Resolve Eyestrain and Screen Fatigue

Adapted from: Peper, E., Harvey, R. & Faass, N. (2020). TechStress: How Technology is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

eyes
Forty percent of adults and eighty percent of teenagers report experiencing significant visual symptoms (eyestrain, blurry vision, dry eyes, headaches, and exhaustion) during and immediately after viewing electronic displays. These ‘technology-associated overuse’ symptoms are often labeled as digital eyestrain or computer vision syndrome (Rosenfield, 2016; Randolph & Cohn, 2017). Even our distant vision may be affected— after working in front of a screen for hours, the world looks blurry. At the same time, we may experience an increase in neck, shoulders and back discomfort. These symptoms increase as we spend more hours looking at computer screens, laptops, tablets, e-readers, gaming consoles, and cellphones for work, taking online classes, watching streaming videos for entertainment, and keeping connected with friends and family (Borhany et al, 2018; Turgut, 2018; Jensen et al, 2002).

Eye, head, neck, shoulder and back discomfort are partly the result of sitting too long in the same position and attending to the screen without taking short physical and vision breaks, moving our bodies and looking at far objects every 20 minutes or so.  The obvious question is, “Why do we stare at and are captured by, the screen?”  Two answers are typical: (1) we like the content of what is on the screen; and, (2) we feel compelled to watch the rapidly changing visual scenes.

From an evolutionary perspective, our sense of vision (and hearing) evolved to identify predators who were hunting us, or to search for prey so we could have a nice meal.  Attending to fast moving visual changes is linked to our survival.  We are unaware that our adaptive behaviors of attending to a visual or auditory signals activate the same physiological response patterns that were once successful for humans to survive–evading  predictors,  identifying food, and discriminating between friend or foe. The large and small screen (and speakers) with their attention grabbing content and notifications have become an evolutionary trap that may lead to a reduction in health and fitness (Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020).

Near vision stress

To be able to see the screen, the eyes need to converge and accommodate. To converge,  the extraocular muscles of the eyes tighten; to focus (accomodation), the ciliary muscle around the lens tighten to increase the curvature of the lens.  This muscle tension is held constant as long as we look at the screen. Overuse of these muscles results is near vision stress that contributes to computer vision syndrome, development of myopia in younger people, and other technology-associated overuse syndromes (Sherwin et al, 2012; Enthoven et al, 2020).

Continually overworking the visual muscles related to convergences increases tension and contributes to eyestrain. While looking at the screen, the eye muscles seldom have the chance to relax.  To function effectively, muscles need to relax /regenerate after momentary tightening. For the eye muscles to relax, they need to look at the far distance– preferably objects green in color. As stated earlier, the process of  distant vision occurs by relaxing the extraocular muscles to allow the eyes to diverge along with relaxing the ciliary muscle to allow the lens to flatten.  In our digital age, where screen of all sizes are ubiquitous, distant vision is often limited to the nearby walls behind a screen or desk which results in keeping the focus on nearby objects and  maintaining muscular tension in the eyes.

As we evolved, we continuously alternated between between looking at the far distance and nearby areas for food sources as well as signals indicating danger. If we did not look close and far, we would not know if a predator was ready to attack us.  Today we tend to be captured by the screens.  Arguably, all media content is designed to capture our attention such as data entry tasks required for employment, streaming videos for entertainment, reading and answering emails, playing e-games, responding to text notifications, looking at Instagram and Snapchat photos and Tiktok videos, scanning Tweets and using social media accounts such as Facebook. We are unaware of the symptoms of visual stress until we experience symptoms. To illustrate the physiological process that covertly occurs during convergence and accommodation, do the following exercise.

Sit comfortably and lift your right knee a few inches up so that the foot is an inch above the floor.  Keep holding it in this position for a minute…. Now let go and relax your leg.

A minute might have seemed like  a very long time and you may have started to feel some discomfort in the muscles of your hip.  Most likely, you observed that when you held your knee up, you most likely held your breath and tightened your neck and back. Moreover, to do this for more than a few minutes would be very challenging. 

Lift your knee up again and notice the automatic patterns that are happening in your body. 

For muscles to regenerate they need momentary relaxation which allows blood flow and lymph flow to occur. By alternately tensing and relaxing muscles, they can work more easily for longer periods of time without experiencing fatigue and discomfort (e.g., we can hike for hours but can only lift our knee for a few minutes).

Solutions to relax the eyes and reduce eye strain 

  • Reestablish the healthy evolutionary pattern of alternately looking at far and near distances to reduce eyestrain, such as:
    • Look out through a window at a distant tree for a moment after reading an email or clicking link.
    • Look up and at the far distance each time you have finished reading a page or turn the page over.
  • Rest and regenerate your eyes with palming. While sitting upright, place a pillow or other supports under our elbows so that your hands can cover your closed eyes without tensing the neck and shoulders.palming
    • Cup the hands so that there is no pressure on your eyeballs, allow the base of the hands to touch the cheeks while the fingers are interlaced and resting your forehead.
    • Close your eyes, imagine seeing black. Breathe slowly and diaphragmatically while feeling the warmth of the palm soothing the eyes. Feel your shoulders, head and eyes relaxing. Palm for 5 minutes while breathing at about six breaths per minute through your nose.  Then stretch and go back to work.

Palming is one of the many practices that improves vision. For a comprehensive perspective and pragmatic exercises to reduce eye strain, maintain and improve vision, see the superb book by Meir Schneider, PhD., L.M.T., Vision for Life, Revised Edition: Ten Steps to Natural Eyesight Improvement.

Increased sympathetic arousal

Seeing the changing stimuli on the screen evokes visual attention and increases sympathetic arousal. In addition, many people automatically hold their breath when they see novel visual or hear auditory signals; since, they trigger a defense or orienting response. At the same time, without awareness,  we may tighten our neck and shoulder  muscles as we bring our nose literally to the screen.  As we attend and concentrate to see what is on the screen, our blinking rate decreases significantly.  From an evolutionary perspective, an unexpected movement in the periphery could be a snake, a predator, a friend or foe and the body responds by getting ready: freeze, fight or flight. We still react the same survival responses. Some of the physiological reactions that occur include:

  • Breath holding or shallow breathing. These often occur the moment we receive a text notification, begin concentrating and respond to the messages, or start typing or mousing.  Without awareness,  we activate the freeze, flight and fight response. By breath holding or shallow breathing, we reduce or limit our body movements, effectively becoming a non-moving object that is more difficult to see by many animal predators.  In addition, during breath holding, hearing become more acute because breathing noises are effectively reduced or eliminated.
  • Inhibition of blinking. When we blink it is another movement signal that in earlier times could give away our position. In addition, the moment we blink we become temporarily blind and cannot see what the predator could be doing next.
  • Increased neck, shoulder and back tension. The body is getting ready for a defensive fight or avoidance flight.

Experience some of these automatic physiological responses described above by doing the following two exercises.

Eye movement neck connection:  While sitting up and looking at the screen, place your fingers on the back of the neck on either side of the cervical spine just below the junction where the spine meets the skull.

neck

Feel the muscles of neck along the spine where they are attaching to the skull. Now quickly look to the extreme right and then to the extreme left with your eyes. Repeat looking back and forth with the eyes two or three times.

What did you observe?  Most likely, when you looked to the extreme right, you could feel the right neck muscles slightly tightening and when you looked the extreme left, the left neck muscles slightly tightening.  In addition, you may have held your breath when you looked back and forth.

Focus and neck connection:  While sitting up and looking at the screen, place your fingers on the back of the neck as you did before. Now focus intently on the smallest size print or graphic details on the screen.  Really focus and concentrate on it and look at all the details.

What did you observe?  Most likely, when you focused on the text, you brought your head slightly forward and closer to the screen, felt your neck muscles tighten,  and possibly held your breath or started to breathe shallowly.

As you concentrated, the automatic increase in arousal, along with the neck and shoulder tension and reduced blinking contributes to developing discomfort. This can become more pronounced after looking at screens to detailed figures, numerical data, characters and small images for hours (Peper, Harvey & Tylova, 2006; Peper & Harvey, 2008; Waderich et al, 2013).

Staying alert, scanning  and reacting to the images on a computer screen or notifications from text messages, can become exhausting. in the past, we scanned the landscape, looking for information that will help us survive (predators, food sources, friend or foe)  however today, we react to the changing visual stimuli on the screen. The computer display and notifications have become evolutionary traps since they evoke these previously adaptive response patterns that allowed us to survive.

The response patterns occur mostly without awareness until we experience discomfort. Fortunately, we  can become aware of our body’s reactions with physiological monitoring which makes the invisible visible as shown in the figure below (Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020).

biofeedback

Representative physiological patterns that occur when working at a computer, laptop, tablet or cellphone are unnecessary neck and shoulder tension, shallow rapid breathing, and an increase in heart rate during data entry. Even when the person is resting their hands on the keyboard, forearm muscle tension, breathing and heart rate increased.

Moreover, muscle tension in the neck and shoulder region also increased, even when those muscles were not needed for data entry task.  Unfortunately, this unnecessary tension and shallow breathing contributes to exhaustion and discomfort (Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020).

With biofeedback training, the person can learn to become aware and control these dysfunctional patterns and prevent discomfort (Peper & Gibney, 2006; Peper et, 2003).  However, without access to biofeedback monitoring, assume that you respond similarly while working. Thus, to prevent discomfort and improve health and performance, implement the following.

Finally, for a comprehensive overview based on an evolutionary perspective that explains why TechStress develops, why digital addiction occurs. and what can be done to prevent discomfort and improve health and performance, see our new book by Erik Peper, Richard Harvey and Nancy Faass, Tech Stress-How Technology is Hijack our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics.

book cover

References

Borhany, T., Shahid, E., Siddique, W. A., & Ali, H. (2018). Musculoskeletal problems in frequent computer and internet users. Journal of family medicine and primary care7(2), 337–339. 

Enthoven, C. A., Tideman, W.L., Roel of Polling, R.J.,Yang-Huang, J., Raat, H., & Klaver, C.C.W. (2020). The impact of computer use on myopia development in childhood: The Generation R study. Preventtive Medicine, 132, 105988.

Jensen, C., Finsen, L., Sogaard, K & Christensen, H. (2002). Musculoskeletal symptoms and duration of computer and mouse use,  International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, 30(4-5), 265-275.

Peper, E. & Gibney, K. (2006). Muscle Biofeedback at the Computer- A Manual to Prevent Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) by Taking the Guesswork out of Assessment, Monitoring and Training. The Biofeedback Federation of Europe. Download free PDF version of the book:  http://bfe.org/helping-clients-who-are-working-from-home/

Peper, E. & Harvey, R. (2008). From technostress to technohealth.  Japanese Journal of Biofeedback Research, 35(2), 107-114.

Peper, E., Harvey, R. & Faass, N. (2020). TechStress: How Technology is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Peper, E., Harvey, R. & Tylova, H. (2006). Stress protocol for assessing computer related disorders.  Biofeedback. 34(2), 57-62. 

Peper, E., Wilson, V.S., Gibney, K.H., Huber, K., Harvey, R. & Shumay. (2003). The Integration of Electromyography (sEMG) at the Workstation:  Assessment, Treatment and Prevention of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 28 (2), 167-182.

Randolph, S.A. & Cohn, A. (2017).  Computer vision syndrome. Workplace, Health and Safety, 65(7), 328.

Rosenfield, M. (2016). Computer vision syndrome (a.k.a. digital eye strain). Optometry in Practice, 17(1), 1 1 – 10. 

Schneider, M. (2016). Vision for Life, Revised Edition: Ten Steps to Natural Eyesight Improvement. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books. https://self-healing.org/shop/books/vision-for-life-2nd-ed

Sherwin, J.C., Reacher, M.H., Keogh, R. H., Khawaja, A. P., Mackey, D.A.,& Foster, P. J. (2012). The association between time spent outdoors and myopia in children and adolescents. Ophthalmology,119(10), 2141-2151.

Turgut, B. (2018). Ocular Ergonomics for the Computer Vision Syndrome. Journal Eye and Vision, 1(2).

Waderich, K., Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Sara Sutter. (2013). The psychophysiology of contemporary information technologies-Tablets and smart phones can be a pain in the neck. Presented at the 44st Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. Portland, OR.

 

 


Reduce TechStress at Home

Adapted from the upcoming book, Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Faass, (2020). Tech Stress: How Technology Is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

fig 1 extended neck

Numerous people report that working at the computer at home is more tiring than working in the office.  Although there are obvious advantages to working at home, there are also disadvantages (e.g., no space to work, challenging ergonomics, no escape from the family, lack of nonverbal cues used to communicate, less informal sharing at the water cooler, increased multitasking by working and having to take care of the children).

A major challenge is having a comfortable work space in your home.  This may mean finding a place to put the computer, keyboard and screen.  For some it is the kitchen table, desk in the corner of the bedroom, or coffee table while other it is in a totally separate room.

Incorrect ergonomic arrangement and stressed work style often increases neck, shoulder discomfort and aggravates eye strain and tiredness. Regardless how your digital work space is organized, implement the following life and work style suggestions and ergonomics recommendations to promote health.

LIFE AND WORK STYLE SUGGESTIONS

Take many, many, many breaks.  Movement breaks will reduce the covert static tension that builds up as we sit in static positions and work at the computer.

  • Every few minutes take a small break such as stand up and wiggle or role your shoulders. When performing the movements, stop looking at the screen and look around the room or out the window.
  • Every 30 minutes get up walk around for and move your body. Use timers to notify you every 30 minutes to take a break (e.g., cellphone alarms or personal digital assistants such as Hey Google, Siri, or Alexa).

Improve vision.

  • Take vision breaks to reduce eye fatigue.
    • Every few minutes look away from the screen and into the far distance and blink. If at all possible look outside at green plants which relaxes the near vision induced tension.
    • Blink and blink again. When working at the computer we reduce our blinking rate. Thus, blink each time you click on a new link, finishing entering a column of numbers, etc.
    • Close your eyes by letting the eye lids drop down as you also relax your jaw. Imagine a hook on top of your head which is pulling your head upward and at the same time drop your shoulders.
  • Reduce glare and bright backgrounds
    • Arrange your computer screen at 90 degrees to the brightest light source.
    • Have a darker background behind you when participating in video conferencing (e.g., Zoom, Skype, GoToMeeting, WhatsApp, FaceTime). Your face will be visible.

Regenerate

  • When stressed remember to breathe. As you inhale let your stomach expand as you exhale let the air flow out slowly.
  • Stop watching and listening to the negative news (check the news no more than once a day). Watch positive and humorous movies.
  • Get fresh air, go for a walk, and be in the sun
  • Reconnect with friends and share positive experiences.
  • Remind yourself, that this too shall pass.

ERGONOMIC RECOMMENDATIONS: MAKE THE WORLD YOURS

Good ergonomics means adapting the equipment and environment to you and not the other way around. Optimizes the arrangement of the chair, desk, keyboard, mouse, camera, screen and yourself as shown in Figure 1.

Workstation-Setup1

Figure 1. Recommended arrangement for working at the computer.

Arrange the laptop

The laptop is challenging because if your hands are at the right height for data entry on the keyboard, then you must look down to see the screen.  If the screen at the right height, then you have to raise your hands to reach the keyboard. There are two solutions for this challenge.

  1. Use an external keyboard and mouse, then raise the laptop so that the top of the screen is at eye level. Use a laptop stand or a stack of books to raise the lap top.
  2. Use an external monitor for display, then use the laptop as your keyboard.

If these solutions are not possible, take many, many, many breaks to reduce the neck and shoulder stress.

Arrange the computer workstation

  1. Adjust the chair so that your forearms can rest on the table without raising your shoulders. This may mean sitting on a pillow. If the chair is then too high and your legs dangle, create a foot stool on which you can rest your feet.
  2. Adjust the monitor so that the top of the screen is at eye level. If the monitor is too low, raise it by putting some books underneath it.
  3. If possible, alternate standing and sitting while working.

RESOURCES

Book

Tech Stress: How Technology Is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics provides insight in how discomfort, symptoms and media addiction develops and what you can do about it.  It incorporates the role of evolutionary traps, how biofeedback makes the unaware aware, experiential physical and cognitive practices, and ergonomic recommendations to optimize health and productivity. A must book for anyone using digital devices. Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Faass, (2020). Tech Stress: How Technology Is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Ergonomic suggestions for working at the computer and laptop.

https://peperperspective.com/2014/09/30/cartoon-ergonomics-for-working-at-the-computer-and-laptop/

https://peperperspective.com/2014/02/24/optimizing-ergonomics-adapt-the-world-to-you-and-not-the-other-way-around/

11 tips for working at home

https://www.bakkerelkhuizen.com/knowledge-center/11-productivity-tips-for-homeworkers/?utm_campaign=US+-+19+03+20&utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email

How our digital world activates evolutionary response patterns.

https://peperperspective.com/2020/01/17/evolutionary-traps-how-screens-digital-notifications-and-gaming-software-exploits-fundamental-survival-mechanisms/

https://peperperspective.com/2018/02/10/digital-addiction/

How posture affects health

https://peperperspective.com/2019/07/01/dont-slouch-improves-health-with-posture-feedback/

https://peperperspective.com/2019/05/21/relieve-and-prevent-neck-stiffness-and-pain/

https://peperperspective.com/2017/11/28/posture-and-mood-implications-and-applications-to-health-and-therapy/

https://peperperspective.com/2019/01/23/head-position-it-matters/


Evolutionary traps: How screens, digital notifications and gaming software exploits fundamental survival mechanisms

Erik Peper and Richard Harvey

If athletes, psychologists, business executives, actors, students, politicians, job seekers and others use mental and actual rehearsal to improve their performances, would repeated watching of violent and aggressive streaming-videos, or playing hours and hours of first-shooter computer games be a form of rehearsal for aggressive behavior?

Arguably, mental and actual rehearsal is positively associated with improving health, such as preparing for an athletic competition or an academic exam and is negatively associated with health when playing aggressive, violent first-person shooter video games, or continuously watching aggressive or violent content on a variety of streaming platforms. Rehearsal–whether physical or in our imagination–impacts our health and performance in school, sports, therapy, politics, business and health.  Choose to rehearse activities that improve health and well-being.

  • Athletes use mental rehearsal to improve sports performance (Peper & Aita, 2017; Schenk & Miltenberger, 2019).
  • Surgeons use mental rehearsal and actual practice to improve performance (Spiotta et al., 2018).
  • Psychologists use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) rehearsal techniques to reduce anxiety and depression (Dobson & Dobson, 2018; Yamada et al, 2018; Cook, Mostazir, & Watkins, 2019)
  • Successful business executives rehearse presentations before a staff meeting (Couch & Citrin, 2018).
  • Actors and performers spend hours and days rehearsing their roles so that they portray and act it realistically during the performance .
  • Students take practice exams so that they will perform better on the actual exam.
  • Politicians, lawyers, and many others rehearse and practice being able to answer unexpected questions.
  • Job seekers rehearse elevator pitches so that they transmit in a few words what is important

Mechanisms of rehearsal

Both mental and physical rehearsal strengthens neurochemical connections in the brain so that the rehearsed behaviors become more automated, fluid and unconscious.  There is a saying in neurosciences,  “Neurons that fire together wire together.” –the more you rehearse a task, the more those specific neurological pathways are strengthened, leading to automatic and efficient outcomes.

We now spend hours a day being exposed to digital displays on our phones, computers, gaming consoles and other digital devices, immersing ourselves in content reflecting life promoting, positive behavior and sometimes violent, negative behavior. Children and adults spend much of their free time looking at screens, texting, playing computer games, updating social media sites with moment by moment accounts of sometimes trivial activities, or going down the rabbit hole by following one hyperlinks after another.  As we do this, we are unaware how much time has frittered away without actually doing anything productive. 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 interact with media for over 40 hours per week, or around 6 hours per day!

