Erik Peper, PhD and Monica Almendras
Our evolutionary traps with technology
Maintaining and optimizing health at the computer means re-envisioning our relationship with technology—and reclaiming health, happiness, and sanity in a plugged-in world. We have the ability to control everything from our mobile phones without needing to get up from our seat. Work, social life and online learning all involve the mobile phone or some type of smart devices.
A convenient little device that is supposed to simplify our lives has actually trapped us into a vicious cycle of relying on it for every single thing we must do. We spend most of our day being exposed to digital displays on our smartphones, computers, gaming consoles, and other digital devices, immersing ourselves in the content we are viewing. From work related emails or tasks, to spending our free time looking at the screen for texting, playing games, and updating social media sites on a play-by-play of what we are eating, wearing, and doing. We click on one hyperlink after the other and create a vicious cycle trapped for hours until we realize we need to move. We are unaware how much time has frittered away without actually doing anything productive and then, we realize we have wasted another day. Below are some recent estimates of ‘daily active user’ minutes per day that uses a screen.
- Facebook about an hour per day
- Instagram just under an hour per day
- Texting about 45 minutes per day
- Internet browsing, about 45 minutes per day
- Snapchat, about 30 minutes per day
- Twitter, about 25 minutes per day
Adolescents and college students interact with media for over 40 hours per week, or around 6 hours per day. That is a lot of hours spent on staring at the screen, which it is almost impossible not to be distracted by the digital screen. In time, we rehearse a variety of physical body postures as well as a variety of cognitive and behavioral states that impact our physical, mental, emotional, and social health. The powerful audiovisual formats override our desires to do something different, that some of us become enslaved to streaming videos, playing virtual games, or texting. We then tell ourselves that the task that needs to be done, will be finished later. That later becomes never by the end of the day, since the ongoing visual and auditory notifications from our apps interrupt and/or capture our attention. This difficulty to turn away from visual or auditory stimuli roots in our survival instincts.
Each time visual or auditory stimuli occur, we automatically check it out and see if it is a friend or foe, safety or danger. It is such an automatic response that we are unaware are reacting. The good news is that we all have experienced this compelling effect. Even when we are waiting for a response and the notifications has not arrived, we may anticipate or project that there may be new information on our social media accounts, and sometimes we become disappointed when the interval between notification is long. As one student said, “Don’t worry, they’ll respond. It’s only been 30 seconds”. Anticipating responses from the media can interrupt what we are otherwise doing. Rather than finishing our work or task, we continuously check for updates on social media, even though we probably know that there are no new important messages to which we would have to respond right away.
Unfortunately, some forms of social media interactions also lead to a form of social isolation, loneliness–sometimes called phoneliness (Christodoulou, G., Majmundar, A., Chou, C-P, & Pentz, M.A., 2020; Kardaras, 2017). Digital content requires the individual to respond to the digital stimuli, without being aware of the many verbal and nonverbal communication cues (facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, eye contact, body language, posture, touch, etc.) that are part of social communication (Remland, 2016). It is no wonder that more and more adolescents experience anxiety, depression, loneliness, and attention deficit disorders with a constant ‘digital diet’ that some have suggested that include not only media, but junk food as well.
In my class survey of 99 college students, 85% reported experiencing anxiety, 48% neck and should tension, and 41% abdominal discomfort.
We are not saying to avoid the beneficial parts of the digital age. Instead, it should be used in moderation and to be aware of how some material and digital platforms prey upon our evolutionary survival mechanisms. Unfortunately, most people -especially children- have not evolved skills to counter the negative impacts of some types of media exposure. Parental control and societal policies may be needed to mitigate the damage and enhance the benefits of the digital age.
Zoom Fatigue- How to reduce it and configure your brain for better learning
Zoom became the preferred platform for academic teaching and learning for synchronous education during the pandemic. Thus, students and faculty have been sitting and looking at the screen for hours end. While looking at the screen, the viewers were often distracted by events in their environment, notifications from their mobile phones, social media triggers, and emails; which promoted multitasking (Solis, 2019). These digital distractions cause people to respond to twice as many devices with half of our attention- a process labeled semi-tasking’ -meaning getting twice as much done and half as well.
We now check our phones an average of 96 times a day – that is once every 10 minutes and an increase of 20% as compared to two years ago (Asurion Research, 2019). Those who do media multitasking such as texting while doing a task perform significantly worse on memory tasks than those who are not multitasking (Madore et al., 2020). Multitasking is negatively correlated with school performance (Giunchiglia et al, 2018). The best way to reduce multitasking is to turn off all notifications (e.g., email, texts, and social media) and let people know that you will look at the notifications and then respond in a predetermined time, so that you will not be interrupted while working or studying.
