Given the centrality of the internet - and the digital devices that enable it - to modern life, it’s important to be aware of how the internet affects your health.
The average person is attached to a screen for nearly seven hours per day (DataReportal) - that’s longer than they spend working, longer than they spend with family, and longer than they spend sleeping.
Admittedly, this could be time well spent; screen time is a poor measurement for our relationship with the internet, which is a resource that we can use to improve our diets, track our fitness goals, and meditate, while eHealth is improving our access to medical care.
But, given the huge amount of time we spend online, we all need to be mindful of our digital habits, to understand all the risks, and to improve our relationship with our devices in a way that benefits our long term health.
As such, this article will run through the key ways that the internet can affect your health.
The Internet & Mental Health
Our lives have been revolutionized by the internet, but it’s only been around for a tiny amount of time in the grander scheme of things and, frankly, our brains did not develop to deal well with this online world of limitless information - or infinite people to impress.
From endlessly reading negative news to attempting to self-diagnose online, too much time online can increase anxiety - particularly for people with preexisting mental health issues.
The information available can itself be overwhelming, both because of the amount available, and how contradictory it is - and this makes it difficult to fully understand a subject, or make good decisions.
It’s made worse when you consider that we spend our waking hours jumping from device to device and app to app throughout the day, and all the notifications we receive during this time.
This state of affairs can be highly distracting - and deliberately so, since our devices have been designed to constantly demand our attention.
And if we don’t manage our digital wellbeing, the online world can pull us away from whatever we’re doing, making it hard to step away and experience reality - whatever that means these days - for any length of time.
Ultimately, we can easily become addicted. In total, 420 million people around the world are dependent on the internet (Motherboard), 60% of US college students believe that they’re addicted to their smartphones (Journal of Behavioral Addictions), and 10% of US social media users are addicted to the platform(s) they hang out in (Healthline).
Others become addicted to online gaming, gambling, or even work - we’ve all got our susceptibilities that can lead to long term health problems if left unchecked, and seriously impair our capacity to enjoy life.
Psychologically, the effects of our online addictions are stark, with overuse linked to issues like low self esteem, depression, anxiety, aggression, and mood swings - hardly an ideal situation.
The Internet & “Social Health”
While using the internet to stay in contact with friends and family can be great for mental health, excessive social media use is now attributed to mental health issues like depression, suicide, and self harm - particularly among teenage girls.
This is because of the way that these platforms enhance social pressures, particularly with regard to the innate need for validation. This can increase feelings of narcissism in some, and lowliness in others; either way, these sites can turn us into the worst versions of ourselves.
Take FOMO - the Fear of Missing Out; social media users experience this type of social anxiety without access to their smartphones, and this can increase feelings of loneliness and social isolation. It’s not nice to be excluded from things, but quite another to find out about it.
The internet and its devices also largely remove the boundary between our private lives and public personas. From miscarriages to intimate moments, people share everything today and the repercussions to our privacy, safety, and security can have a real bearing on every aspect of our health.
Socializing online also opens us up to a world of cyberbullying, cyberstalking, and other forms of predatory behavior, like fraud and identity theft. These experiences can be devastating, and the worry alone can have a knock on effect on our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing,
The Internet and Physical Health
Our mental health has a real bearing on our physical health, and vice versa - making it difficult to completely separate these aspects of our overall wellbeing from each other.
But internet use is a largely sedentary activity, and excessive use can result in a number of negative health effects that include obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
It’s also all too easy to use our devices with bad posture; we’re naturally inclined to hunch forward and look down on them - this places extra pressure on the neck and spine, and can lead to musculoskeletal problems over time. Indeed, 60% of Americans have experienced health problems from using technology or sitting at a desk (Harris Interactive).
Digital eye strain is a real thing too. We blink less when we are glued to our devices, and the dryness that results is exacerbated by the small font size on our screens. This can cause headaches, blurred vision, or burning, itchy eyes.
Our ears are also at risk, with prolonged use of earphones increasing the risk of premature hearing loss.
Excessive device use - particularly in the hour before bed - disrupts your natural sleep pattern, since screenlight blocks the creation of the hormone melatonin that regulates sleep. And without the recommended eight hours of sleep a night, we can face serious mental and physical health problems over time.
Limit Health Problems with Digital Wellbeing
We’re living at a time when people are taking more of an interest in their health than ever before.
Given how much is now known about the impact of the internet on our health, it’s no wonder that people are taking steps to improve their online habits and behavior - activity that is now known as digital wellbeing.
If you’re looking to learn more, we’ve created a comprehensive resource hub, to help you understand this very modern concern and to guide your relationship with your computers, smartphones, and tablets.