In spending much of our time with the screens, 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.  Many researchers have lamented the loss of some social skills that develop during physical face-to-face contact.  The colloquial phrase, Use it or lose it, raises several questions about what is being lost when we spend so much of our waking time interacting with screens instead actually with other people?

It is almost impossible not to be distracted by the digital screen.  The powerful audiovisual formats override our desire to do something different that some of us become enslaved to watching streaming videos, playing computer games or texting. Moreover, the ongoing visual and auditory notifications from our apps interrupts and/or capture our attention. Why is it difficult to turn away from visual or auditory stimuli?  The answer has roots in our survival.

To attend to stimuli is an automatic evolutionary survival response. If we did not attend, we would not survive–Is the slight movement to the far right, just at the edge of our peripheral vision, a predator ready to attack?

tigera

Tiger in Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India 

Each time a stimulus occurs, we need to check it out to see if it is friend or foe, safety or danger. The response is so automatic that we are unaware that we have reacted until after we have responded. We all have experienced this. When a computer screen or cellphone screen is held by the stranger next to us, we automatically look at their screen and we may even begin to read their emails. Although we know that peering at some else’s screen is not proper, we are still feel compelled to do it!

Similarly, screens displaying computer games and other media can capture or hijack our attention by the rapid scene changes, primarily because the content is programmed so we receive intermittent rewards for our responses.  For example, the sound or visual notifications from our apps, cellphone messages, or social media trigger an impulse to scan the environment for information that may be critical to our survival. Even without receiving notifications, 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 notifications is long.  One student talking to another might say: “Don’t worry, they’ll respond; It’s only been 30 seconds.” Anticipating responses from the media can interrupt what we are otherwise doing.  For example, rather than finish our work, we 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.

The mechanisms that help us survive by scanning our environment for predators may  now become an evolutionary trap and is exploited  to capture as many eyeballs as possible to increase market share, advertising revenue, and corporate bottom line.

We usually blame the individual for lack of self-control instead of blaming the designers of the digital apps, games and displays who have exploited this biological survival mechanism.  We expect that children have voluntary control as their brains are developing–but how could they not react to the stimuli that for thousands of generations, helped them to survive. It is similar to asking children to have control and say “No” to fast foods and sweets. The foods that were previously necessary for survival represented by moderate amounts of ‘salt, fat, acid, heat and sweet’ tastes are often found in excess in our modern commercial or packaged ‘fast food nation’ making it likely that people may fall into an evolutionary trap related to what they eat.

Presently, high levels of exposure to violent and aggressive streaming videos and computer games can be harmful as they provide the practice to rehearse violence, killing and aggression mentally. It would be too strong a statement to assert that everyone who plays violent video games will become delinquent, criminal or homicidal in an extreme form of aggression.  According to the American Psychological Association Task Force on Video Game Violence in 2017, it may be asserted that high frequency, long duration, high intensity interactions with violent video games or similar media content is highly associated with angry and aggressive thoughts, desensitization to violence, and decreases in empathy or helping others (Calvert et al., 2017).  Some forms of social media interactions also lead to a form of social isolation,  loneliness (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 include not only media, but junk food as well .

The negative impact of watching digital media was prescient by Jerry Mander, one of the leading visionaries of the 20th century, in his 1978 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, as well as by Joseph C. Pearce, author of books on human development and child development, in his 1993 book, Evolution’s End.

More recently, two superb books detail the harm that the digital revolution has brought, along with recommended strategies for how to use modern technologies wisely and live successfully in an e-world.  We are not saying to avoid the beneficial parts of the digital age.   We are saying to be aware 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.  It may take parental control and societal policies to mitigate the damage and enhance the benefits of the digital age. We highly recommend the following two books.

Glow Kids by Nicholas Kardaras, PhD describes the impact of excessive texting and computer gaming as well as strategies how to use digital media wisely

Deep Work by Cal Newport, PhD describes the impact of constant interruptions and offers rules for focused success in a distracted world.

book covers

References:

Calvert, S. L., Appelbaum, M., Dodge, K. A., Graham, S., Nagayama Hall, G. C., Hamby, S., Fasig-Caldwell, L. G., Citkowicz, M., Galloway, D. P., & Hedges, L. V. (2017). The American Psychological Association Task Force assessment of violent video games: Science in the service of public interest. American Psychologist, 72(2), 126–143. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0040413

Christodoulou, G., Majmundar, A., Chou, C-P, & Pentz, M.A. (2020). Anhedonia, screen time, and substance use in early adolescents: A longitudinal mediation analysis. Journal of Adolescence, 78, 24-32.

Cook L, Mostazir M, Watkins E, (2019). Reducing Stress and Preventing Depression (RESPOND): Randomized Controlled Trial of Web-Based Rumination-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for High-Ruminating University Students. J Med Internet Res, 21(5):e11349

Couch, M. A., & Citrin, R. (2018). Retooling leadership development. Strategic HR Review, 17(6), 275-281.

Dobson, D. & Dobson, K.S. (2018). Evidence-Based Practice of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, 2nd ed. New York: Guilford Press.

Kardaras, N. (2017).  Glow Kids, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin

Mander, J. (1978).  Four arguments for the Elimination of Television. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks.

Newport, C. (2019). Deep Work. New York: Grand Central Publishing

Pearce, J. C. (1993). Evolution’s End. New York: Harper One

Peper, E. & Aita, J. (2017). Winning the Gold in Weightlifting Using Biofeedback, Imagery and Cognitive Change. Biofeedback, 45(4), 77-82

Remland, M.S. (2016). Nonverbal Communication in Everyday Life, 4th ed.  London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Schenk, M. & Miltenberger, R. (2019). A review of behavioral interventions to enhance sports performance. Behavior Interventions, 33(2), 248-279.

Spiotta, A.M, Buchholz, A.L., Pierce, A. K., Dahlkoetter, J., & Armonda, R. (2018).  The Neurosurgeon as a High-Performance Athlete: Parallels and Lessons Learned from Sports Psychology. World Neurosurgery, 120, e188-e193

Yamada, F., Hiramatsu, Y., Murata, T., Seki, Y., Yokoo, M., Noguchi, R., … & Shimizu, E. (2018). Exploratory study of imagery rescripting without focusing on early traumatic memories for major depressive disorder. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice91(3), 345-362.

 

 


“Don’t slouch!” Improve health with posture feedback

“Although I knew I slouched and often corrected myself, I never realized how often and how long I slouched until the vibratory posture feedback from the UpRight Go 2 cued me to sit up (see Figure 1).”  -Erik Peper

Fig 1 Erik wearing uprightFigure 1. Wearing an UpRight Go 2™ to increase awareness of slouching and as a reminder to change position.

For thousands of years we sat and stood erect. In those earlier times, we looked down to identify specific plants or animal track and then looked up and around to search for possible food sources, identify friends, and avoid predators.  The upright, not slouched posture body posture, is innate and optimizes body movement as illustrated in Figure 2 (for more information, see Gokhale, 2013).

Fig 2 baby and adultFigure 2. The normal aligned spine of a toddler and the aligned posture of a man carrying a heavy load.

Being tall and erect allows the head to freely rotate. Head rotation is reduced when we look down at our cell phones, tablets or laptops (Harvey, Peper, Booiman, Heredia Cedillo, & Villagomez, 2018). Our digital world captures us as illustrated in Figure 3.

Fig 3 head down computer cellphoneFigure 3. Captured by the screen with a head forward positions.

Looking down and focusing on the screen for long time periods is the opposite of what supported us to survive and thrive when we lived as hunters and gatherers. When we look down, we become more oblivious to our surroundings and unaware of the possible predators that would have been hunting us for food.

This slouched position increases back, neck, head and eye tension as well as affecting respiration and digestion (Devi, Lakshmi, & Devi, 2018; Peper, Lin, & Harvey, 2017).  After looking at the screens for a long time, we may feel tired or exhausted and lack initiative to do something else. Our mood may turn more negative since it is easier to evoke hopeless, helpless and powerless thoughts and memories when looking down than when looking up (Wilson, & Peper, 2004; Peper, Lin, Harvey, & Perez, 2017).   In the down position, our brain has to work harder to evoke positive thoughts and memories or perform cognitive tasks as compared to when the head is erect (Tsai, Peper, & Lin, 2016; Peper, Harvey, Mason, & Lin, 2018).  By looking down and focusing at the screen, our eyes may begin to strain. To be able to see objects near us, the extraocular muscles of the eyes contract to converge the eyes and the cilia muscles around the lens contract to increase the curvature of the lens so that the reading material is in focus.

Become aware how nearby vision increases eye strain.

Hold your arm straight ahead of you at eye level with your thumb up. While focusing on your thumb, slowly bring your thumb closer and closer to your nose.  Observe the increase in eyestrain as you bring your thumb closer to your nose.  

Eyestrain tends to develop when we do not relax the eyes by periodically looking away from the screen.  When we look at the horizon or trees in the far distance the ciliary muscles and the extraocular muscles  relax (Schneider, 2016).

Head forward posture increases neck and back tension

When we look down and concentrate, our head moves significantly forward. The neck and back muscles have to work much harder to hold the head up when the neck is in this flexed position. As Dr. Kenneth Hansraj, Chief of Spine Surgery New York Spine Surgery & Rehabilitation Medicine reported, “The weight seen by the spine dramatically increases when flexing the head forward at varying degrees. An adult head weighs 10-12 pounds in the neutral position. As the head tilts forward the forces seen by the neck surges to 27 pounds at 15 degrees, 40 pounds at 30 degrees, 49 pounds at 45 degrees and 60 pounds at 60 degrees.” (Hansraj, 2014).  Our head tends to tilt down when we look at the text, videos, emails, photos, or games and stay in this position for long time periods. We are captured by the digital display and are unaware of our tight overused neck and back muscles. Straightening up so that the back of the head is re-positioned over the spine and looking into the distance may help relax those muscles.

To reduce discomfort caused by slouching, we need to reintegrate our prehistoric life style pattern of alternating between looking down to being tall and looking at the distant scenery or across the room. The first step is awareness of knowing when slouching begins. Yet, we tend to be unaware until we experience discomfort or are reminded by others (e.g,  “Don’t slouch! Sit up straight!”). If we could have immediate posture feedback when we begin to slouch, our awareness would increase and remind us to change our posture.

Posture feedback with UpRight Go

Simple posture feedback device such as an UpRight Go 2™ can provide vibratory feedback each time slouching starts as the neck as the head goes forward.  The wearable feedback device consists of a small sensor that is attached to the back of the neck or back (see Figure 1). After being paired with a cellphone and calibrated for the upright position, the software algorithm detects changes in tilt and provides vibratory feedback each time the neck/back tilts forward.

In our initial exploration, employees, students and clients used the UpRight feedback devices at work, at school, at home, while driving, walking and other activities to identify situations that caused them to slouch. The most common triggers were:

  1. Ergonomic caused movement such as bring the head closer to the screen or looking down at their cell phone (for suggestions to improve ergonomics see recommendations at the end of the article)
  2. Tiredness
  3. Negative self-critical/depressive thoughts
  4. Crossing the legs protectively, shallow breathing, and other factors

After having identified some of the factors that were associated with slouching, we compared the health outcome of students who used the device for a minimum for 15 minutes a day for four weeks as compared to a control group who did not use the device. The students who received the UpRight feedback were also encouraged to use the feedback to change their posture and behavior and implemented some of the following strategies.

  • Head down when looking at their laptop, tablet or cellphone.
    • Change the ergonomics such as using a laptop stand and an external keyboard so that they could be upright while looking at the screen.
    • Take many movement breaks to interrupt the static tension.
  • Feeling tired.
    • Take a break or nap to regenerate.
    • Do fun physical activity especially activities where you look upward to re-energize.
  • Negative self-critical, powerless, self-critical and depressive thoughts and feelings.
    • Reframe internal language to empowering thoughts.
    • Change posture by wiggling and looking up to have a different point of view.
  • Crossing the legs.
    • Sit in power position and breathe diaphragmatically.
    • Get up and do a few movements such as shoulder rolls, skipping, or  arm swings.
  • Other causes.
    • Identify the trigger and explore strategies so that you can sit erect without effort.
    • Wiggle, move and get up to interrupt static muscle tension.
    • Stand up and look out of the window and the far distance while breathing slowly

Posture feedback improves health

After four weeks of using the feedback device and changing behavior,  the treatment group reported significant improvements in physical and mental health as shown in Figure 4 & 5.

Figurer 4

Figure 4. Using the posture feedback significantly improved the Physical Health and Mental Health Composite Scores for the treatment group as compared to the control group (reproduced from Mason, L., Joy, Peper, & Harvey, 2018).

Fig 5

Figure 5. Pre to post changes after using posture feedback (reproduced from Colombo, Joy, Mason, L., Peper, Harvey, & Booiman, 2017).

Summary

Slouched posture and head forward and down position usually occurs without awareness and often results in long-term discomfort. We recommend that practitioners integrate wearable biofeedback devices to facilitate home practice especially for people with neck, shoulder, back and eye discomfort as well as for those with low energy and depression (Mason et al., 2018).  We observed that a small wearable posture feedback device helped participants improve posture and decreased symptoms.  The vibratory posture feedback provided the person with the opportunity to identify the triggers associated with slouching and the option to change their posture, behavior and environment. 

As one participant reported, “I have been using the Upright device for a few weeks now. I mostly use the device while studying at my desk and during class. I have found that it helps me stay focused at my desk for longer time. Knowing there is something monitoring my posture helps to keep me sitting longer because I want to see how long I can keep an upright posture. While studying, I have found whenever I become frustrated, tired, or when my mind begins to wander I slouch. The Upright then vibrates and I become aware of these feelings and thoughts, and can quickly correct them. This device has improved my posture, created awareness, and increased my overall study time.”

Suggestions to reduce slouching and improve ergonomics

How to arrange your computer and laptop: https://peperperspective.com/2014/09/30/cartoon-ergonomics-for-working-at-the-computer-and-laptop/

Relieve neck and shoulder stiffness: https://peperperspective.com/2019/05/21/relieve-and-prevent-neck-stiffness-and-pain/

Cellphone health: https://peperperspective.com/2014/11/20/cellphone-harm-cervical-spine-stress-and-increase-risk-of-brain-cancer/

References

Colombo, S., Joy, M., Mason, L., Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Booiman, A. (2017). Posture Change Feedback Training and its Effect on Health. Poster presented at the 48th Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Chicago, IL March, 2017. Abstract published in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback.42(2), 147.

Devi, R. R., Lakshmi, V.V., & Devi, M.G. (2018). Prevalence of discomfort and visual strain due to the use of laptops among college going students in Hyderabad. Journal of Scientific Research & Reports, 20(4), 1-5.

Ehrlich, D.L. (1987). Near vision stress: vergence adaptation and accommodative fatigue.Ophthalmic Physiology Opt.,7(4), 353-357.

Gokhale, E. (2013). 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back. Pendo Press.

Hansraj, K. K. (2014). Assessment of stresses in the cervical spine caused by posture and position of the head. Surgical Technology International, 25, 277–279.

Harvey, R., Peper, E., Booiman, A., Heredia Cedillo, A., & Villagomez, E. (2018). The effect of head and neck position on head rotation, cervical muscle tension and symptoms. Biofeedback. 46(3), 65–71.

Mason, L., Joy, M., Peper, E., & Harvey, R. (2018).Wearable Posture Feedback Training: Effects on Health. Poster presented at the 2018 meeting of the 49th Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Orlando, FL. April 11-14.

Mason, L., Joy, M., Colombo, S., Peper, E., & Harvey, R. (2017). Biofeedback Strategies to Increase Social Justice and Health Equity: A wearable device to teach awareness of posture and improve self-care. Presented at the 19th Annual meeting of the Biofeedback Federation of Europe, Aveiro, Portugal, April 24-29th, 2017. Abstract in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback,43(1), 93

Peper, E., Harvey, R., Mason, L., & Lin, I-M. (2018). Do better in math: How your body posture may change stereotype threat response. NeuroRegulation, 5(2), 67-74

Peper, E., Lin, I-M., Harvey, R., & Perez, J. (2017). How posture affects memory recall and mood.  Biofeedback.45 (2), 36-41.

Peper, E., Lin, I-M, & Harvey, R. (2017). Posture and mood: Implications and applications to therapy. Biofeedback, 35(2), 42-48.

Schneider, M. (2016). Vision for Life.  Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic.

Tsai, H. Y., Peper, E., & Lin, I. M. (2016). EEG patterns under positive/negative body postures and emotion recall tasks. NeuroRegulation, 3(1), 23-27.

Wilson, V. E., & Peper, E. (2004). The Effects of Upright and Slumped Postures on the Recall of Positive and Negative Thoughts. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 29(3), 189- 95.

 

 


Head position, it matters!*

The blog has been adapted from our published article, Harvey, R., Peper, E., Booiman, A., Heredia Cedillo, A., & Villagomez, E. (2018). The effect of head and neck position on head rotation, cervical muscle tension and symptoms. Biofeedback. 46(3), 65–71.

presentation1

Why is it so difficult to turn your head to see what is behind you?

How come so many people feel pressure in the back of the head or have headaches after working on the computer?

Your mother may have been right when she said, “Sit up straight! Don’t slouch!”  Sitting slouched and collapsed is the new norm as digital devices force us to slouch or tilt our head downward. Sometimes we scrunch our neck to look at the laptop screen or cellphone. This collapsed position also contributes to an increased in musculoskeletal dysfunction (Nahar & Sayed, 2018).  The more you use a screen for digital tasks, the more you tend to have head-forward posture, especially when the screens are small (Kang, Park, Lee, Kim, Yoon, & Jung, 2012). In addition, the less time children play outside and the more time young children watch the screen, the more likely will they become near sighted and need to have their vision corrected (Sherwin et al, 2012). In addition, the collapsed head forward position unintentionally decreases subjective energy level and may amplify defeated, helpless, hopeless thoughts and memories (Bader, 2015; Peper & Lin, 2012; Tsai, Peper, & Lin, 2016; Peper et al, 2017).

Explore the following two exercises to experience how the head forward position immediately limits head rotation and how neck scrunching can rapidly induce back of the head pressure and headaches.  

Exercise 1. Effect of head forward position on neck rotation

Sit at the edge of the chair and bring your head forward, then rotate your head to the right and to the left and observe how far you can rotate. Then sit erect with the crown of the head reaching towards the ceiling and again rotate your head from right to left and observe how far you can rotate as shown in Figure 1.

fig 2 head rotationFigure 1. Head-erect versus head-forward position.

What did you experience?

Most likely your experience is similar to the 87 students (Mean Age = 23.6 years) who participated in this classroom activity designed to bring awareness of the effect of head and neck position on symptoms of muscle tension.  92.0% of the students reported that is was much easier to rotate their head and could rotate further during the  head-erect position as compared to the head-forward position (see Figure 2).

fig 4 ease of rotationFigure 2.  Self-report of ease of head rotation.

What does this mean?

Almost all participants were surprised that the head forward position restricted head rotation as well as reduced peripheral awareness (Fernandez-de-Las-Penas et al., 2006). The collapsed head forward may directly affect personal safety; since, it reduces peripheral awareness while walking, biking or driving a car. In addition, when the head is forward, the cervical vertebrae are in a more curved position compared to the erect head with the normal cervical curve (Kang et al., 2012). This means that in the head-forward position, the pressure on the vertebrae and the intervertebral disc is elevated compared to the preferred position with a stretched neck. This increases the risk of damage to the vertebrae and intervertebral disc (Kang et al, 2012). It also means that the muscles that hold the head in the forward position have to work much harder. 

Be aware that of factors that contribute to a head-forward position.

