By Dr Cesar Chelala
As computers and other electronic devices are becoming more widely used – particularly by young people – little consideration is normally given to the health risks they pose. This is a situation that has to change soon, to avoid unnecessary injuries and even serious health risks among people using them.
Desktops monitors and laptops can cause physical problems, particularly when their users are forced to bend their bodies to see the screens better. Neck or back pain caused by the strain can have serious health consequences. A 2007 study has found that chronic neck or back pain was the leading cause of missed work days in the US. The impact of this finding in the national economy should not be disregarded.
In addition to the risks posed by desktop computers and laptops, other electronic devices such as iPads, tablets and smart phones can alter sleep patterns in ways and to an extent that we had not realised so far. A study published in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences show that people using iPads for at least four hours before bedtime took longer to fall asleep than people who hadn’t used them.
In addition, iPad readers were sleepier and less alert the following morning. “It may be having a greater impact than we previously thought,” said Anne-Marie Chang, a professor at Pennsylvania State University. She was also a co-author of the study that was conducted at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
The negative effects were not limited to the iPads, however, since tablets, e-readers, smart phones, laptops and LED monitors that have similar blue-light emissions, produce similar effects. What makes the situation particularly serious is that the sleep loss could have long-term health consequences, such as increasing rates of obesity and diabetes. These negative effects are more frequently seen in students and youngsters, who are more prone to using these devices.
Other health effects of traditional PCs and the new touch-screen devices are motion injuries and eyestrain. Repetitive stress injuries (RSJs) are the result of repetitive movements which can affect joints, muscles, tendons and nerves and that can have long-term health consequences. The effects on the eyes, that some eye doctors call “computer vision syndrome” include eye pain, blurred vision and headaches.
People who frequently use their thumbs to type text messages on cell phones can develop a painful affliction called Quervain Syndrome that affects their tendons on their hands. The best known disease in this category is called Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, which results from pressure on the median nerve in the wrist.
What makes matters even more complicated is the fact that the generation of children and youngsters now growing up is becoming more used to juggling several interactive devices at the same time. Thus, they may be watching TV while at the same time they may be using iPads, smart phones, laptops and they may even be using laptops with hand-held gaming devices.
Television, in these cases, is used oftentimes as background entertainment, while people do something else. We have thus a new generation of youngsters who can no longer imagine a life without these wireless devices, and who are totally ignorant of their negative consequences.
Some research studies found that adults who have used mobile phones intensively for at least 10 years experience an increase in some kind of cancers, such as brain, salivary glands and even some rare eye cancers. There are also initial reports of women who have been diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer in the area of the breast where they stored their cell phone. Although some of these cancers could have occurred by chance, they may also be an early indicator of risk, a situation that deserves further research.
Perhaps the best way to avoid some of the negative effects of these devices is to use them in moderation and, when possible, to store them far away from the body. Parents have the responsibility of making their children aware of the dangers these devices pose for their health, and make sure that they are used judiciously. Many negative health risks could then be avoided.
Dr Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant for several UN agencies.