Why your tech is a pain in your neck. And back. And eyes

All those blinky, flashy, beepy screens keep you connected at your body's expense. Here's why it's time to cut back.

Josh Miller/CNET
Michael Dziekan

For an uninterrupted hour every week, Susan Friedman stashes her smartphone in a locker and turns her full attention to a different screen. On her spin-class bike, only the control panel matters, and physical discomfort comes from exhausted, burning quads -- not neck or eye strain.

For Friedman, a 35-year-old attorney in Los Angeles, spin class isn't just about getting strong. It's also about staying sane and pain-free. Like many of us, Friedman works up to 70 hours a week from her desktop, laptop and smartphone -- and being always online exacts a physical and psychological toll. By sidelining her phone for an hour, Friedman gives her mind a rare break from workplace and social pressure, while letting her body repair.

"I carry my stress in my shoulders," Friedman says. "So I'm always tense. My eyes will start fluttering, and I can't tell what I'm reading. I get headaches from the eyestrain."

Sound familiar? Neck aches. Sore back. Eyestrain. Thumb strain. Poor sleep. Lack of focus. These are all well-documented symptoms of our digital age, and sure signs that the screens that enrich our lives often overload our brains and bodies, too. In the short term, too much screen time can leave you sore and stressed. But in the long term, using laptops, phones and tablets all day can lead to chronic pain and possibly blunted long-term memory, not to mention a habitual dependence on being constantly connected -- and anxious when you're not.

Body blitz

People who work from digital screens for more than four consecutive hours a day are at higher risk for both short-term and chronic pain. Bad posture is to blame, mostly from slouching, a misaligned spine and looking down.

"Think of the spine as a system that takes the stresses of the body and distributes the force evenly," explains Andrew Lui, a clinical professor of physical therapy and rehabilitation science at the University of California, San Francisco. Bending one part of your spine applies greater pressure to other parts.

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Smartphone use is especially harmful, Lui adds, because craning to read a smaller screen amplifies the pressure on your neck -- as much as 60 pounds of force, according to a computer model created by spinal surgeon Kenneth Hansraj of New York Spine Surgery & Rehabilitation Medicine in Poughkeepsie, New York.

"Damage" and "pain" may sound abstract, but misalignment can lead to herniated disks and pulled or torn muscles. Ligaments and tendons can fray from overuse, and spinal nerves can pinch. And don't forget upper and lower back pain, headaches, stiff neck and repetitive stress injuries to hands, fingers and elbows.

"I get worried about people using cell phones," Lui says, noting that our opposable thumbs -- which don't just bend and straighten, but also circle -- are more vulnerable to overuse, particularly at the joint at the thumb's base. Mobile gaming, which relies on longer periods of intense, repetitive action, increases this risk.

Small-size screen font exacerbates posture problems and strained eyes. When you're absorbed by digital work, you'll automatically scrunch and hunch to read the screen. By the same token, your small eye muscles contract more and blink less, which can dry out your peepers and pile on the muscle tension.

"The body contorts itself to accommodate the eyes," explains Jeff Hopkins, a senior manager with Zeiss, an optics company that sells special glasses for computer users.

Given enough time and rest, your body can usually work out the kinks. Ease up on forceful typing for a few days, and sore fingers will start feeling better. But continue the abuse, or add an hour to an already long day of digital use, and recurring physical problems begin to mount.

Messing with the mind

It's not just your body that device dependence disrupts -- your mind is affected, as well. Constant attention to media like email and social network updates can curb your ability to process and retain information. Anthony Wagner, a Stanford University professor of psychology and neurology, observed in a study that heavy multitaskers found it harder to ignore irrelevant information when performing a single mental task. Instead of blocking out distractions, they responded to more of them, like the chime of an incoming text.

Playing games like Super Mario Run can tire your twiddlers fast.

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Wagner says brains don't really multitask; they switch from one activity to another. That switch comes at a cost. "You're slower to perform a task by switching than by focusing on it intently."

The heavy media multitaskers Wagner tested either remembered less new information or couldn't recall it as precisely as those who multitasked less. While that doesn't raise flags in the day-to-day, a hampered ability to create strong new memories points to a smaller memory capacity down the road. To test this, Wagner and his team will image the parts of the brain that are responsible for memory, comparing the mental activity of light multitaskers with those who hop around.

Beyond possibly affecting concentration and long-term memory, numerous studies agree that late-night screen time stifles the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates your sleep cycle. Exposure to green and blue light before bedtime is especially harmful, Harvard researchers have found, with your gadget's blue-tone glow suppressing melatonin twice as long as green light. Less melatonin leads to less sleep, which can eventually cause depression, obesity and diabetes, compromised immune response, impaired memory recall and cardiovascular problems.

So, apart from taking periodic breaks -- and using your device's orange-hued nighttime mode -- what's a modern technologist to do? For some, the answer is to create spaces devoid of gadget use altogether, at least for a few hours at a time.

No-tech zones

One such space is Chicago's popular bar The Violet Hour. Framed in the hallway, a sign proclaims the speakeasy's house rules. Rule No. 1: "No cell phone use inside lounge." (For the record, rule 14 is "No Cosmopolitans.") It's a simple edict designed to keep the bar's atmosphere intimate and focused solely on classy cocktails and companionship, not on screens.

"The concept of the program is that there wouldn't be any TV, no distraction," explains Eden Laurin, The Violet Hour's managing partner. Laurin, who joined the bar in 2008, says that the posted etiquette has received some backlash in the last five years as smartphone use has ballooned, but it hasn't kept customers from forming lines that stretch down the block. Instead, the clientele accepts and even appreciates the excuse to shut down.

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Check in your laptops and phones when you get to Camp Grounded.

Camp Grounded

"It seems to me there's a sense of relief to take a break from technology," Laurin says. Although The Violet Hour won't evict patrons for posting photos of their drinks to social networks, customers quickly put their phones away.

Phones aren't even allowed at Camp Grounded, a no-tech summer camp for grownups that runs in multiple cities around the globe. Still, technology plays a large role. Founder Levi Felix, a former creative director at a tech startup, deliberately fills the camp with physical versions of everyday technology in order to help overworked adults rethink their "need" for gadgets and the Internet.

One example is the ersatz inbox, a cubbyhole for paper messages. Campers who repeatedly check their cubbies are encouraged to ask themselves: "Why do I check the inbox? Am I looking for community? Am I ever really fulfilled?"

In San Antonio, Texas, chef Michael Sohocki's Restaurant Gwendolyn takes a different approach to breaking away from tech. Guests can text and post with abandon, but everyone who steps inside knows that their upscale dinner was made with 19th century techniques -- a fact that draws attention to our modern reliance on laptops and phones. Sohocki uses technology no more recent than May 10, 1869, the date the final spike was driven into the transcontinental railroad. Here, coffee is made with a siphon and gas flame. Preparing cream cheese takes three days.

For Sohocki, cutting modern kitchen technology is more about respecting historical traditions than it is about tuning out the digital world -- though there's some of that, too. True, social networks help promote his restaurant and he uses YouTube to learn new butchering techniques. But relying on gadgets like fancy sous vide machines and even blenders makes us forget that eating and living are hard work.

"When you make food from scratch in the absence of technological advancements," Sohocki says, "then the food contains strong meaning."

Read more about these no-tech zones.

Balancing on the edge

Nobody is suggesting we quit our screens completely, just that we tend to our mental and physical health and pare back when connecting isn't crucial. Susan Friedman, the Los Angeles lawyer, strives for balance. She consciously stretches at work to help keep her shoulders from tensing and ditches her phone when she can.

"You have to set aside time for yourself that no one can interrupt," she says. "You've got to take control of your technology, rather than let it take control of you."

This story originally appeared in CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.

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