  • Sitting in a car seat in which the headrest pushes the head forward. Solutions: Tilt the headrest back or put pillow in your back from your shoulders to your pelvis to move your body slightly forward.
  • If you wear a bun or ponytail, the headrest (car, airplane seat, or chair) will often push your head forward.  This causes a change of the head to a more forward position and it becomes a habit without the person even knowing it. Solution: Place a pillow in your back to move your body forward or loosen the bun or ponytail.
  • Difficulty reading the text on the digital screen. The person automatically cranes their head forward to read the text. Solutions: Have your eyes checked and,  if necessary, wear computer-reading glasses; alternatively,  increase the font size and reduce glare. 
  • Working on a laptop and looking down on the screen. Solutions: Detachable keyboard and laptop on a stand to raise screen to eye level as shown in Figure 3.laptop with keyboard raised

Figure 3. Trying to read the laptop screen, which causes the head to go forward as compared to raising the screen and using an external keyboard. Reproduced by permission from www.backshop.nl

  • Being tired or exhausted encourages the body to collapse and slouch and increases the muscle tension in the upper cervical region. You can explore the effect of tiredness that causes slouching and head-forward position during the day by observing the following if you drive a car.

In the morning, adjust your rear mirror and side mirrors. Then at the end of the day when you sit in the car, you may note that you may need to readjust your inside rear mirror. No, the mirror didn’t change of position during the day by itself—you slouched unknowingly. Solutions: Take many breaks during the day to regenerate, install stretch break reminders, or wear an UpRight Go posture feedback device to remind you when you begin to slouch (Peper, Lin & Harvey, 2017).

Exercise 2: Effect of neck scrunching on symptom development

Sit comfortably and your nose forward and slightly. While the head is forward tighten your neck as if your squeezing the back of the head downward into the shoulders and hold this contracted neck position for 20 seconds. Let go and relax.

What did you experience?

Most likely your experience was similar to 98.4% of the 125  college students who reported a rapid increase in discomfort after neck scrunching as shown in Figure 4.

fig 9 symptoms by scrunchingFigure 4.  Symptoms induced by 30 seconds of neck scrunching.

During scrunching there was a significant increase in the cervical and trapezius sEMG activity recorded from 12 volunteers as shown in Figure 5.fig 10 cervical and trap semgFigure 5. Change in cervical and trapezius sEMG during head forward and neck scrunching.

What does this mean?

Nearly all participants were surprised that 30 seconds of neck scrunching would rapidly increase induce discomfort and cause symptoms. This experience provided motivation to identify situations that evoked neck scrunching and avoid those situations or change the ergonomics that induced the neck scrunching. If you experience headaches or neck discomfort, scrunching could be a contributing factor.

Factors that contribute to neck scrunching and discomfort.

  • Bringing your head forward to see the text or graphics more clearly. There may be multiple causes such as blurred vision, tiny text font size, small screen and ergonomic factors. Possible solutions. Have your eyes checked and if appropriate wear computer-reading glasses. Increase the text font size or use a large digital screen. Reduce glare and place the screen at the appropriate height so that the top of the screen is no higher than your eyebrows.
  • Immobility and working in static position for too long a time period. Possible solutions. Interrupt your static position with movements every few minutes such as stretching, standing, and wiggling.

Conclusion

These two experiential practices are “symptom prescription practices” that may help you become aware that head position contributes to symptoms development. For example, if you suffer from headaches or neck and backaches from computer work, check your posture and make sure your head is aligned on top of your neck–as if held by an invisible thread from the ceiling and take many movement breaks.The awareness may help you to identify situations that cause these dysfunctional body patterns that could cause symptoms. By inhibiting these head and neck patterns, you may be able to reduce or avoid discomfort. Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, self-experience through feeling and seeing is believing.

REFERENCES

Bader, E. E. (2015). The Psychology and Neurobiology of Mediation. Cardozo J. Conflict Resolution, 17, 363.

Fernandez-de-Las-Penas, C., Alonso-Blanco, C., Cuadrado, M. L., & Pareja, J. A. (2006).  Forward head posture and neck mobility in chronic tension-type headache: A blinded, controlled study. Cephalalgia, 26(3), 314-319.

Kang, J. H., Park, R. Y., Lee, S. J., Kim, J. Y., Yoon, S. R., & Jung, K. I. (2012). The effect of the forward head posture on postural balance in long time computer based worker. Annals of rehabilitation medicine, 36(1), 98-104.

Lee, M. Y., Lee, H. Y., & Yong, M. S. (2014). Characteristics of cervical position sense in subjects with forward head postureJournal of physical therapy science26(11), 1741-1743.  https://doi.org/10.1589/jpts.26.1741

Nahar, S., & Sayed, A. (2018). Prevalence of musculoskeletal dysfunction in computer science students and analysis of workstation characteristics-an explorative studyInternational Journal of Advanced Research in Computer Science9(2), 21-27.  https://doi.org/10.26483/ijarcs.v9i2.5570

Peper, E., & Lin, I. M. (2012). Increase or decrease depression: How body postures influence your energy level. Biofeedback40(3), 125-130

Peper, E., Lin, I-M., Harvey, R., & Perez, J. (2017). How posture affects memory recall and mood.  Biofeedback.45 (2), 36-41.

Peper, E., Lin, I-M, & Harvey, R. (2017). Posture and mood: Implications and applications to therapy. Biofeedback.35(2), 42-48.

Sherwin, J.C., Reacher, M.H., Keogh, R.H., Khawaja, A.P, Mackey, D.A., & Foster, P.J. (2012). The Association between Time Spent Outdoors and Myopia in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Ophthalmology, 119(10), 2141-2151. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ophtha.2012.04.020

Tsai, H. Y., Peper, E., & Lin, I. M. (2016). EEG patterns under positive/negative body postures and emotion recall tasks. NeuroRegulation, 3(1), 23-27.

*This blog was adapted from our published article, The blog has been adapted from our research article, Harvey, R., Peper, E., Booiman, A., Heredia Cedillo, A., & Villagomez, E. (2018). The effect of head and neck position on head rotation, cervical muscle tension and symptoms. Biofeedback. 46(3), 65–71.


Cell phone radio frequency radiation increases cancer risk*

cellphone radiation with source

Be safe rather than sorry. Cellphone radio frequency radiation is harmful!

The National Toxicology Program (NTP) released on October 31, 2018 their final report on rat and mouse studies of radio frequency radiation like that used with cellphones. The $30 million NTP studies took more than 10 years to complete and are the most comprehensive assessments to date of health effects in animals exposed to Radio Frequency Radiation (RFR) with modulations used in 2G and 3G cell phones. 2G and 3G networks were standard when the studies were designed and are still used for phone calls and texting.

The report concluded there is clear evidence that male rats exposed to high levels of radio frequency radiation (RFR) like that used in 2G and 3G cell phones developed cancerous heart tumors, according to final reports. There was also some evidence of tumors in the brain and adrenal gland of exposed male rats. For female rats, and male and female mice, the evidence was equivocal as to whether cancers observed were associated with exposure to RFR.

The exposures used in the studies cannot be compared directly to the exposure that humans experience when using a cell phone,” said John Bucher, Ph.D., NTP senior scientist. “In our studies, rats and mice received radio frequency radiation across their whole bodies. By contrast, people are mostly exposed in specific local tissues close to where they hold the phone. In addition, the exposure levels and durations in our studies were greater than what people experience.”

In the NTP study, the lowest exposure level used in the studies was equal to the maximum local tissue exposure currently allowed for cell phone users. This power level rarely occurs with typical cell phone use. The highest exposure level in the studies was four times higher than the maximum power level permitted.  Butcher state, “We believe that the link between radio frequency radiation and tumors in male rats is real, and the external experts agreed.”

I interpret that their results support the previous–often contested–observations that brain cancers were more prevalent in high cell phone users especially on the side of the head they held the cellphone.

More some women who have habitually stashed their cell phone in their bra have been diagnosed with a rare breast cancer located beneath the area of the breast where they stored their cell phone.  Watch the heart breaking TV interview with Tiffany. She was 21 years old when she developed breast cancer which was located right beneath the breast were she had kept her cell phone against her bare skin for the last 6 years.

While these rare cases could have occurred by chance, they could also be an early indicator of risk. Previously, most research studies were based upon older adults who have tended to use their mobile phone much less than most young people today. The average age a person acquires a mobile phone is ten years old (this data was from 2016 and many children now have cellphones even earlier).  Often infants and toddlers are entertained by smartphones and tablets–the new technological babysitter.  The possible risk may be much greater for a young people since their bodies and brains are still growing rapidly.  I wonder if the antenna radiation may be one of the many initiators or promoters of later onset cancers.  We will not know the answer; since, most cancer take twenty or more years to develop.

What can you do to reduce risk?

Act now and reduce the exposure to the antenna radiation by implementing the following suggestions:

  • Keep your phone, tablet or laptop in your purse, backpack or briefcase. Do not keep it on or close to your body.
  • Use the speakerphone or  earphones with microphone while talking.  Do not hold it against the side of your head, close to your breast or on your lap.
  • Text while the phone is on a book or on a table away from your body.
  • Put the tablet and laptop on a table and away from the genitals.
  • Set the phone to airplane mode.
  • Be old fashioned and use a cable to connect to your home router instead of relying on the WiFi connection.
  • Keep your calls short and enjoy the people in person.
  • Support legislation to label wireless devices with a legible statement of possible risk and the specific absorption rate (SAR) value. Generally, higher the SAR value, the higher the exposure to antenna radiation.
  • Support the work by the Environmental Health Trust.

For an radio interview on this topic, listen to my interview on Deborah Quilter’s radio show. http://www.blogtalkradio.com/rsihelp/2018/11/20/why-you-should-keep-your-cell-phone-away-from-your-body-with-dr-erik-peper

For more information on NTP study see:

*The blog is adapted in part from the November 1, 2018 news release from the National Toxicology Program (NTP)1, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences2, National Institute of Health (NIH)3.

