WIRED WEDNESDAYS: Pained in Plain Sight


The question of how we are affected by our handheld technologies is really daunting – so daunting that it is tempting to just do the ostrich thing: put our heads in the sand and not think about the possible downsides of our digital dependence. (Or rather, put our heads down and amuse ourselves with the Candy Crush or Facebook in our hands.)

So I figure I’ll grab for the lowest-hanging fruit first: tangible, visible effects of our digital dependence upon our physical bodies.

A Pain in the Neck?

A few years ago, a private practice neurosurgeon sparked an online news flurry when he published an article about so-called “text neck” – spinal problems caused by the downward-looking posture of time spent on a smartphone. It was his illustration in particular that generated the most buzz, as writers compared 60 lbs. to 4 bowling balls, a half-dozen full grocery bags, or an 8-year-old child… piled atop your forward-tilting head.

If you’ve spent long periods of time looking down at or texting on your device, you probably don’t need convincing that it can result in some pain or stiffness in your neck, shoulders, and upper back. Doesn’t take a brain surgeon to point that out. Along with neck pain, digital devotees can over time develop FHP (forward head posture), a spinal abnormality that can also invite headaches, TMJ, soft tissue and vertebrae problems, and scapula/shoulder issues.

Much Ado About Not Much?

You know, as I consider this 21st-century problem of text neck, what keeps coming to mind are the many 20th-, 19th-, and 1st-century activities for which humans had to look down. Especially reading a book; have parents ever worried that their bookworm kids would develop “book neck”??

The well-respected news magazine The Atlantic (just days after they’d “bitten” on the neurosurgeon’s flashy story) addressed this exact question, about how “our necks are made to bend forward, and it’s not something that’s new to humans. Texting invokes the same posture as holding a book.”

I appreciate the rigor (and humor) with which The Atlantic dug a bit deeper into this question of the spinal costs of our digital dependence. They even consulted with a respected neurosurgeon “for his counterperspective on last week’s text-neck mania.” <   >

The upshot from this brain surgeon is that while good posture is generally good for health, texting isn’t an “imminent threat” to us, whereas, says Dr. Ian Dorward, “People are walking around now while texting, falling into water fountains and lakes and walking into traffic—that’s a real danger.” (And a blog post for another week.)

A Real Study

The Journal of Physical Therapy Science published a study in which they compared changes in posture and respiratory function between two groups of college students – one group who spent less than four hours per day on their smartphones, and one group who spent more than four hours per day on their smartphones.

The more exaggerated changes they found in the higher-use group isn’t surprising; it makes sense that any static activity** involving a head-down, rounded-shoulder position is going to result, over time and repetition, in negative postural changes.

[** Wow, now there’s an oxymoron, am I right — “static activity”?? More on that in a moment.]

I’ll admit that I hadn’t even considered that breathing might be affected by all this, but that actually also makes sense if you compare – right now, do this as you read – how deeply you can breathe in an upright-spine, eyes-forward posture, versus in the classic rounded-over texting posture. That kind of blew me away!

Digital Dependence: Of Greater Risk to Children

Our 21st-century world with all its technological prowess tends to careen ahead with whatever we are capable of inventing, while our understanding of (or curiosity about) the implications tends to lag quite a bit behind. (A great example of this is the tangles of ethical riddles that began revealing themselves years after the early advent of reproductive technologies that enabled IVF, 3rd-party conceptions with donor eggs or sperm, freezing of embryos, etc. I digress.)

So it may be years – even decades – before we have compiled a body of scientific data on the effects of our digital dependence, and particularly its effects on children. Therefore, I think parents would be wise to keep in mind an important biological principle: Children’s dynamic growth and development makes them more susceptible to all environmental effects.

Whereas your fully-developed neck (cervical spine) may get stiff or sore after really prolonged smartphone use, your young child’s spine and nervous system are far more malleable and thus vulnerable, given their in-progress status: they are still forming!

Which brings me to another biological principle that every wise parent might keep in mind when making choices for their child: Beginning in the womb and continuing throughout childhood, a child’s brain and nervous system develop in adaptive response to their environment. Nature arranged it that way to give young creatures the best possible chance of surviving well!

So if a child is living in a world that features a lot of digital devices, it makes sense from a strictly biological-evolutionary standpoint that his or her body should adapt itself to be most suited to thrive in the midst of that reality: for example, rounded shoulders and more dexterous thumbs (to the detriment of other hand musculature, say some experts). In fact, one nickname for children born from the mid-1990s onward is “the thumb generation”!

So What Do We Do??

Parents who are concerned about this subject – and I do think it is wise to be cautious while avoiding panic – can find a helpful clue in the oxymoron I mentioned above in red: digital activities are usually static when it comes to moving the body.

And, bodies are meant to move. They function best when they do so consistently and frequently.

And, it’s healthy to aim for balance, moderation and mastery when it comes to environmental influences on our kids (which include food, clothing, household atmosphere, school, music, TV, movies), and like it or not, in today’s world digital devices are one of the most prevalent environmental influences going.

As parents, we can model mastery of our devices rather than enslavement to them. (This will be an ongoing theme that I intend to develop and elaborate upon as this series unfolds.) So in the case of their painful effects on us, let’s show our kids that we respect our bodies enough to make it a top priority to keep them feeling good. Make it clear – through actions, not so much through words or lectures – that your body’s wellbeing (and theirs) is an even higher priority than your digital dependence.

Let your child see you moderating your use of technology — “Mama’s stepping away from the tablet…” — and mixing it up with healthy movement, including stretching exercises designed to counteract “text neck.” You’ll find some helpful stretches here.

Make some family fun of it – put on a “Ditch the Device” playlist and see who can look funniest doing neck stretches, shoulder shrugs and finger flexes!


Whether you’re curious, captivated or concerned about our digital dependence and device devotion, join me on (most) Wednesdays so we can explore it together. (Sign up here if you want to be sure not to miss anything!) ….. …..

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