Electronic Devices and You: 3 Tech-Related Health Risks and How to Avoid Them

With the booming popularity of electronic devices, it's likely that you use one regularly. Whether you've got your cell phone attached to your ear for much of the day or are constantly typing on your laptop, you should be aware that certain health risks may come with all that efficiency. Here are some of the biggest problems encountered by heavy users of electronic devices....

1. Musculoskeletal Pain

One of the biggest issues seen with heavy electronic device use is musculoskeletal pain, as many people who’ve spent time hunched over a screen can attest. In fact, a recent study revealed that a significant percentage of device users report pain in various parts of their bodies as a result of their usage.

In a study of more than 1,000 adults and adolescent users of smartphones, desk computers, laptops, and tablets, researchers at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the Hong Kong Physiotherapy Association found that most of the adults used more than one device and spent lots of time on them each day. The results? A whopping 70 percent of the adults indicated that they had suffered neck pain, 65 percent said they had experienced shoulder pain, and 46 percent felt pain in their fingers and wrists. The children in the study fared somewhat better, but still suffered their share of misery: Close to 30 percent of them had experienced pain, mostly in the neck area (79 percent), the wrists and fingers (51 percent) and the shoulders (34 percent).

Why do regular users of smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop devices experience so much discomfort? The problem, explains Grace Szeto, PhD, associate professor at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the study's lead author, is static posture held for long periods of time, or lack of movement. "Prolonged flexion (bending) of the neck can lead to excessive strain of the neck and shoulder muscles," she says, describing the typical hunched-over posture of a device user. "The recommended posture is to keep [the] head upright and forearms supported." She suggests perching devices on a high desk or even a backpack (such as when traveling on a train or bus) in order to raise them up in front of you and reduce the need for you to strain your neck forward. Here are a few additional strategies for healthy, comfortable device use:

  • Alternate fingers when texting or playing games on your phone. "As multitouch devices are activated by very light touch, and people are performing very fast movements for thousands of times in texting or playing electronic games, they are subjecting the very small joints in the hand and the tendons [the tissue that connects muscle to bone] that glide over these joints to very high loads," says Szeto. Despite marketing ploys that make the idea of using just your thumb to accomplish a multitude of tasks sound efficient, the reality is that relying on a single digit can result in inflammation and pain.
  • Take a five- to 10-minute break every hour. Turn away from the screen, let go of phones, and stand up and stretch.
  • Limit your overall use of electronic device use. As research has demonstrated a link between time spent on devices and obesity, it's important to realize that the physical inactivity that accompanies device use can damage more than your muscles. Be sure your device use doesn’t mean you’re sedentary.

2. Impaired Fertility

If you're thinking about having a child any time soon, you may want to curtail your laptop use. A 2011 study conducted jointly by Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk and Nascentis Medicina Reproductiva, a group of reproductive specialists in Cordoba, Argentina, found that using Wi-Fi-connected laptops may affect sperm. Semen samples were taken from 29 healthy donors, with each sample divided into two parts. One part was placed under a Wi-Fi-connected laptop for several hours while the other part—kept at the same room temperature—was not exposed to any electronic devices. The researchers found that the sperm in the laptop-exposed sample displayed significantly less motility than those in the control samples. Motility refers to sperm's activity and movement, which is important because sperm must wriggle up the female reproductive tract in order to fertilize an egg. In addition, the laptop-exposed sperm had greater DNA fragmentation, which means that they were damaged in some way and could be less likely to fertilize an egg.

  • The bottom line? If you must be on your laptop regularly, move it away from your genitals and up onto a desk. Or at least don't use a Wi-Fi connection until more studies are done to examine the precise cause of sperm damage from laptops.

3. Sleep Problems

Bringing electronic devices into the bedroom, or even simply using them shortly before going to bed, can result in delayed or disrupted sleep. That’s because even the smallest devices emit light, which can fool the brain into thinking it's time to be awake. The Virginia-based National Sleep Foundation recently polled more than 1,100 adults about their families' sleep habits and found that children who keep smartphones and laptops powered up overnight in their bedrooms sleep less, on average, than those who keep them off or who remove them from their bedrooms entirely. The quality of these children’s sleep also was rated worse by parents.

  • To combat the sleep deprivation that electronics use can cause, it's recommended that parents restrict the use of computers and smart phones before bed. Even better, parents should make sure children get off their devices well before bedtime in order to allow their brains to get ready for sleep.

    Sleep problems related to electronic devices may not just affect children; the National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults who are having trouble sleeping follow the same routine and avoid using electronics late at night.

Grace Szeto, PhD, Conrado Avendaño, PhD, Scientific director of Nascentis Medicina Reproductiva, and Helene Emsellem, MD, FAASM, medical director of the Center for Sleep & Wake Disorders, Chevy Chase, MD, reviewed this story.


Grace Szeto, PhD. Email correspondence with author, October 1-7, 2014. 

The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. "Health Effects of Using Portable Electronic Devices Studied." ScienceDaily. September 5, 2014. 

"2014 Sleep in America Poll: Sleep in the Modern Family Summary of Findings." National Sleep Foundation. Accessed October 13, 2014. 

Avedano C, Mata A, Sanchez Sarmiento CA, Doncel GF. "Use of Laptop Computers Connected to Internet Through Wi-Fi Decreases Human Sperm Motility and Increases Sperm DNA Fragmentation." Fertility and Sterility 2011, 97(1), 39-45.e2.

"Healthy Sleep Tips." National Sleep Foundation. Accessed October 27, 2014.