Are smartphones and online technologies threatening our health?

Customers seated in a sluggish queue waiting to be served at a bank, recently got irritated and started shouting to get the attention of a youngman, who had failed to move with the queue because he was busy with his smartphone.

It was early morning and banking services appeared to be slow at this bank, situated along the  streets  of the Accra Shopping Mall – Spintex road, which is fast becoming one of the business hubs in the Greater Accra region, as quite a number of businesses and banks keep springing up along that stretch.

What was irritating to some of these customers was that the youngman, with his money to be deposited at the bank placed on the floor in a polythene bag, was too busy with his fingers and eyes on his smartphone and did not seem bothered about the slow moving queue or the time spent waiting.

The scene at the bank is a familiar one. Some individuals, especially young people, appear to be under the influence of smartphones, regardless of whether they are walking or crossing a busy street or carrying out other important task.

The use of new technologies, such as smartphones at home, the workplace, church meetings and other events have become addictive and tend to interrupt busy schedules and activities.


Technology has taken centre stage in everyday life and activities and transformed how people live and communicate with each other. The world of work has been totally transformed by technology and ICT with people transacting business and working from virtual offices.

A World Bank statement five years ago indicated that ICTs are creating new jobs and making the labour markets more innovative, inclusive, and global.

The statement, focusing on a new policy note by the Bank, quoted Chris Vein, World Bank Chief Innovation Officer for Global ICT Development, as saying that “ICTs are influencing employment both as an industry that creates jobs and as a tool that empowers workers to access new forms of work, in new and more flexible ways.”

The policy note, “Connecting to Work:  How Information and Communication Technologies Could Help Expand Employment Opportunities,”  had stated that with new technology there is greater connectivity with more than 120 countries having over 80 percent market penetration of mobile telephones.

It said the mobile phone applications industry has created new opportunities for small and medium sized enterprises with a firm that provides a digital application to the Apple app store, for example, gaining access to over 500 million app store account holders.

According to the World Bank, ICT  was connecting people to jobs with online employment marketplaces helping an estimated 12 million people worldwide find work by connecting them with employers, globally.

The benefits of technology are enormous. However, health experts are beginning to get worried. Some of these experts are raising issues over the public health implications and the addictive use of the internet, smartphones and other technologies.

The concern for others is that these technologies are not only having a controlling and disruptive effect but they tend to get priority attention over other important tasks.

Health implications

There are debates that some individuals are dropping sleep in favour of spending long hours chatting or connecting through their smartphones, lap tops and other new technologies.

But should sound or sufficient sleep become less and less important or attractive in this age of smartphones, apps and other technologies?

The lack of good sleep is said to have some serious public health implications, which cannot be overlooked.

The Washington Post, in a January 2019, article titled: “Go to bed! Brain researchers warn that lack of sleep is a public health crisis,” brought to fore some conclusions from research work on the health implications of having little time to sleep.

The article said a growing number of scientists are cautioning that the lack of sleep is a simmering public health crisis that needs urgent attention.

“ An alarming new line of research suggests poor sleep may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, as even a single night of sleep deprivation boosts brain levels of the proteins that form toxic clumps in Alzheimer’s patients.

Quoting Daniel Buysse, a professor of sleep medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, the article said: “it used to be popular for people to say, ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead.’ The ironic thing is, not sleeping enough may get you there sooner,” the article added.

There are more questions however beyond just new technologies keeping people awake.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), in collaboration with other stakeholders, has had reason to examine other health threats associated with the use of technologies, especially mobile phones.

In responding to specific concerns under the broad topic: “what are the health risks associated with mobile phones and their base stations,” the WHO in a 2013  question and answer document, noted that given the “immense number of people who use mobile phones, even a small increase in the incidence of adverse effects on health could have major public health implications.”

The global body touched on concerns between these phones and areas such as cancer, electromagnetic interference and traffic accidents.

It said studies had so far not provided indication that environmental exposure to radiofrequency (RF) fields, such as from base stations, increases the risk of cancer or any other disease.

Other conclusions were that while “an increased risk of brain tumours from the use of mobile phones is not established, the increasing use of mobile phones and the lack of data for mobile phone use over time, periods longer than 15 years, warrant further research of mobile phone use and brain cancer risk.”