When students from San Francisco State University in the United States chose to implement a behavior change to monitor mobile phone and media use and reduce the addictive behavior during a five-week self-healing project, many reported a significant improvement of health and performance. For example one student reported that when she reduced her mobile phone use, her stress level equally decreased as shown in Fig 1 (Peper et al, 2021).
Figure 1. Example of student changing mobile phone use and corresponding decrease in subjective stress level. Reproduced by permission from Peper et al. (2021).
During this class project, many students observed that the continuous responding to notifications and social media affected their health and productivity. As one student reported,
The discovery of the time I wasted giving into distractions was increasing my anxiety, increasing my depression and making me feel completely inadequate. In the five-week period, I cut my cell phone usage by over half, from 32.5 hours to exactly 15 hours and used some of the time to do an early morning run in the park. Rediscovering this time makes me feel like my possibilities are endless. I can go to work full time, take online night courses reaching towards my goal of a higher degree, plus complete all my homework, take care of the house and chores, cook all my meals, and add reading a book for fun! –22-year-old College Student
Numerous students reported that it was much easier to be distracted and multitask, check social media accounts or respond to emails and texts than during face-to-face classroom sessions as illustrated by two student comments from San Francisco State University.
“Now that we are forced to stay at home, it’s hard to find time by myself, for myself, time to study, and or time to get away. It’s easy to get distracted and go a bit stir-crazy.”
“I find that online learning is more difficult for me because it’s harder for me to stay concentrated all day just looking at the screen.”
Students often reported that they had more difficulty remembering the material presented during synchronous presentations. Most likely, the passivity while watching Zoom presentations affected the encoding and consolidation of new material into retrievable long-term memory. The presented material was rapidly forgotten when the next screen image or advertisement appeared and competed with the course instructor for the student’s attention. We hypothesize that the many hours of watching TV and streaming videos have conditioned people to sit and take in information passively, while discouraging them to respond or initiate action (Mander, 1978; Mărchidan, 2019).
To reduce the deleterious impact of media use, China has placed time limits on cellphone use, gaming, and social media use for children. On February 2021 Chinese children were banned from taking their mobile phones into school, on August 2021 Children under 18 were banned from playing video games during the week and their play was restricted to just one hour on Fridays, weekends and holidays, and beginning on September 20, 2021 children under 14 who have been authenticated using their real name can access Douyin, the Chinese version of Tik Tok, for maximum of 40 minutes a day between the hours of 6:00 and 22:00.
Ways to avoid Zoom
Say goodnight to your phone
It is common for people to use their mobile phone before going to bed, and then end up having difficult falling asleep. The screen emits blue light that sends a signal to your brain that says it is daytime instead of night. This causes your body to suppress the production of the melatonin hormone, which tells your body that it is time to sleep. Reading or watching content also contributes, since it stimulates your mind and emotions and thereby promote wakefulness (Bravo, 2020). Implement sleep hygiene and stop using your phone or watching screens 30-minutes before going to bed for a better night’s sleep.
Maintaining a healthy vision
We increase near visual stress and the risk of developing myopia when we predominantly look at nearby surfaces. We do not realize that eyes muscles can only relax when looking at the far distance. For young children, the constant near vision remodels the shape of eye and the child will likely develop near sightedness. The solutions are remarkably simple. Respect your evolutionary background and allow your eyes to spontaneously alternate between looking at near and far objects while being upright (Schneider, 2016; Peper, 2021; Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020).
Interrupt sitting disease
We sit for the majority of the day while looking at screens that is a significant risk factor for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety (Matthews et al., 2012; Smith et al., 2020). Interrupt sitting by getting up every 30 minutes and do a few stretches. You will tend to feel less sleepy, less discomfort and more productive. As one of our participants reported that when he got up, moved and exercised every 30 minutes at the end of the day he felt less tired. As he stated, “There is life after five”, which meant he had energy to do other activities after working at the computer the whole day. While working time flies and it is challenging to get up every 30 minutes. Thus, install a free app on your computer that reminds you to get up and move such as StretchBreak (www.stretchbreak.com).
Use slouching as a cue to change
Posture affects thoughts and emotions as well as, vice versa. When stressed or worried (e.g., school performance, job security, family conflict, undefined symptoms, or financial insecurity), our bodies tend to respond by slightly collapsing and shifting into a protective position. When we collapse/slouch, we are more at risk to:
- Feel helpless (Riskind & Gotay, 1982).
- Feel powerless (Westfeld & Beresford, 1982; Cuddy, 2012).
- Recall and being more captured by negative memories (Peper, Lin, Harvey, & Perez, 2017; Tsai, Peper, & Lin, 2016),
- Experience cognitive difficulty (Peper, Harvey, Mason, & Lin, 2018).
When stressed, anxious or depressed, it is challenging to change. The negative feelings, thoughts and worries continue to undermine the practice of reframing the experience more positively. Our recent study found that a simple technique, that integrates posture with breathing and reframing, rapidly reduces anxiety, stress, and negative self-talk (Peper, Harvey, Hamiel, 2019). When you are captured by helpless defeated thoughts and slouch, use the thought or posture as the trigger to take change. The moment you are aware of the thoughts or slouched posture, sit up straight, look up, take a slow large diaphragmatic breath and only then think about reframing the problem positively (Peper, Harvey, Hamiel, 2019).
When we are upright and look up, we are more likely to:
- Have more energy (Peper & Lin, 2012).
- Feel stronger (Peper, Booiman, Lin, & Harvey, 2016).
- Find it easier to do cognitive activity (Peper, Harvey, Mason, & Lin, 2018).
- Feel more confident and empowered (Cuddy, 2012).
- Recall more positive autobiographical memories (Michalak, Mischnat,& Teismann, 2014).
The challenge is that we are usually unaware we have begun to slouch. A very useful solution is to use a posture feedback device to remind us, such as the UpRight Go (https://www.uprightpose.com/). This simple device and app signals you when you slouch. The device attaches to your neck and connects with blue tooth to your cellphone. After calibrating, it provides vibrational feedback on your neck each time you slouch. When participants use the vibration feedback to become aware of what is going on and interrupt their slouch by stretching and sitting up, they report a significant decrease in symptoms and an increase in productivity. As one student reported: “Having immediate feedback on my posture helped me to be more aware of my body and helped me to link my posture to my emotions. Before using the tracker, doing this was very difficult for me. It not only helped my posture but my awareness of my mental state as well.”
 Adapted from the book by Erik Peper, Richard Harvey and Nancy Faass, TechStress-How Technology is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics, North Atlantic Press. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/232119/tech-stress-by-erik-peper-phd/
 Correspondence should be addressed to:
Erik Peper, Ph.D., Institute for Holistic Healing Studies/Department of Recreation, Parks, Tourism and Holistic Health, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94132 COVID-19 mailing address: 2236 Derby Street, Berkeley, CA 94705 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org web: www.biofeedbackhealth.org blog: www.peperperspective.com
In hunting and gathering cultures, alternating movement patterns was part of living and essential for health. This shift from dynamic movement to static or awkward positions is illustrated in Figure 1.
Figure 1. The shift from dynamic movement to immobility and near vision as illustrated by the Hadzabe men in Tanzania returning from a hunt to our modern immobilized work and pleasure positions (Reproduced by permission from Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020).
Dynamic movement promotes blood and lymph circulation and reduces static pressures. At present times our work and leisure activities increase immobility and static positions as we predominantly have shifted to a sitting immobilized position. This significantly increases musculoskeletal discomfort, cardiovascular disease, diabetes etc. The importance of movement as a factor to enhance health is illustrated in the recent findings of 2110 middle aged participants who were followed up for ten years. Those who took approximately 7000 steps per day or more experienced significantly lower mortality rates compared with participants taking fewer than 7000 steps per day (Paluch et al., 2021). Just having the head forward while looking at the cellphone significantly increases the forces on the muscles holding the head up as illustrated in Figure 2.
Figure 2. The head-forward position puts as much as sixty pounds of pressure on the neck muscles and spine (reproduced by permission from Dr. Kenneth Hansaraj, 2014).
For background and recommendations on what how to reduce static positions, look at our book, TechStress-How technology is hijacking our lives, strategies for coping and pragmatic ergonomics. and the superb article, Static postures are harmful – dynamic postures at work are key to musculoskeletal health, published by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA, Sept 16, 2021) and reproduced below.
Our bodies are built for movement – it’s a central part of maintaining a healthy musculoskeletal system and the less we move, the more chance we have of developing health issues including musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and more. However, the negative effects of sedentary work can be mitigated by paying attention to the postures we adopt when we work.
Whether workers are standing or seated while working, maintaining a good ergonomic posture is essential when it comes to preventing MSDs. Poor or awkward postures put unnecessary strain on the musculoskeletal system and, over time, can cause the deterioration of muscle fibres and joints.
Poor or awkward postures include those which involve parts of the body not being in their natural position. More muscular effort is needed to maintain unnatural postures, which increases the energy used by the body and can cause fatigue, discomfort and pain. Unnatural postures also put strain on tendons, ligaments and nerves, which increases the risk of injury. For example, the risk of neck pain increases when the neck is rotated more than 45 degrees for more than 25% of the working day.
These postures, including slouching, rotation of the forearms, or prolonged periods of sitting or standing in the same spot, can cause pain in the lower back and upper limbs. The risk increases when combined with repetitive work, static muscle load, or the need to apply force or reach. And even natural or good postures maintained for any length of time become uncomfortable and eventually painful. Everyone has experienced stiffness after being in the same position for any length of time.
What do we mean by ‘good posture’?
For workers, especially those in sedentary jobs such as office work, factory work or driving, it is important to recognise and adopt good postures. A good posture should be comfortable and allow the joints to be naturally aligned. The segments of our body can be divided into three cross-sectional anatomical planes: the sagittal plane, which concerns bending forwards and backwards; the frontal plane, which concerns bending sideways; and finally the transverse plane, which refers to rotation or twisting of the body parts. A good posture is one that ensures that all three of these planes are set at neutral positions as much as possible, in that the worker is not leaning backwards, forwards or to any particular side, and their limbs and torso are not rotated or twisted. Adopting neutral postures will help to lessen the strain on the worker’s muscles, tendons and skeletal system, and reduces the risk of them causing or aggravating an MSD.
In practice, workers can consider the following checklist to ensure that they’re standing or sitting in a neutral position:
- Keep the neck vertical and the back in an upright position.
- Ensure the elbows are below the chest and avoid having to reach excessively.
- Keep the shoulders relaxed and use back and arm rests where possible and ensure that they are adjusted to the size and shape of the worker.
- Avoid rotating the forearms or excessively moving the wrists.
- Ensure that any work tools can be held comfortably, and that clothing doesn’t restrain or prevent movement.
- Allow room to comfortably move the legs and feet and avoid frequent kneeling or squatting.
- Ensure that long periods of standing or sitting in the same posture can be broken up.
Employers can assist workers in adopting good postures by communicating checklists such as this one, and by promoting physical activity where possible, encouraging the fair rotation of tasks between employees to avoid them consistently making repetitive movements, and ensuring that workers have the capacity to take regular breaks.
Why our next posture is the best posture
However, maintaining a good posture at all times is not enough to reduce the risk of MSDs, and can even be harmful. Static postures, even if ergonomic, are still a risk factor if over-used. Our body requires movement and variety, which is why the best approach is to use a variety of ergonomic postures in rotation, breaking up long periods of static working with stretching, exercise, and movement. This is known as adopting ‘dynamic positions’.
It is important not only for workers who spend much of their day seated, but also for workers who primarily stand – such as factory workers in assembly lines. In both cases, sitting and standing are not opposites. The opposite of both is movement. Changing postures between sitting and standing is not sufficient for any worker – the working environment must still offer ways of varying their postures and incorporating movement into their daily working routines. What’s more, if standing work cannot be avoided, workers do not need lots of space in order to adopt dynamic positions in a healthy way. Blood flow propulsion mechanisms can still work correctly even if the worker is only moving around in one square metre. However it is still the case that they should have a break after 30 minutes of standing.
Work should therefore not only facilitate good postures, but ensure that good, ergonomic postures are also dynamic. Switching between sitting, standing and moving while ensuring that the musculoskeletal frame is not under any unnecessary tension can help sedentary workers avoid the onset of MSDs and other health problems. For more information visit the priority area on sedentary work.
EU-OSHA. (September 16, 2021). Static postures are harmful – dynamic postures at work are key to musculoskeletal health. https://healthy-workplaces.eu/en/media-centre/news/static-postures-are-harmful-dynamic-postures-work-are-key-musculoskeletal-health?
Hansraj, K. K. (2014). Assessment of Stresses in the Cervical Spine Caused by Posture and Position of the Head. Surgical Technology International, 25, 277–79. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25393825/
Paluch, A.E., Gabriel, K.P., Fulton, J.E., et al.(2021). Steps per Day and All-Cause Mortality in Middle-aged Adults in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study. JAMA Netw Open, 4(9):e2124516. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.24516
Peper, E., Harvey, R. & Faass, N. (2020). TechStress-How Technology is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley: North Atlantic books. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/232119/tech-stress-by-erik-peper-phd/
With good clean air circulation, the risk of transmitting or contracting airborne disease such as COVID-19 during air travel is very low (Pombal, Hosegood & Powell, 2020). Pombal, Hosegood & Powell, 2020 point out that modern airplanes maintain clean air by circulating a mix of fresh air and air recycled through HEPA filter. Air enters from overhead air inlets and flows downward toward floor level outlets at the same seat row or nearby rows. There is little airflow forward and backward between rows.
The risk of transmission or contracting airborne dieases is very high if the airplane ventilation system is not working while passengers are in the plane. For example, when a jet airliner with 54 persons aboard was delayed on the ground for three hours with an inoperative ventilation system 72 % of the passengers became ill with symptoms of cough, fever, fatigue, headache, sore throat and myalgia within 72 hours (Moser et al.,1979).
To reduce the risk of COVID and other airborne infections such as influenza, government policies need to implement strategies to reduce exposure to airborne pathogens and optimize the immune system. By improving ventilation that reduces and removes airborne pathogens, thousands, if not millions, lives will be saved from being infected or dying of COVID or influenza.
Before the COVID pandemic between 2010 and 2020 an average of 39,900 people a year died of influenza in the United States and during a severe influenza season such as that occurred in 2017-2018, 61,000 people died (CDC, 2021). Influenza, just as COVID, is caused by an airborne pathogens (viruses). Although wearing masks significantly reduces the airborne spread of the pathogens, the long term preventative solution is to implement indoor ventilation strategies so that the air is not contaminated in the same way that we expect drinking water not to cause illness. From a public health perspective, changing external environment so the virus is cannot spread is a more effective strategy than depending upon individuals’ actions to prevent the spread of the pathogens.
By improving the air filtration and fresh air circulation in rooms and buildings, COVID, influenza virus and other airborne pathogens can be significantly reduced just as that has been done in modern airplanes. This demands changes in building ventilation codes and design. It means changing the physical infrastructure and upgrading ventilation systems so that only fresh and/or filtered air circulates through the rooms. This infrastructure improvement would be analogous to what occurred in the 19th century in eventually eliminating the cholera epidemics that killed thousands of people a year.
For example in England during the 1831-1832 and 1848 cholera epidemics more than 50,000 people died each year as they became infected with the toxigenic bacterium Vibrio cholerae which was present the water or foods contaminated with feces from a a person infected with cholera bacterium. Approximately 1 in 10 people who get sick with cholera will develop severe symptoms and without treatment, death can occur within hours (CDC, 2021).
In Londong during the 1854 cholera epidemic Dr. John Snow observed that people who got cholera were drawing water from a the same water pump on Broad Street. He persuaded the authorities to remove the pump handle which eliminated the use of the contaminated water and stopped the spread of the Cholera.
The water pump in Broadwick Street.
This public health intervention provided some of the rationale in 19th century to build the infrastructure to provide clean drinking water and appropriate sewage disposal, so that cholera, typhoid as well as other waterborne diseases epidemics would not enter the drinking water supply.
We now need a similar infrastructure improvement to provide clean air in buildings to stop the spread of COVID-19 variants and influenza. How ventilation affects the spread a virus in a class room is illustrated in the outstanding graphical modeling by Nick Bartzokas et al. (February 26, 2021) in the New York Times article, Why opening windows is a key to reopening schools. The spatial guidelines need to be based upon air flow and not on the distance of separation.
In summary, to prevent future airborne illnesses, local, state and federal government need to create and implement ventilation standards so that airborne pathogens are not spread indoors by contaminated air. This is not rocket science! It is a very solvable problem and has been implemented in airplanes. When the air is HEPA filtered so that passengers do not rebreathe each other’s potentially contaminated exhaled air, airborne transmission is very low. Let’s do the same for the air circulating in buildings.
For more details to reduce virus exposure and increase immune competence, see the previoius published blogs,
CDC (2021). Disease Burden of Influenza. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/index.html
Moser, M.R., Bender, T.R., Margolis, H.S., Noble, G.R., Kendal, A.P., & Ritter, D.G. (1979). An outbreak of influenza aboard a commercial airliner. Am J Epidemiol, 110(1), 1-6. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.aje.a112781
Pombal, R., Hosegood, I., & Powell, D. (2020). Risk of COVID-19 During Air Travel. JAMA, 324(17), 1798 https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2020.19108
Zhang, S. (September 7, 2021). The plan to stop every respiratory virus at once. The Atlantic. Downloaded September 13. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2021/09/coronavirus-pandemic-ventilation-rethinking-air/620000/