Why your smartphone is causing you ‘text neck’ syndrome
January 25, 2019
Pablo Robles Most of us hunch over our smartphone for at least two hours a day. This can effectively increase the weight of your head by up to 27kg, damage your posture, and if you text while walking, expose you to all kinds of accidents
The number of mobile phone users around the world is expected to exceed 5 billion this year. Mobile penetration is set to continue growing by up to 67 per cent with China on target to contribute 1.5 billion mobile connections and India accounting for 1.1 billion. The surge in the growth of the mobile market can mostly be attributed to the reduced cost and availability of smartphones.
Mobile phones are now generally seen as being essential to our daily lives, with texting the most common way of communicating. Groupe Spéciale Mobile Association (GSMA) estimates that two-thirds of the world’s population possess a mobile phone. In January 2018, at least 68 per cent of the world’s population had access to a device. That number is expected to reach 75 per cent by 2020.
Typically people crane their neck forward 45 degrees when sending text messages. This places a weight of almost 22kg on the spine, cervical ligaments and other muscles – five times the pressure considered normal, according to a Surgical Technology International study. Over the course of a year, this amounts to an additional 1,000 to 1,400 hours of pressure on the average smartphone user’s spine.
What is your posture like when texting?
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18KgThis angle increases the weight on your neck by four times to about 18kg
22KgThis angle increases the weight on your neck by five times to about 22kg
27KgThis angle increases the weight on your neck by six times to about 27kg
OK … but why?
HEAD FORWARD POSTURE “Text neck” has become a common problem with people typically sticking their neck forward and placing their head in front of their shoulders to use their phone for texting. This causes muscle tension, puts the user at risk of pinched nerves and can ultimately lead to a herniated disc. People that hold this position for long periods will find their posture degenerating and put the natural curve of their neck at risk of flattening or inverting over time.
When your neck is at an angle of 15 degrees the weight of your head effectively increases to 12kg adding unnecessary strain to your neck. When the angle increases to 30 degrees the weight increases to 18kg, while a 45 degree angle adds up to 22kg. A 60 degree angle results in the head weighing the equivalent of 27kg, which is similar to carrying around an 8-year-old child.
How does it happen?
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In your own world
Most of us are guilty of this at some stage of our day – walking head down to look at a message, oblivious to the world. When you write a text message your peripheral vision starts at 60 degrees but as you focus on your phone screen this decreases to between one and 10 degrees, obliterating your peripheral range.
A person’s field of vision is measured as the area the eye can take in when looking at a fixed point.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that about 68,000 pedestrians die every year in China. In Hong Kong, there were 3,190 reports of accidents involving pedestrians in 2017 and while there is no category for accidents caused by people being on their phones, there were 232 cases reported as ‘pedestrian negligence’. It is probably reasonable to assume that mobile phones are the likely cause of many of these accidents.
Hennessy Road, Causeway Bay. Hong Kong
"Please hold the handrail. Don't keep your eyes only on your mobile phone."
For a while, Hong Kong’s MTR advised their customers: “Please hold the handrail. Don't keep your eyes only on the mobile phone.” In Germany warning lights were added to the pavement to alert pedestrians to street crossings. New York lowered the speed limits, while San Francisco, China and Belgium are some of the places to have dedicated exclusive lanes for pedestrians to use their phones while walking.
SLOW AND DISTRACTED A study by University of Queensland, Australia shows that people change the way they walk when sending messages and it probably comes as no surprise that people do not walk in straight lines when texting.
28 Queen's Road, Central. Hong Kong
FLUCTUATING SPEEDS The same study showed the walking speeds of those that text message while walking and those who do not look at their phone.
28 Queen's Road, Central. Hong Kong
Why are so many of us addicted to our smartphones?
Mobile phone addiction is defined as psychological dependence on mobile devices. Addicts display symptoms remarkably similar to drug addiction. This is because our bodies release dopamine, which makes us feel good, every time we receive a text message, see someone has commented on our Facebook page or liked our latest offering on Instagram. Dopamine is a highly addictive chemical released by our neurons and it is dopamine that floods our body when we drink alcohol, smoke a cigarette, use drugs or gamble.
Smartphone addiction is considered a behavioural addiction and is often defined as "dependence syndrome", a term used by the WHO which also applies to psychoactive drugs, alcohol and tobacco in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems.
A study of 1,600 people by Leslie Perlow, PhD, professor of leadership at the Harvard Business School, showed that:
70% of respondents check their smartphone within an hour of getting up;
56% check their phone within an hour of going to bed;
48% check over the weekend, including Friday and Saturday nights;
51% check continuously while on holiday;
44% said they would experience "a great deal of anxiety" if they lost their phone and could not replace it for a week.
It is not just texting that puts smartphone users at risk. Gaming is also a major cause for concern. Pokémon Go, for instance, resulted in several deaths when people played the game while walking or driving. Gaming addiction is recognised as a mental disorder by the WHO.
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Smartphone addiction in Asia
“Nomophobia” is the name for the irrational fear of being without, or unable to use, your mobile phone. It is becoming a serious problem in Asia. A 2015 study of 1,000 South Korean students showed that 25 per cent suffered from mobile phone addiction. Hongkongers are experiencing similar issues. A 2015 survey of 500 young people found 90 per cent spent at least 3.5 hours a day on their phones and received an average of 221 messages a day.
A worldwide study* of 60,500 internet users said the average urban millennial, aged 16 to 30, spends 2.8 hours a day on their mobile devices. That equates to almost 20 hours a week, or 42.5 days a year.
Spine specialists suggest you hold your phone at eye level, take regular breaks from texting and limit screen time to avoid pain. There are apps available to send alerts when the user has been in a posture looking downwards for too long.
* Connected Life and global research consultancy TNS
— Pull your head in, straighten your neck and look where you’re going because the chances are you just read this story on your phone. Just saying …