Are gadgets bad for your health?

Find out if 3D gives your retinas a rough ride

Is technology as bad for your health as doctors and experts are making it out to be? Well, maybe not. T3 speaks with several experts to find out whether your mobile phone is slowly killing you

The link between our health and technology has continually been thrown up as our interaction with tech becomes increasingly frequent and essential. What we all want to know is, as homosapiens slowly transform into homotechnicus - yes, we really did make that word up - what will become of our biological parts?

T3 has consulted health professionals to discover how technology affects our health, including our posture, eyesight and even fertility. Step this way: the tech doctor will see you now...

Read below to have your most pressing iHealth queries answered

Is 3D bad for my eyes?

Considering human beings see in three dimensions without the help of unstylish glasses, there’s been a surprising amount of concern about 3D TVs and movies. Sony and Samsung have tucked away health warnings in online terms of service for some of their 3D-ready technology with dizziness, nausea, involuntary muscle twitching and seizures among the possible consequences cited for prolonged exposure to it.

But while anyone who saw Piranha 3D or Resident Evil: Afterlife will see a licker of truth in that, experts aren’t convinced.

“Our eyes are actually very good at concentrating on something like 3D,” says Dr Rob Hogan, past president of the College of Optometrists. Hogan’s bigger concern is that not everybody is getting the full immersive experience, with anybody who has a squint or lazy eye unlikely to perceive the effect.

“Even for the rest of us there are issues because most of us have one eye that’s stronger than the other. Until prescription 3D glasses become commonplace that won’t go away, but I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that just watching 3D causes any of these.”

Still, take care to avoid cinemas when Piranha 3DD – the sequel – arrives later this year. Better safe than sorry.

Could gadgets make me infertile?

A hot scrotum is an unhappy scrotum. It is believed that testes hang outside of the body because they do their best work a couple of degrees lower than body temperature.

For this reason, research has been carried out into the effect carrying a phone in your pocket all day or spending hours with a hot laptop could affect your, ahem, “lap”.

One study from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio found that men who use phones for more than four hours a day had fewer sperm and that those they did have were lazy swimmers. “There is also evidence that using a laptop on your lap can increase the temperature of a man’s scrotum,” says Dr Allan Pacey, an andrologist at the University of Sheffield. “But there is no evidence that I am aware of that this affects sperm counts.”

Pacey concedes that lab results are often far removed from what might happen in real life. If you’re still fretting – and are unable to work at a table – try using your laptop while sitting cross-legged with your legs spread apart. Research from Stony Brook University in New York found that this leads to a downstairs temperature saving of almost a degree.

Either way, don’t panic, says Pacey. “Male fertility is largely set by genetics and what happened to a male before he was born. Any man facing fertility problems might be advised to avoid heat and radiation from phones but there’s no evidence that such exposures will reduce the chances of being a father.”

Can apps make me fit?

Death and disease? Yes, there’s an app for that. Several in fact.

For instance, if you’re worried an outbreak of swine flu or legionnaire’s disease is brewing up the road, download HealthMap from the App Store. It uses Google Maps to alert you when there’s any kind of outbreak in your neighbourhood.

The number of health-related apps has increased by 78 per cent since the beginning of 2010. In the mix are apps to monitor headaches, your heart rate, your blood pressure and more. They track your diet and fitness. Some even claim to measure your lung volume. But do these pocket medics actually improve your health?

“I think they’re very useful,” says Bupa medical director Annabel Bentley. “Anything that gives us data and feedback and spurs us on to take a more active interest in our health is good.”

Research has shown that having access to personalised health information can trigger behaviour change. That’s why there are so many weight loss and running trackers in the App Store. The only problem is that some people buy an app and think it will sit in their pocket and magically reduce their cholesterol or drag them out running.

The authors of a report called Mobile Health 2010 warn that apps that require constant updating and interactivity see a sharp drop-off in use. But while your iPhone should never replace your GP, the two can work together. “If you use apps to measure different aspects of your health, your doctor could potentially use that info to treat you better,” says Bentley.

What’s a healthy number of friends on Facebook?

Resist the urge to collect friends and followers on social networking sites. The average Facebook user has 130 “friends”, usually a mixture of genuine mates, colleagues and old contacts you wouldn’t recognise if you passed on the street, and according to Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary anthropologist at Oxford University, that’s a pretty healthy number.

Back in 1992, Dunbar determined that the size of our brains put a cap on the number of meaningful social relationships we can realistically manage. The so-called Dunbar Number is 150.

“There’s an inner layer of about I’ve friends,” he says. “The next layer adds another 10, then there are more layers at 50 and 150. As you go further out, the amount of time you spend socialising with those people declines.”

Dunbar says that social networking sites haven’t changed the basic principles of his theory. If you’re hanging on to 700 people on Facebook, chances are you only communicate a lot with a core group. The immediacy of the internet lets you keep tabs on far-lung contacts and prevent them from slipping into the outer layers of your contact book but, “the interesting question is whether you invest so heavily in those old relationships online that new relationships with people you live with at the moment suffer.”

Either way, it’s worth clinging on to your friends one way or another. Research from Brigham Young University in Utah found that maintaining social bonds adds years to your life, so hold off on that Facebook cull for now.

Do satnavs cause accidents?

A 2008 survey by Direct Line claimed that almost 300,000 Britons had been involved in road accidents where a satnav was implicated.

Tabloids are full of stories about drivers mindlessly heading into oncoming traffic, a low bridge or even a harbour, while the AA warns that punching in new destinations when you’re cruising the middle lane can be dangerous – well, yeah. Furthermore, software that hasn’t been updated can mean you’re directed around older versions of the roads you’re actually driving on.

In any case, it’s advisable to wean yourself off the dashboard navigator for short and simple journeys – your brain will thank you for it. Researchers from University College London scanned the brains of London cabbies and found their hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in navigation, is a thicker slab of muscle than most of
us have.

“The hippocampus is crucial for navigation and we use it like a satnav,” says Dr Hugo Spiers, who carried out the research. “London taxi drivers, who have to know their way around hundreds of thousands of winding streets, have the most refined and powerful innate satnavs, strengthened over years of experience.” So put the computer away – you’ll still reach your destination and it might make it less likely you reach your Final Destination, if you catch our drift…

Are mobiles bad for my posture?

An adult human head weighs 10lbs to 14lbs, roughly the same as a medium-sized bowling ball. When it sits directly on top of your neck and shoulders it’s well-supported and no muscles are isolated. When you’re hunched over Angry Birds in a cramped corner of the train carriage, things are different.

“The muscles in the back of your neck have to work a damn sight harder to support that bowling ball weight,” says Tim Hutchful of the British Chiropractic Association. “If you do it infrequently it’s not a problem, but the thing with this is that it’s cumulative. If you do it day in, day out, your muscles can adapt to that position and start to get less flexible.

” Hutchful recommends “counterstretching” to reverse the effects and alleviate any stiffness. Hold your arms out to the side, palms facing up. Pull your shoulder blades back together and look up slightly. Hold for 10 seconds. “It’s almost the opposite of how you sit when you’re hunched over,” he says.

When you return to the game, try to straighten up by holding the handset closer to eye level and keep your head against a seatback or hand rail. “Imagine a straight line going down past your ear, through your shoulder, hip, knees and ankles. In that position, you’re really strong and virtually incompressible.” You’ll find more anti-hump exercises at chiropractic-uk.co.uk/straightenup.

Is the internet addictive?

If you’ve ever lost a couple of hours on Facebook, Wikipedia or in less salubrious online establishments, the answer to this one might sound like a no brainer. Hell yes it’s addictive, like a Class A pharmaceutical coming straight down your fibre optic.

Indeed, up to ten per cent of people are estimated to be “web dependent”, with surfers spending up to 68 hours a month jacked in to the web. In the most extreme examples, online gaming addicts have died of heart failure after playing non-stop for 50 hours or more.

Not everybody agrees that the internet is the problem per se. “Somebody addicted to online gambling is simply a gambling addict and somebody addicted to porn sites may be sex addicted,” says Mark Griffiths, a technology addiction specialist at Nottingham Trent University. In these cases the internet is simply the place where addicts indulge in their chosen poison.

Griffiths also believes that for a small number of people, some features exclusive to the internet such as chat rooms or massively multiplayer games can be genuinely addictive.

Your own 60-times-a-day Google habit may be a compulsive behaviour, but that doesn’t mean you’ve got a serious problem. “We must be careful not to pathologise people’s behaviour, even if it does seem excessive,” says Griffiths. “On balance, I think the benefits of the internet far outweigh the risks.”

Does harmful bacteria build up on my touchscreen?

In a word, yes. Your oh-so touchable touchscreen is crawling with bacteria. A study last year in the Journal of Applied Microbiology found that glass surfaces such as those on your expensive smartphone are the perfect breeding ground for bugs.

Another study by Which? reported that the average phone harbours 18 times more germs than your toilet flush, with one estimate claiming that there are 25,000 microscopic critters on every square inch.

Despite that, the likelihood that you’ll catch MRSA while reading the news via 3G are very low. There are up to 100 trillion microbes living on or inside you at any given time with countless more festering in your keyboard and virtually every surface you come across. If they haven’t killed you by now, there’s no reason to suspect you’ll quite literally “go viral” while watching YouTube. A cold or upset stomach aren’t out of the question, though.

If that concerns you, your first line of defence should be to invest in a case designed to fight off bugs. Both Proporta and Ecoskin cases come with antimicrobial coatings claimed to reduce the spread of germs. Our advice? Just man up and get on with it.

Is the internet making me dumb?

Status updates, live scores, rolling news… Is it all too much? Research from the University of California calculated that we consume three times as much information today as we did in 1960.

For some scientists, the modern day info dump is something to be genuinely concerned about, and not just because everyone’s logging on to Twitter at work. Our brains, they say, are not built to receive the non-stop datastream pouring down in the age of the tweet. For all of its positives, the always-on internet might just be making us that little bit more stupid.

In 2010 neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield warned that the internet could infantilise our minds, with search engines hindering our ability to learn and social networking sites turning us into low-empathy automatons. “Rather than sleepwalking into this,” she warned, “we should be the masters and not the slaves of technology, harnessing it in ways that we could do exciting and fulfilling things with.”

There is evidence to back up the Baroness’ claims. One Stanford University study found that heavy multimedia users are less able to filter out irrelevant information and find it harder to focus on one task – anyone working with 15 tabs open at once can vouch for that. All those hyperlinks may be rewiring our synapses, turning us into easily distracted infovores, never staying on one topic for long before mentally double-clicking to the next.

Thank heavens, then, for tablet computers. Research from the University of Florida suggests that the interface on devices such as the iPad, with “tiled” windows and apps, as opposed to the “stacked” equivalent on desktops or laptops, may be better suited to the human brain and more conducive to learning. Have you heard a better reason to spend that £429?

What’s a healthy number of friends on Facebook?

Resist the urge to collect friends and followers on social networking sites. The average Facebook user has 130 “friends”, usually a mixture of genuine mates, colleagues and old contacts you wouldn’t recognise if you passed on the street, and according to Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary anthropologist at Oxford University, that’s a pretty healthy number.

Back in 1992, Dunbar determined that the size of our brains put a cap on the number of meaningful social relationships we can realistically manage. The so-called Dunbar Number is 150.

“There’s an inner layer of about I’ve friends,” he says. “The next layer adds another 10, then there are more layers at 50 and 150. As you go further out, the amount of time you spend socialising with those people declines.”

Dunbar says that social networking sites haven’t changed the basic principles of his theory. If you’re hanging on to 700 people on Facebook, chances are you only communicate a lot with a core group. The immediacy of the internet lets you keep tabs on far-lung contacts and prevent them from slipping into the outer layers of your contact book but, “the interesting question is whether you invest so heavily in those old relationships online that new relationships with people you live with at the moment suffer.”

Either way, it’s worth clinging on to your friends one way or another. Research from Brigham Young University in Utah found that maintaining social bonds adds years to your life, so hold off on that Facebook cull for now.

Will computer games make me brainy?

It’s important here to distinguish between “brainy” and “intelligent” but, according to Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University, “Computer games do have real therapeutic value and can increase certain skills such as hand-eye coordination.”

The evidence to support an extra half hour on the Xbox is now mounting up, with a series of studies at Rochester University in New York detailing the various real-life “health packs” you pick up during each session. Call of Duty and other first-person shooters, for example, reward gamers with faster reaction times, reduced stress, more efficient information processing and 20 per cent better visual acuity.

“It’s no surprise that the military now actively recruits gamers because strategy games also clearly improve tactical thinking,” says Griffiths. A 2010 study in the journal Current Biology found that gamers make faster decisions in the real world than non-gamers, and were just as accurate.

Before you load up a marathon session, however, be warned that it’s not all good news. Prolonged gaming has also been linked to disrupted sleep patterns and a lower attention span which, er, what were we saying? Zzzzz…

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