  1. About the National Toxicology Program (NTP):NTP is a federal, interagency program headquartered at NIEHS, whose goal is to safeguard the public by identifying substances in the environment that may affect human health. For more information about NTP and its programs, visit niehs.nih.gov.
  2. About the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS): NIEHS supports research to understand the effects of the environment on human health and is part of NIH. For more information on environmental health topics, visit niehs.nih.gov. Subscribe to one or more of the NIEHS news lists (www.niehs.nih.gov/news/newsroom/newslist/index.cfm) to stay current on NIEHS news, press releases, grant opportunities, training, events, and publications.
  3. About the National Institutes of Health (NIH):NIH, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit nih.gov.

    

 

 


A view of the near future: Borderless

Faced with the challenges of fake news or the role of social media in shaping people’s actions, you may wonder what the future brings. Science fiction of the near future may suggest what could happen.  I am so proud that my son, Eliot Peper, has explored these issues in his just published book, Borderless.

borderlesscan

As he wrote,  Borderless is a speculative thriller about a refugee-turned-rogue-spy navigating a geopolitical labyrinth through a near future where information is power and whoever controls the feed rules the world. Lush, nuanced, and philosophical, the story grapples with the decline of the nation state, the rise of tech platforms, and reconciling sins of the past with dreams of the future. Craig Newmark calls it, “A riveting cautionary tale about how the control of information could lead to new forms of democratic governance, or to accidental empires. Rooted in the current realities of the internet and social media, Borderless explores a near future in which our lives are shaped without our conscious consideration.”

Unlike any other book I’ve written, Borderless had a title before I sat down to draft chapter one. The dismantling of borders is a powerful theme in my life, and I began to recognize it beneath the surface of the headlines. The characters, plot, and world gravitated around this core idea before falling into place as I made my way through the manuscript.

I am a child of immigrants.

My father is from The Hague. My Jewish paternal grandfather was one of the only members of his family to survive World War II. He hid in a secret compartment while Nazi patrols searched their cramped apartment. Meanwhile, my paternal grandmother, a Protestant, became a secret agent of the Dutch resistance, ferrying information, supplies, and people out of the camps, even as she raised and protected her family. They fled to the United States when they worried that the Cold War might devolve into a third World War.

My mother is from Vancouver. Her family immigrated to Canada from the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, and for them, British Columbia must have felt tropical. I have many fond memories of scrambling over rocks and sneaking through forests on Vancouver Island with my cousins. And, of course, huddling around the monitor’s glow to play Final Fantasy VII while our parents shook their heads in bewilderment.

My wife is from Colombia, and her family escaped the drug violence that plagued Cali by moving to Connecticut. Just before I embarked on Borderless, we volunteered with a local resettlement agency to host a Ugandan refugee in our home in Oakland. The initial commitment was for three months, but Marvin ended up staying for nine months and became a dear friend. We’ve learned an enormous amount from each other, and he continues to find it quite odd that my “job” is writing books.

As I prepared to write this particular book, I couldn’t help but notice how different our world today is from the one my grandparents inhabited. Baby pictures from friends living in a far-off Austrian village greet me when I go online after my morning coffee. A momentary uptick in Sri Lankan tea prices zips through global markets at the impossible speed of high-frequency trading. We can fly halfway around the world only to board an on-demand car service and stay in a stranger’s apartment complete with an unfamiliar toilet and a friendly list of local tips taped to the fridge.

While I worked my way through the rough draft, more modern oddities presented themselves. I used Google Maps to track the trajectory of a character’s flight to and from the Arctic. I played around with a research tool that projects the impacts of sea-level rise on specific urban areas. I discovered the beautiful true story of the Golden Record via Maria Popova’s peerless blog, Brainpickings. Just for fun, I backed a Swedish artist’s Kickstarter project and began a collaboration with a designer living in Argentina and an illustrator living in New Zealand. My grandfather spoke Esperanto, but he would never have recognized this weird dimension we insist on calling “reality.”

Cars, telegrams, planes, phones, trains, broadcast media, and container ships made the world smaller. Now the internet is stitching the strange, scary, and wonderful pieces together into a single civilization.

Unfortunately the results aren’t always pretty. As I write this, authoritarian populism is rearing its ugly head, hate-mongers dominate the news cycle, and a country of immigrants is beginning to turn away people like Marvin. This is something my grandparents would recognize in a heartbeat.

Fear at an uncertain future is all too understandable. Technology isn’t just making our national borders more porous; it’s shifting the borders of the twentieth-century social contract and causing a lot of people a lot of suffering. But letting fear get in the way of reason leads to ruin. Civilization is more delicate than it seems, and unlike previous civilizations that were geographically limited, this is the only one we’ve got.

Progress is painful. We use technology to do work we would prefer to avoid, and then need to make up new jobs for ourselves. We enjoy the cheap prices made possible by offshore manufacturing, and then realize we can’t enforce social or environmental regulations across the supply chain. We download entire libraries of pirated music, and then discover we must support artists if we want more of what we love.

Problems beget solutions beget new problems. The snake eats its tail, and we go round and round again. But that doesn’t mean things don’t get better. Child mortality, infectious disease, poverty, and violent death are at all-time lows. Literacy, longevity, and scientific knowledge are at all-time highs. There isn’t a time in all of history I’d rather live in than the present, and there’s nothing more important than doing our part to build a better future.

When I finally reached the end of the rough draft, Diana, the protagonist, had become a close friend. As a quirky and dangerously competent spy, she was enormous fun to write. Chapter by chapter, she developed a stronger and stronger sense of agency until I felt like I was documenting her adventures rather than inventing them. Diana proved herself to be the kind of person who doesn’t shy away from hard truths, who confronts and overcomes her own flaws, who aspires to serve rather than rule others, and who fights through all the madness and pain that life throws her way in order to do what she feels is right.

I have a lot to learn from her. Perhaps we all do.

Thank you for reading. I put everything I have into this story, and if you’re still with me, I can only hope that it will resonate with you. As in so many other arenas of life, the borders delineating the publishing industry are changing fast. But there’s at least one thing that’s as true as ever: writers write manuscripts, but books succeed thanks to the support and enthusiasm of readers. If you enjoy Borderless, please leave a review and tell your friends about it. It may feel insignificant, but nothing is more powerful than word of mouth.

Onward and upward.

Selected praise:

“A sharply rendered, wildly entertaining thriller speaking to the dangerous realities of our present: climate change, the changing shape of power, the very American values that defined Peper’s grandparents’ post-war lives—themes that are now fraught within our real world as it becomes increasingly globalized and divided.”
East Bay Express

“William Gibson meets Daniel Suarez. Launching the reader into a world dominated by massive tech companies and struggling nation states, Borderless explores frighteningly plausible scenarios that extrapolate the social implications of privacy, data, and national sovereignty. Diana, a refugee-turned-secret-agent, barrels through Bay Area hipster hangouts and the inner sanctums of geopolitical power on her way to shaping a future that feels like it’s right around the corner. Borderless is fresh, intriguing, and inevitable.”
-John Hanke, CEO at Niantic and creator of Google Maps, Google Earth, and Pokémon Go

“Clock-ticking suspense… Resonates resoundingly with present-day headlines about net neutrality and global dependence on the internet.”
Publishers Weekly

“Spectacular. Peper just gets better and better with each book. I stayed up way past my bedtime reading it. Riveting, relevant, and wonderful.”
-Brad Feld, managing director at Foundry Group

“Every empire builds an information infrastructure. Rome built roads. The British had an imperial telegraph system. What happens when the infrastructure is independent of the empires? That’s the fascinating question explored by Borderless, an entertaining novel of intrigue and action full of troubled heroes and imperfect compromises.”
-Peter Cowhey, dean of UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy & Strategy and Qualcomm Endowed Chair in Communications and Technology Policy

“Peper does an outstanding job of researching his books and painting futures that are all too plausible.”
The Geekiverse

“Eliot Peper’s Analog trilogy continues the war between the establishment and the future. This is Diana’s book: the freelance spy faces down her past and her present, to build a better tomorrow. Peper channels John Perry Barlow and declares independence.”
-Simon Le Gros Bisson, technology journalist

“Through exciting twists and turns, Borderless explores how the rise of tech platforms challenges traditional nation states.”
-Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View

“More action. More suspense. More intrigue. More of everything in the second installment of the Analog Series, Borderless.”
-Bernard Jan

“Rising science fiction star Eliot Peper takes us into a near future where everyone, every nation, and everything depends on the feed—an extension of the dominant social media companies that dominate the news today. Compelling action is mixed with thoughtful treatises on the power of information and who should control it, and on the nature of human relationships. Borderless is a timely novel, and a worthy sequel to Bandwidth.”
-Glen Hiemstra, founder of Futurist.com

“Peper is on top of his game and delivers a stunning look into our future with Borderless. If I had a connection with a TV or movie studio and I was able to pitch one thing to them – it would be this series.”
-Brian Krespan


Expand your horizon: Listen to Podcasts

Nearly every day when I listen to podcasts while commuting I learn something new that challenges my assumptions or that makes me say to myself, “Oh, I never thought of that.”

world

For thousands of years, ideas, myths, and history were transmitted through oral story telling.  When we listen, our imagination has the opportunity to create and illustrate the scenes described in the story. Often this imaginary world is more vivid and real than the actual world. That is why it always seems to be true that “the book was so much better than the movie.” Unlike film, where the audiovisual experience are controlled, listening to oral storytelling provides the opportunity to create your own imagery and widen your perspective.

Take charge on where you choose to focus your attention.  Instead of being hijacked by the headlines, listen to in-depth analysis, stories and different points of view provided by podcasts.  In many cases what we thought was “the truth” may be just one more biased opinion. While driving, commuting on public transportation, or sitting at home, listen to podcasts to expand your horizon. Podcasts are the modern equivalent of sharing stories around a campfire.    The following are a few of the podcasts that I enjoy. Please let me know your favorites.