“In particular, with the recent popularity of mobile phone use among younger people, and therefore a potentially longer lifetime of exposure, WHO has promoted further research on this group and assessing the health impact of RF fields on all studied endpoints, ” the document added.

It said research had, however, shown an increased risk of traffic accidents with some three to four times greater chance of an accident, when mobile phones (either handheld or with a “hands-free” kit) are used while driving due to distraction.

In 2014, the WHO further put out some statements on electromagnetic fields and the public health implication of mobile phone use.

It noted that mobile phone use is ubiquitous with an estimated 6.9 billion subscriptions globally and that the electromagnetic fields produced by mobile phones are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly carcinogenic to humans.

It noted however that studies are still being carried out “to more fully assess potential long-term effects of mobile phone use.”

Research and Discussions

With some reassuring words, the WHO said a large number of studies have been performed over the last two decades to assess whether mobile phones pose a potential health risk and that, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.

The WHO established the International Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) Project in  1996 to assess the scientific evidence of possible adverse health effects from electromagnetic fields.

With all the concerns being raised over the use of new technologies, a collaborative meeting was held in Tokyo to assess the public health implications of excessive use of the internet, computers, smartphones and similar electronic devices

The Tokyo meeting report, later published by the WHO in 2015, stated that the meeting was organized to discuss the public health implications of excessive use of the internet, computers, smartphones and other electronic devices in the context of “behavioural addictions” associated with such excessive use.

According to the report, the rising popularity and “use of the internet and electronic devices has seen an increasing clinical, research and media focus on health problems associated with excessive use.”

The report said harmful use of the internet and modern technologies can relate to a wide range of products and services.

“These include older types of electronic screen products such as televisions and videos, as well as newer electronic screen products such as computers, smartphones, video game devices and e-books.”

During the meeting at Tokyo, the report stated that individuals with excessive use of the internet have comorbid psychopathology.

It said in addition to comorbidity with psychiatric conditions, excessive use of the internet and electronic devices typically presents itself together with other physical and psychosocial problems, such as back pain, social withdrawal, sleep deprivation and low self-esteem.

Other were  linked to sedentary lifestyle through excessive screen time associated with snacking and poor diet, decreased sleep time, insufficient physical fitness, headache, blurred vision and even double vision.

It also noted that electronic devices with audio entertainment functions can typically “generate harmful levels of sound, which can be linked to permanent hearing damage”

Adding that the issue of mobile electronic devices, such as smartphones, commonly used while doing other tasks, could make the user more “prone to injuries and accidents.”

The meeting however concluded that the “review of available evidence on internet use disorders and excessive use of the internet and electronic devices identified important gaps to be filled in coming years.

It is not surprising that the theme chosen for the commemoration of the 2018 World Mental Health Day focused on young people and mental health in a changing world, with some experts expressing concerns over the impact of new technologies on young people and their mental health.

This young group is in constant online communications searching for identity, self-esteem and acceptance, among others, predisposing them to many mental health challenges.

Last year, in an article titled: “Are our smartphones affecting our mental health,” the WHO office in China noted that: “For many of us in 2018 our smartphone feels like an extension of our body, permanently affixed to our hand like an extra appendage. It’s the first thing we look at when we wake up and the last thing before we go to sleep.”

The article questioned if addiction to these technologies can be classified as a mental disorder and if there is enough scientific evidence to know exactly how the “excessive use of electronic devices is affecting our health?”

It noted that the use of smartphones, the internet, and other electronic devices has dramatically increased in recent decades, with China now having the largest internet market in the world.

Adding that more than half of China’s population is connected to the internet and more than 90% of them access the Web by smartphone.

The article was quick to add that it is also important that “we remember the positive role such technologies can have in our lives. From mindfulness apps or health trackers, to the monitoring of disease treatment for conditions such as diabetes, or apps that help us track our medication….”

There is no doubt that new technologies are becoming very helpful but there is the need for more debates, research and discussions to ensure that modern day technologies remain good servants providing very useful services.

Otherwise online technologies could become tyrants controlling and determining the health outcomes of their human masters.

By Eunice Menka

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