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Is Technology Damaging your Health?

Are we too cavalier with the health risks caused by our devices?

By James Nunns

Over three quarters of young Britons listen to mobile devices above the volume warning, according to recent research. It may not have required a survey – anyone who’s been stuck next to someone on a train with their headphones blasting will recognise the trend, which is probably timeless.

But with the UK most likely among its European counterparts to crank the volume up to 11 and cause lasting damage to their hearing, according to Cochlear’s State of Hearing report – which surveyed 7,000 people across Europe – it begs the question: are we too cavalier with the health risks caused by our devices?

Computer Business Review had a look at three common culprits.


Smartphones and Memory

A growing body of peer-reviewed research highlights negative correlation between smartphone use and mental function; particularly memory. With a universe of answers to any question of your choosing available at the click of a button, this is causing what has been described as “digital amnesia”.

As Dr Maria Wimber, a lecturer from University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology, told the IB Times: “Our brain appears to strengthen a memory each time we recall it, and at the same time forget irrelevant memories that are distracting us. Past research has repeatedly demonstrated that actively recalling information is a very efficient way to create a permanent memory,”.

They are also highly distracting: research at the University of Texas in 2017, for example, concluded that the “the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity”, even if they are switched off. Computer Business Review recommends fighting back by parking the phone for a minute and settling down with a good book.

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Jonathan Spence’s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci might be a good start. The fascinating biography of a Jesuit priest in Ming dynasty China, it describes the mnemonic techniques he used to help a patron’s sons prepare for the notoriously demanding civil service examinations. In it, Spence describes Ricci’s metaphor of a “memory palace” for the storing of knowledge in a Chinese language treatise that was widely circulated among China’s elite.


Sitting and Obesity

It may be a bit rich to blame technology for a sedentary population; but then again, perhaps not. Television, computers; you name it, if it has a screen we’re largely sitting in front of it. And there’s no assuaging the guilt by running round the block at lunch: sitting for excessively long periods of time is a risk factor for early death, a study published Monday in Annals of Internal Medicine found, irrespective of how much you exercise. (The study of nearly 8,000 adults found that as your total sitting time increases, so does your risk of an early death.)

Tackling this doesn’t necessarily require abandoning your screen. It does, perhaps, mean the need for a widespread cultural shift in how offices are furnished. More standing desks are the obvious answer; or are they? A new study, published in the journal Ergonomics, has linked prolonged use of standing desks with lower limb discomfort and deteriorating mental reactiveness. The sample size (20) was admittedly small – and the study did find that their use improved creative decision making – but they are clearly no panacea.

Kneeling chairs come off better: they’ve been found to improve lumbar curvature.  But ultimately, the best bet is – strange looks notwithstanding – to get up and walk around every 30 minutes. Standing meetings might also be an easy win: M&S Chairman and former ITV Chairman Archie Norman is reputedly a big fan. The attraction is obvious: meetings are likely to be shorter, sharper and sweeter. And, of course, better for your health.


MP3s and Headphones

There are more than 11 million people in the UK with some form of hearing loss, or one in six of the population. According to new figures from The World Health Organization it is estimated that this will rise to 15.6 million – or one in five – by 2035.

“We know hearing loss can affect people’s relationships, education and work, and mental health. We should also consider the future because new challenges will arise as our world changes. For example, hearing will matter more than ever in a world increasingly built around voice and sound. We only need to look at the rising popularity of devices such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home, and appliances like TVs and refrigerators that now have virtual assistants built into them, to see what challenges this could create for a hearing-impaired population,” said Stuart Thomas, General Manager UK at Cochlear.

Two-thirds (67%) of UK respondents believe there is some barrier to protecting their hearing more – from not knowing where to seek out a test or fearing what they might discover after visiting a medical professional.

“There are simple, common sense ways to protect your hearing in everyday life. Lowering the volume on personal devices, and taking protective measures at concerts or events or when mowing the lawn are all steps in the right direction. Those who are concerned with their, a friend’s or loved one’s hearing should seek out a healthcare professional,” said Mr. Thomas.

Try not, in short, to go all Spinal Tap and turn it up to 11.

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