Hidden Brain. Shankar Vedantam uses science and storytelling to reveal the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, shape our choices and direct our relationships. https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510308/hidden-brain

Revisionist History. Malcolm Gladwell’s journey through the overlooked and the misunderstood. Every episode re-examines something from the past—an event, a person, an idea, even a song—and asks whether we got it right the first time.
Because sometimes the past deserves a second chance. http://revisionisthistory.com/

Freakonomics. Discover the hidden side of everything with Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of the Freakonomics books. Each week, Freakonomics Radio tells you things you always thought you knew (but didn’t) and things you never thought you wanted to know (but do) — from the economics of sleep to how to become great at just about anything. Dubner speaks with Nobel laureates and provocateurs, intellectuals and entrepreneurs, and various other underachievers. http://freakonomics.com/archive/

TED Talks Daily. Hear thought-provoking ideas on every subject imaginable — from Artificial Intelligence to Zoology, and everything in between — given by the world’s leading thinkers and doers. https://www.ted.com/about/programs-initiatives/ted-talks/ted-talks-audio

RadioLab. Hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich has been devoted to investigating a strange world. Radiolab has won Peabody Awards, a National Academies Communication Award “for their investigative use of radio to make science accessible to broad audience.” https://www.wnycstudios.org/shows/radiolab/podcasts

 

 


Do better in math: Don’t slouch-Be tall!

“When I saw the exam questions, I blanked out and slouched in defeat. Then I shifted to an erect/tall position and took a diaphragmatic breath. All of a sudden I remembered the answer.”                                                                                                                        College student

Anticipating that math is difficult, experiencing test anxiety, blanking out on exams, or being scared when asked to give class presentation are common experiences of many students.  Their thoughts include, “I am not good enough,“What will the other students think,”  “I am embarrassed and can’t remember what to say,” or “I only thought of the correct answer after it was all over.” Many students report some test anxiety: 32% report severe test anxiety, fear of math and blanking out on exams while less than 10 percent report minimal test anxiety, fear of math and blanking out on exams.

When students anticipate that they will perform poorly on an exam or class presentation, they tend to sit in a slouched or collapsed position, coincident with feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness and defeat. This posture not only communicates to others that they are powerless and defeated, it also decreases their self-esteem, mood and cognitive performance.  In previous research, Tsai et al (2016) and Peper et al (2017) observed that when participants sat in a slouched posture, they could access hopeless, helpless, powerless and defeated memories much more easily than when they sat in the upright/erect position.  In the upright position it was much easier to access positive and empowering memories. For numerous participants they also experienced being captured and flooded by emotions associated with defeat and hopelessness when they slouched. These feelings and memories associated with a slouched posture may affect how we feel and perform. Nair et al (2015) found that adopting an upright seated posture in the face of stress can maintain self-esteem, reduce negative mood, and increase positive mood as compared to a slumped posture. Furthermore, sitting upright increases rate of speech and reduces self-focus.” Posture may also affect our hormone levels. Harvard Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy has reported that sitting in a slouched posture (powerless position) decreased testosterone (the hormone associated dominance and assertiveness) and increased cortisol (the hormone associated with stress) and performance on a stressor test (Cuddy, 2012; Carney et al, 2010). 

This blog points out how posture significantly impacts math performance especially for students who have test anxiety, are fearful of math, and blank out on exams and is adapted from our published research article, Peper, E., Harvey, R., Mason, L., & Lin, I-M. (2018). Do better in math: How your body posture may change stereotype threat response. NeuroRegulation, 5(2), 67-74 

In our study 125 university students participated. Half the students sat in an erect position while the other half sat in a slouched position and were asked to mentally subtract 7 serially from 964 for 30 seconds. They then reversed the positions before repeating the math subtraction task beginning at 834. They rated the math task difficulty on a scale from 0 (none) to 10 (extreme).

Fig 1 Slouch collapse positionFigure 1. Sitting in a collapsed position and upright position (photo from: http://news.sfsu.edu/news-story/good-posture-important-physical-and-mental-health)

The students rated the mental math significantly more difficult while sitting slouched than while sitting erect as shown in Figure 2.

Fig 2 difficulty in math by positionFigure 2. The subjective rating of difficulty in performing the serial 7 math subtraction when sitting in a collapsed or upright position.

For the students with the lowest 30% test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out scores, there was no significant difference between slouched and erect positions in mental math performance.  More importantly, students with the highest 30% test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out scores rated the math task significantly more difficult and some could not do it at all and blanked out in the slouched position as compared to the erect position as shown in Figure 3.

Fig 3 30 percent math performanceFigure 3. Effect of posture on math performance for students with test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out.

 The students with the highest test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out scores also reported significantly more somatic symptoms as compared with those with the lowest scores as shown in Figure 4.

Fig 4 SymptomsFigure 4. Self-reported symptoms associated with the highest and lowest 30% of summed test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out.

Discussion

Posture affects mental math and inhibit abstract thinking. By incorporating posture changes clinicians and teachers may help students improve performance.  The slouched position was associated with increased difficulty in performing a math subtraction task for 15 seconds, especially for students reporting higher test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out on exams. In contrast, slouched position had no significant effect on students who reported that they were not stressed about performance. For participants who report higher test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out they also reported significant increase in breathing difficulty, neck and shoulder tension, headaches, depression and anxiety. Most likely, the students attribute physiological reactions such as increased heart rate and breathing changes negatively, which amplifies their negative self-perception and exacerbates their anxiety symptoms which then may inhibit their cognitive ability to perform on math tasks.

The slouched position combined with the somatic symptoms activate are part of the a “defense reaction.” The slouch posture evokes a classically conditioned response to protect oneself under conditions of perceived physical threat. The activation of this defense pattern is associated with reduced levels of abstract thinking and frontal cortical deactivation as observed in this study.  This biological defense response is triggered when the person expects the situation to be ‘dangerous’ and include conditions of social-evaluative threat. By changing posture to an erect/upright posture appears to inhibit the defense reaction; thus, the person may perform better on cognitive tasks. 

Summary

Head-upright/erect postures may make it easier to access ‘positive and empowering’ thoughts and memories, thereby helping students, especially those who are anxious or fearful of math and blank-out during exams,   Anxious students who also slouch may benefit from training with a posture feedback  devices such as the UpRight Go™[1].  We recommend that students use posture feedback to become aware of the situations that are associated with slouching, such as ergonomic factors (looking down at the screen), being tired, or having depressive thoughts or feeling of powerless and defeat. 

The moment students experience the feedback that they are slouching, they become aware and have the option to shift to an upright posture and perform interventions to counter the factors that caused the slouching.  These interventions included ergonomic changes of their computer or laptop, transforming self-critical thoughts to empowering thoughts, or taking a break or performing movements. When students practice these interventions for four weeks, they report an increase of confidence, decrease in stress levels and an improvement in health and performance (Colombo et al, 2017; Harvey et al, in press). Equally important is to teach the participants self-regulation strategies  such as slower breathing, heart rate variability training, and muscle relaxation to reduce symptoms. The training needs to be generalized and practiced at home, school or work.

We recommend that students guide themselves through the posture positions as described in this research while performing mental math to experience how posture impacts performance. This experiential practice may increase motivation to be tall since the participant can now have a choice based upon self-experience.

Take home message echoes what your mother said, “Don’t slouch. Sit up tall!” 

  • If you feel secure and safe, posture has little to no effect on performance–you can be collapsed or slouched.
  • If you are anxious and fearful, sitting tall/erect may improve your performance.
  • If you want to become aware when you slouch, posture feedback from a wearable posture feedback device such as an UpRight Go can provide vibration feedback each time you slouch. The feedback can be the reminder to sit tall and change your thoughts.
  • If you automatically slouch while working at the computer or sitting in chair, change your furniture so that you sit in an upright position while studying or watching digital devices.
  • If you experience significant somatic symptoms (e.g., headaches, breathing difficulty, neck and shoulder tension, or depression and anxiety) learn self-regulation skills such as slower diaphragmatic breathing and heartrate variability training in conjunction with transforming negative self-talk to positive self-talk to improve performance.

Changing posture may also impact other areas of one’s life besides improving math performance as illustrated by the report from a mother of ten-year old boy.  

”At the moment I am trying to be aware of the situation in front of me rather that reacting to it. For example, yesterday my son who is 10 had a bad mood and I did not know what had happened, and he at first refused to tell me. Because I was aware of the posture information I could help him open up by making him change his posture without knowing. He became more open and told me what had happened earlier and I could help him move forward.”

REFERENCES

Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21(10), 1363–1368.

Colombo, S., Joy, M., Mason, L., Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Booiman, A.C. (2017). Posture Change Feedback Training and its Effect on Health. Poster presented at the 48th Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Chicago, IL March, 2017. Abstract published in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback.42(2), 147.

Cuddy, A. (2012). Your body language shapes who you are. Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) Talk, available at:  www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are

Harvey, R., Mason, L., Joy, M., & Peper, E. (in press). Effect of Posture Feedback Training on Health, Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. 

Nair, S., Sagar, M., Sollers, III, J., Consedine, N. & Broadbent, E.  (2015). Do Slumped and Upright Postures Affect Stress Responses? A Randomized Trial. Health Psychology, 34(6), 632–641.

Peper, E., Harvey, R., Mason, L., & Lin, I-M. (2018). Do better in math: How your body posture may change stereotype threat response. NeuroRegulation, 5(2), 67-74

Peper, E., Lin, I-M., Harvey, R., & Perez, J. (2017). How posture affects memory recall and mood.  Biofeedback.45 (2), 36-41.

Tsai, H. Y., Peper, E., & Lin, I. M.* (2016). EEG patterns under positive/negative body postures and emotion recall tasks. NeuroRegulation, 3(1), 23-27.

[1] UpRight Go is produced by Upright Technologies. LTD, Ha’atzmaut 56, Yehud 5630425, Israel  https://www.uprightpose.com

 


Digital addiction*

CartoonFrom: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/life-without-cellphone-waseem-abbas/

I felt dismissed and slighted when in the middle of dinner, my friend picked up his phone and quickly glanced at the notification.  The message appeared more important than me.

I had accidentally left my phone at home and the whole day long, I kept reaching for it to check email and social media feeds-I felt emotionally lost.

The host at the dinner party asked us to turn our phone off or leave it at the door.  At first I felt the impulse to check my phone, but during the evening I really connected with the other people.  

