Is Tech Good or Bad for the Body?

After researching How To Improve Your Health With Technology and with more and more of us using technology in our daily lives, we became curious about the impact of technology on the human body. And not just with the use of smartphones by your ear, beyond this. On the whole, surely it’s a good thing? But there must be some negatives too? Combining our position at the coal-face of consumer tech, we enlisted the help of Dr Jet Khasriya, an NHS-registered and private GP for GPDQ (the UK’s first doctor-on-demand app) to investigate.

Simpler Days versus Modern Medicine

During meetings, doctors often debate the impact of technology on the human body, and there are broadly two camps: the traditionalists who want a return to the long forgotten “simpler days”, and the modernists who embrace the rapidly changing landscape of modern medicine. Whatever your view, there are compelling arguments on both sides and I would place myself somewhere in the middle. While I appreciate technology and the possibilities it brings to the lives of mankind, I am less enthralled with the way that it has influenced individuals in recent times.

Technology on The Human Body

A 1981 vintage general practice computing system. Source: BMJ

Glued to Our Screens

As you’re sitting on the tube, or enjoying a coffee, take a look around you right now and count how many people (including you) are glued to a screen at this very moment. Nobody can deny that technology pervades almost every living moment, in some cases permeating our very essence. Given the rapid advances we have seen recently, we must acknowledge what effects (good and bad) technology is having on our bodies and our health.

The Good

Improved Medicine Makes Us Live Longer

On a macroscopic level, technology is doing great: we’re living longer with advances in healthcare, pharmacology and molecular biology. Modern medicine has effectively doubled the average human lifespan in a little over a century.

When we get sick, what can’t a modern doctor do? On a normal day at work we could spot an early cancer and have it staged within two weeks, work out someone’s risk of having a stroke or a heart attack and then reduce it with the click of a button, inject medicine into a joint to make it move again and prescribe a pill that, for a depressed patient, would make life worth living again.

There was a time, not long ago, when snapping your cruciate ligament would result in a lifetime of disability leading to misery and sometimes poverty. Such an injury is now a badge of honour amongst wealthy middle-class skiers and would cause no more than an inconvenient visit to the doctor.

Self-diagnosing with Dr Google

Whereas in the past, people had to depend primarily on their doctors for information and advice about their health, now the Internet has evolved, stepping in as an amazing resource for those seeking health-related information. Dr Google has fuelled a certain amount of hypochondria around personal health but it has led to patients feeling more involved in their health choices. Medical data is frequently being published online and Google is currently taking steps to make symptom-searching less scary by adding sensible medical advice, written by its own team of doctors.

“Am I sick?” Ape self-diagnosing via Google

Studies predict that within ten years a medical check-up could involve more interaction with sensors, cameras and robotic scanning devices than human doctors and nurses, as healthcare organisations rebuild services around the Internet of Things (IoT). Using app-based and wearable tools to monitor your health and even carry out your own scans, patients will finally have the ability to self-diagnose a wide number of conditions at home, without needing to visit a surgery or hospital.

Tech Gadgets Enhance Health and Fitness 

As the health tech revolution continues to develop at pace, it has become easier for us to access our health metrics through our smart devices. This information can be extrapolated, and AI can suggest changes which could improve your health and help to manage health conditions.

From fitness bands to smart watches and sensors, and tech with medical applications like blood glucose monitors, health tech is now being widely adopted by many people who want to take personal responsibility for their health. For example, using a smart scale which hooks up to an app, enabling you to track your weight loss goals and progress.

Ape’s Editor Chris Beastall testing out a Fitbit Blaze

Many health commitments fail because of lack of focus or because we struggle to fit them into our day to day lives. But with fitness gadgets, we can find motivation by setting ourselves daily goals and activity reminders to move more.

The Bad

Smartphones cause ‘musculoskeletal problems’

If we narrow our focus we get a snapshot of the ‘trickle down’ effects that technological advancement is having on our daily health. The single biggest culprit may be the device you are reading this article on right now: your smartphone – a device which allows us to communicate with anyone in the world, have access to almost all known human knowledge, and which guides our health decisions daily – a device which we are hopelessly addicted to. This ubiquitous gadget might be harming your health and there seems to be more and more evidence to support this theory.

With increased usage of smartphones, tablets and laptops, more people are visiting their doctors with musculoskeletal complaints such as ‘tech neck’ (neck strain) or ‘text claw’ (tenosynovitis). Scrolling on Instagram for hours and incessant text messaging is negatively affecting our posture and putting pressure on our necks and backs. The repetitive motor activity of texting and grasping our smartphones can cause muscle tension and pain in our forearms, wrists and fingers.

Sleep deprivation and screen strain

There is evidence that our daily ‘screen time’ has multiple negative effects on our mental health, causing sleep disturbance, headaches and mood problems including Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Depression.

Staring at a screen for too long can exhaust our sight, causing our vision to become blurry, and drying out our eyes. You may also experience tension headaches as another result of digital eye strain. Research shows that excessive tech use – particularly right before bedtime – can have an adverse impact on our sleep cycles thanks to the glowing light that’s emitted from screens.

Computer Monitor

If you have to look at a screen take a look at Ape’s feature: How A Computer Monitor Improves Productivity

All of these things can cause increased levels of pain and in a world where there is a growing problem of opioid addiction, could we infer that technology, in part, is the pernicious element at play?

Sedentary lifestyle and mental health

Our abode has changed drastically with advancing technology. Modern architectural techniques and town planning mean that we are living in cavernous, heavily insulated mega-structures. We seldom have to move further from the television to the bed when we are at home. With the proliferation of mobile technology there is now an app for everything. Taxis, dry cleaning, massages: you name it, they have it. You might wonder, how is this harmful?

Apart from the obvious issues related to a sedentary lifestyle, such as obesity and diabetes due to poor diet and lack of exercise, we must also consider the effect of modern living spaces on our mental health. Knowing that we are a community-orientated species, could isolated dwelling and fractured communities explain the increasing levels of depression and anxiety we are seeing?

Worth a Watch: Simon Sinek on Millennials in the Workplace

We’ve never been more connected and being able to contact anyone, anywhere and anytime is great – but is the experience the same as talking to that person face to face? It seems that social isolation is actively encouraged by tech, in a world where we can order food, listen to music and take part in group discussions, all from the comfort of our mass produced, modular sofas. Speedy broadband means that the office comes to us and more people are working from home now: this is good for the employers and possibly for the environment, but what about us?

Conclusion

The irony of technology is that it is the cure and the disease. We can improve our exercise with fitness trackers, become healthier with calorie counters, control chronic illness with biometric analysers and take as much needed time out with supersonic aeroplanes. It’s not all doom and  gloom for us. Are we destined to become hyper-anxious myopic cave dwellers? The answer to this depends on our ability to manage our rapid ascent on our journey to becoming a super-species, the likes of which the world has never seen before.