, an NYU computer sciences and engineering professor who is currently running a project that hopes to improve the ability to assess the spread of viruses and disease remotely. The key is to find a way to reduce noise and inaccuracies, while complimenting the clinical data doctors and scientists already have.
Negative Impact of Smartphones on Our Health
Now that we’ve unpacked some of the little-known positives, let’s turn the focus towards two potentially negative impacts smartphones are having on our health.
- Distracted Living
Let’s be real: smartphones are a distraction. We’re constantly using them, checking them, or looking for them. And in this sense, they’re a huge distraction from what’s actually happening in the real world.
Distracted driving is the most obvious issue, but millions of Americans are also distracting themselves from their jobs, relationships, and responsibilities.
Next time you’re in a crowded public space – such as a coffee shop, subway station, waiting room, or shopping mall – make a mental note of how many people are looking down at a smartphone and how many are interacting with the people around them. Don’t be shocked if the former outnumbers the latter.
- Digital Amnesia
Cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab has coined the term “digital amnesia,” which they use to describe society’s growing dependence on digital technology for memory. Their research shows that 91 percent of Americans aged 16 to 55 admit to using their smartphones as an extension of their brains, while 44 percent say their smartphones serve as their memories.
“Memory is highly capacity-limited,” says Dr. Nathan Rose, assistant professor of cognition, brain, and behavior at the University of Notre Dame’s psychology department. “There’s only so much information we can attend to at any given time. We’re constantly turning to outside devices to kind of supplement this limitation.”
In fact, many Americans are so far along this path that, in order to reverse the effects of digital amnesia, people will have to retrain the way their brains think, process, and store information. This could take years and, in all likelihood, isn’t something that most are going to bother to do.
Smartphones Aren’t Going Away
Here’s the thing: smartphones aren’t going anywhere. While the actual physical devices and software inside of these devices will probably change rather dramatically over the next couple of decades, it’s hard to imagine any scenario in which we don’t have ubiquitous access to the internet in our pockets at all times. There’s no turning back.
Understanding this, it’s imperative that we, as a society, look for ways to exploit the advantages and suppress the negatives. Only then can we truly prioritize our health and well-being.
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