As I was running on the trail behind UC Berkeley enjoying the expansive view of the San Francisco Bay, an other idea for this article popped into my head–the importance of taking time to reflect and allow neural regeneration. I rushed back to add those concepts to the article.

When observing university students sitting in the classroom, I see them alone with their heads down looking at their mobile phone. When students enter a classroom, during class breaks, or after class they are continually texting, scrolling, clicking or looking at their smartphone screen instead of engaging with people next to them.  The same habits exist outside the classroom, whether they are leaning against the walls in the hallways, walking between classes, eating pizzas, or standing on the bus, the iNeck posture has become the all too common body position.

We respond automatically to notifications from email, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter.  Each notification feels so important that we interrupt what we are doing and look at the screen.  The notifications activate neurological pathways that would have been triggered if we perceived a danger signal in our environment (e.g., a carnivore) that would threaten our existence. In addition, it provides updates on our social environment which would be necessary for our group’s survival.

This orienting process is automatic. For example, when you sit next to someone and they open their computer screen – without being prompted and against social etiquette – you automatically glance at their screen. The changing visual stimulation especially in the peripheral vision triggers us to orient to the cause of the visual changes.  In the past these peripheral changes would indicate that there is something going to which we need to pay attention.  It could be the tiger shadowing us or a possible enemy.  Now the ongoing visual display changes hijacks our vigilance that evolved over millions of years for survival. Looking at and being captured by the screen has now become an evolutionary trap (Peper, 2015). A fictional account of the stress generated during  texting when there is not an immediate response is superbly described  by Aziz Ansari & Eric Klinenberg (2015) in their book Modern Romance.

Besides automatically responding to the novel stimuli, our neural reward pathways are activated when we respond to the stimulus, click and scroll and are rewarded by text, videos, or music. The rewards from our scrolling, clicking and surfing are intermittent and creates the internet addiction.

As a result, many people preemptively check their phone or automatically respond to notifications during their waking hours. In social situations, constant phone interruptions cause others to feel slighted and snubbed. In our research students who use their phone the most experience significantly higher levels of isolation/loneliness, depression and anxiety than those who use their phone the least as shown in Figure 1 (Peper et al, 2016).

high and low

Figure 1. Self-reports of isolation, depression and anxiety were significantly higher for students who use their phone the most as compared to those who use their phone the least during socializing.  Reproduced with permission from Peper et al, 2016.

Being on-call and continuously checking the phone also contributes to multitasking which interrupts attention and performance (Jarmon, 2008; Brinols & Rajesh, 2014). Many students no longer focus on one task at hand; instead, they are multitasking and interrupt their tasks by by responding to social media, listening to music or surfing the web (Swingle, 2016Clement and Miles, 2018).   In our recent survey of 135 university students, almost all report that they multitask even though it would be better to focus on the required task and shift focus after the task was done as is shown in Figure 2 (Peper et al, 2014).

multitasking

Figure 2. Self-report of multitasking. Reproduced with permission from Peper et al, 2014.

How come we have become so addicted that we feel the urgency to check our phones day and night even if when there are no notifications?

The screen is the first focus of attention when we wake up and the last one before sleep. We cannot even wait to finish a meal or talk to a friend before checking the phone for possible updates.  For this addictive behavior, we can thank the major tech companies who have hired the smartest and brightest engineers, programmers and scientists to develop software and hardware to capture our attentions and conditions us to be addicted to increase corporate profit: more eyeballs, more clicks, more money. For a detailed analysis of how Tech companies created our addiction, see the superb article by Michael Schulson (2018), If the internet is addictive, why don’t we regulate it?

Do not place the blame on the child or adult who claim they do not have self-control.  The addiction was predominantly created by tech companies in their quest to capture market share by exploiting our natural evolutionary survival responses to orient and attend to a change in our visual and auditory world which has become an evolutionary trap. By providing intermittent reinforcers, the addiction is quickly established and challenging to overcome (Alter, 2017).  The addiction is similar to the opioid addiction which was created by pharmaceutical companies in their on-going quest to increase profits. Just as opioid addiction leads to long term harm, I wonder about the long term harm of internet addiction. It may be worse than the opioid addiction because it reduces actual social connections and emotional regulation, increases distractibility and attention deficit and, and decreases self-initiative (proactive versus reactive behavior) which may result in compromised health and well-being.

Being plugged-in and connected limits the time for reflection and regeneration. This un-programed time allows new ideas and concepts to emerge, provides time to assess your own and other people’s actions from a distant perspective.  It offers the pause that refreshes and time for neural regeneration. Our nervous system, just like our muscular system, grow when there is enough time to regenerate after being stressed. Ongoing stress or stimulation without time to regenerate leads to illness and neural death.  The phenomena can be seen in the development of rat brains.

Neuroanatomist Professor Marion Diamond showed that rats who were brought up in an impoverished environment and had very little stimulation had a thinner cortex and less dendritic connections than rats brought up in an enriched environment (Rosenzweig, 1966; Diamond et al, 1975).  More importantly, an excessively enriched environment was associated to a reduction of neurogenesis and synaptic plasticity (Joels et al, 2004). The more hours of television a child between age 1 and 3 watched was directly correlated with associated attentional problems at age 7 (Christakis et al, 2004). This suggests that excessive stimulation during brain development may be harmful.  Thus,  from a biological perspective health is the alternation between activity and regeneration. If the brain is not allowed enough time to be off-line and regenerate, neural degeneration most likely will occur.

Mobilize your health and disconnect to allow regeneration. Take charge of your addiction,  regain social connections, and develop proactive attention.

  1. Recognize that you have been manipulated into addiction by the tech companies which have covertly conditioned you to react to notifications and creating the desire (addiction) to check for updates.
  2. Become proactive by limiting interruptions when you work and play.

Recommended readings

Alter, A. (2017). Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. New York: Penguin Press. Explores in detail how and why we have become addicted and offers strategies how we can harness the addiction for the good.

Clement, J. & Miles, M. (2018). Screen schooled-Two veteran teachers expose how technology overuse is making our kids dumber. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. A superb analysis how screen saturation at home and school has created a wide range of cognitive and social deficits in our young people.

Foer, F. (2017). World without mind-The existential threat of big tech. New York: Penguin Press. A passionate informed case that the great tech companies are robbing us of our individuality, humanity, our values and how to deal with complexity. It offers strategies to take back your autonomy and mind.

Swingle, M. (2016). i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media are Changing our Brains, our Behavior, and the Evolution of our Species. Gabriola Island, BC
Canada: New Society Publishers. Based upon 18 years of clinical observations this book describes in detail how the digital revolution is change our brains and offers constructive strategies how to use the digital tool constructively.

* Adapted from Peper, E. & Harvey, R. (2018). Digital addiction: increased loneliness, depression, and anxiety. NeuroRegulation. 5(1),3–8doi:10.15540/nr.5.1.3

References

Alter, A. (2017). Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. New York: Penguin Press. Explores in detail how and why we have become addicted and offers strategies how we can harness the addiction for the good.

Ansari, A. & Klinenberg, E. (2015). Modern Romance 
by Penguin Press: New York.  https://www.amazon.com/Modern-Romance-Aziz-Ansari/dp/0143109251/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1518021029&sr=1-1&keywords=Modern+Romance

Brinols, A.B. & Rajesh, R. (2014). Multitasking with smartphones in the college classroom. Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, 77(1), 89–95. http://journals.sagepub.com.jpllnet.sfsu.edu/doi/pdf/10.1177/2329490613515300

Christakis, D.A., Zimmerman, F.J., DiGiuseppe, D.L., &  McCarty, C.A. (2004). Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children. Pediatrics. 113(4). http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/113/4/708

Clement, J. & Miles, M. (2018). Screen schooled-Two veteran teachers expose how technology overuse is making our kids dumber. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. https://www.amazon.com/Screen-Schooled-Veteran-Teachers-Technology/dp/1613739516

Diamond, M. C., Lindner, B., Johnson, R., Bennett, E. L., & Rosenzweig, M. R. (1975). Difference in occipital cortical synapses from environmentally enriched, impoverished, and standard colony rats. Journal of Neuroscience Research, 1(2), 109-119. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1223322

Jarmon, A. L. (2008). Multitasking: Helpful or harmful? Student Lawyer, 36(8), 31-35. https://ttu-ir-tdl-org.jpllnet.sfsu.edu/ttu-ir/bitstream/handle/10601/925/Jarmon_Multitasking%20Helpful%20or%20Harmful.pdf?sequence=1

Joels, M.., Karst, H., Alfarez, D.,  Heine, V.M., Qin, Y.,  van Riel, E., Verkuyl, M., Lucassen, P.J., & . Krugers, H.J. (2004). Effects of chronic stress on structure and cell function in rat hippocampus and hypothalamus. Stress, 7(4), 221-231. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10253890500070005

Peper, E., Harvey, R., Lin, E., Lau, S., Mitose, J., & Rogers. (2014). Cellphone and multitasking survey of college students.  Unpublished manuscript. San Francisco State University.

Peper, E. (2015). Evolutionary/environmental traps create illness: Be aware of commercialized stimuli. Psychophysiology Today-The E Magazine for Mind-Body Medicine. 10(1), 9-11. http://files.ctctcdn.com/c20d9a09001/eabdf1d4-f4a1-4eea-9879-44ff24e6224c.pdf

Peper, E., Silva, L.M., & Grasham, G. (2016). Cell phone use by university students. Unpublished manuscript, San Francisco State University.

Rosenzweig, M. R. (1966). Environmental complexity, cerebral change, and behavior. American Psychologist, 21(4), 321-332. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0023555

Shulson, M. (2018). If the internet is addictive, why don’t we regulate it?Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/if-the-internet-is-addictive-why-don-t-we-regulate-it?utm_source=Aeon+Newsletter&utm_campaign=b9442547f4-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_01_29&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_411a82e59d-b9442547f4-68958453

Swingle, M. (2016). i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media are Changing our Brains, our Behavior, and the Evolution of our Species. Gabriola Island, BC
Canada: New Society Publishers.