Whether we like it or not, digital technology is part of our lives. But while gadgets such as smartphones, tablets and laptops have made many aspects of our lives easier, they also come with undeniable disadvantages, especially where health is concerned.

Ironically it’s never been easier to track your activity, health and wellbeing using digital technology. But spending hours each day constantly checking devices for messages, emails and breaking news has been linked with a number of health issues. These include serious conditions such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes – thanks mostly to the time we spend being physically inactive while using technology – as well as more direct problems including back and neck pain, insomnia, hearing loss and eye strain.

Giving up your gadgets is one solution that may restore balance to a tech-overloaded lifestyle. But for most of us this approach is unrealistic, both on a personal and professional level. A less drastic way to make sure technology doesn’t have a negative impact on your health is to simply adopt better, smarter ways of using it.

Watch your posture

A recent survey by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) suggests almost 3 in 5 UK adults experience pain after using some form of digital device. But only 27% of those people report limiting or stopping using those devices to relieve the problem.

BCA experts have issued the following advice to help people use their digital devices without impacting their back or neck health and posture:

  • Be aware of your posture when using mobile devices on the go, don’t hunch over small screens and try to make sure you’re never in the same position for a prolonged period
  • When sitting in front of your PC or laptop, use a chair that provides full support for your spine and make sure your shoulders, hips and knees face the same direction. Your seat should be adjusted so that your feet are flat on the ground and knees bent, but with a slope from your hips to your knees. You should end up with your hips higher than your knees and your eyes level with the top of the computer screen
  • Your head is a heavy weight, so sitting with it forward of your body can put unnecessary strain on your neck and back. Try to sit with your head directly over your body
  • When using your mobile, smartphone, laptop or tablet while sitting down, including on your commute, take the time to break position on a regular basis and stretch your arms, shrug your shoulders and move your fingers around as this helps to keep the muscles more relaxed. Try to avoid sitting in the same position for more than 40 minutes where possible.

Dim your screen

Much information has been written about how staring at a bright screen before bedtime may stop you from getting a good night’s sleep. Experts believe this happens because the type of blue light emitted by the screens on digital devices has a negative effect on your production of the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin. Many agree that stopping using digital devices 2 hours before going to bed may help, as it’s thought that our bodies start producing melatonin about 2 hours before our usual bedtime.

It may also be a good idea to limit yourself to devices with smaller screens if you really must use technology just before bedtime, as smaller screens (such as those on smartphones) may emit less blue light than larger devices (laptops, tablets etc.). Try holding the device as far as you can from your eyes too, as the closer the screen, the more light your eyes will absorb.

Another thing you could try is to turn down the brightness of your screen at night. Better still, use an app called F.lux, which automatically dims your screen as well as adapting its colour to the time of day (during the evening it makes the screen colour warmer, rather than the bright blue light of daylight).

Turn down the volume

If you use digital devices with headphones to listen to music, you may be damaging your hearing if the music is too loud. Having the music in your headphones so loud that it can be heard by other people nearby can lead to hearing loss as well as a condition called tinnitus, which is where you hear ringing, hissing, buzzing, whistling, humming or roaring sounds in your ears or head that nobody else can hear.

According to the charity Action on Hearing Loss, listening to any sound at a high volume for more than 5 hours a week can damage hearing permanently over time. And young people in particular may well be damaging their hearing by turning up the volume on their digital devices to dangerous levels.

The charity recommends reducing the length of time you listen to very loud sounds. And since many people turn up the volume in their headphones to drown out background noise, it also advises the use of noise cancelling headphones or sound isolating headphones. Both types allow you to listen to music at a lower volume, which can help prevent any damage to your hearing.

Rest and refresh   

According to the College of Optometrists, people spend nearly 50 hours a week looking at computer screens. This has been linked to what some experts call computer vision syndrome, which includes symptoms such as eye strain, dry eyes, headaches, blurred or double vision as well as focusing difficulties.

One of the problems with staring at a screen for hours on end is that you blink much less than normal. When we’re not using a digital device, experts reckon we blink around 13,600 times a day. But just 5 hours of using a digital screen can reduce this number to 10,350. Since blinking helps keep your eyes lubricated and feeling comfortable, it’s no wonder your eyes feel dry and tired after using a computer all day at work and then continuing to use your tech gadgets at home.

Many experts recommend the 20/20/20 rule to protect against computer vision syndrome. This involves spending 20 seconds looking at something at least 20 feet away every 20 minutes you spend in front of a digital screen. This gives your eyes a chance to rest and refresh.

If you find it difficult to remember to take a quick screen break every 20 minutes, try keeping a website called protectyourvision.org open in your browser window. This automatically sounds an alert every 20 minutes (you can also customise the timing of the alerts).

For more information about the use of digital technology, read our article Should you take a break from social media?

How CABA can help

CABA supports the wellbeing of past and present ICAEW members, ACA students, ICAEW staff members, and their spouses, partners and children up to the age of 25. For advice, information and support please: