Computer fatigue: The cause and effect of data-device burnout

All this data-device use is having an effect on our health—body and brain.  How dangerous is it? What can be done to avoid it? Photo: Munich, Germany (Lukas Barth, AP)

WASHINGTON, May 19, 2013 - When it comes to iPhones, iPads, iPods, BlackBerrys, MacBooks, Netbooks, GPSs, Androids, PSPs, Kindles, NOOKs, plasmas, cameras—we just can’t disconnect. Every year we are raking in more and more “screen” hours.

Research shows that an average American spends now 8½ hours every day in front of these backlit LCD screens.

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Does staring at this many screens, for this long, for so many years, really matter?

The most common upshot discussed of our Digital-Age consumption is Computer Vision Syndrome, or CVS. The American Optometric Association describes it as “a group of eye and vision-related problems that result from prolonged computer use.”

Although its symptoms are specific to computer usage, it embodies the short-term effects of all backlit-screen consumption.

Physical fatigue, decreased productivity, increased number of work errors are all side effects, as are problems like eye strain, headaches and blurred vision.

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However, we are not bound by the effects of CVS forever. Like voracious readers and crochet-knitters, screen-users are not permanently affected by eyestrain, or never-ending headaches.

According to Dr. Kendall E. Donaldson, Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, the leading eye hospital in the United States: “There are no proven long-term effects from Computer Vision Syndrome. It does not cause cataract, glaucoma, macular degeneration, or any other form of pathology resulting in vision loss. 

She adds, “CVS generally worsens throughout the work week, and improves, over the weekend, when the patient takes a break from the constant staring.”

The debate about screen radiation and electronics was also squashed.

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“Although computers can emit small amounts of soft x-rays,” Dr. Kendall cajoles, “numerous studies now support that no damaging radiation is emitted.”

So, no alpha, beta, gamma, or even hard x-radiation, comes from computers—not even from other video display terminals. Screens are designed to soak up most of this energy. Thanks to Apple, HP and TomTom.

Although our eyes are not in such high-stakes trouble as we originally thought they were, they pay a price.

Dr. Paul J. Dougherty, the world-renowned refractive surgeon and author of the book See for Yourself, explains, “With all of the handheld devices like the iPhone, this could and likely accounts for the increasing rate of myopia around the world.”

Therefore, besides nearsightedness (and eventually having to wear glasses), our eyes are good to go.

But then the question remains: If our eyes are not as affected long-term by our staring, what is?

Our Body

Technology is clearly compromising our physical health. We just cannot stop sitting.

Instead of walking around, or even taking that 2-minute stroll to the nearest water cooler, we rather check our latest tweets and our constantly updating Newsfeed.

Johns Hopkins cardiologist Dr. Michael J. Blaha gives a rundown on our butt-bound devices long-term: “The main problem is that vigorous activity is being replaced by screen-time.”

“From an evolutionary standpoint,” he explains, “as humans, we are meant to spend most of our waking hours walking and running around. Our metabolism is not suited to being sedentary. Prolonged sedentary behavior leads to decreased muscle mass, increased fat storage, resistance to the effects of insulin, and overall decreased physical fitness which impacts all elements of human health.”

As our screen consumption climbs, there will be “more atherosclerosis, more heart attacks, more heart failure; but perhaps more immediately, more obesity, sexual dysfunction, sleep apnea, depression—all of which decrease quality of life.”

The worst part of all this: our pathetic habits are being learned and followed by our kids.

According to the American Heart Association spokesperson Len Saunders, “So many young children suffer from a risk factor for heart disease such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, and high insulin.”

“It is sad,” adds the international children’s fitness expert, “The term play has taken on a whole new meaning. Twenty years ago, play mostly meant going outside and participating in some form of physical activity. Now, play means computers, Xbox, iPads, phones, and dozens of other devices.”

Our Mind

The more screens we sit in front of, the less we exercise, and the more depressed we become.

Doctors have noted the relationship between depression and a lack of physical activity. Serotonin is that very “happiness hormone.” When we do not exercise regularly, our serotonin levels falter in the brain, causing us to feel sad, crushed and hopeless.

Fortunately, screens themselves are not addicting like nicotine—well, at least, not according to widely published psychiatrist Dr. Tristan Gorrindo from Mass General Hospital.

He described certain online activities like pornography or gambling to be addictive, but he does not think “one can become addicted to screens in and of themselves.”

When asked if looking at backlit liquid crystal display screens for long periods of time can reconfigure the brain, he said, “The truth is, we don’t know.”

“The brain is always changing and refining its function, a process called neuroplasticity,” explains Dr. Gorrindo, “It’s hard to know what the implications for increased screen time are on the adult brain.”

In general, the MGH specialist appeared to be worried about our eternal connectedness.

No matter how many hours we spend on our HP desktops and shiny, new BlackBerrys at work, we come straight home to our office away from the office.

Our bosses, parents, friends and cousins, like ourselves, have developed a “digital expectation,” as Dr. Gorrindo calls it. No matter what time it is, they expect us to email, tweet, call, text back immediately.

The MGH psychiatrist worries about just that: “In the same way that sleep is restorative, so is the feeling of contentment that comes with walking out of the office, and leaving some of the stress of the workday behind. The constant connection never lets us fully escape. This can be quite taxing.”

The scariest part: The phenomenon is so new, we have no idea how taxing it will be on our mental health over time. We’re just going to have to wait it to out.

Our Hands, Soul and Everything Else

Our hands are also affected by this Digital-Age consumption.

BlackBerry thumb is the most famous symptom of our un-ergonomic devices. It describes the all-encompassing aching, numbness, throbbing or tingling between the thumb and wrist, caused by typing on handheld devices for long periods of time. Courtsey of BlackBerry.

Short term muscle fatigue, muscle cramping, pain and swelling are aftereffects, as is BlackBerry thumb.

Long term, our iPhones can cause repetitive strain injuries (RSI), or cumulative trauma disorders. These conditions can affect muscles, tendons, and nerves. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, tendinitis, Tennis Elbow, and DeQuervain’s are some of the subsequent disorders.

Our hands were just not meant for this.

Julia Doty agrees. “Using these devices require prolonged grips, repetitive motion on small buttons and an awkward wrist motion,” explains the Occupational Therapist from the Hospital for Special Surgery, one of the leading orthopedic and rheumatology institutions in the country. “The position and posture we assume when we text, use an iPad, and email from mobile devices is unnatural.”

When questioned if our hands will eventually deform and disfigure with electronic overuse, the specialist asserted “it will not cause the shape of the hand to change.”


So, there you have it.

We can look at these screens forever, and our eyes will be relatively fine, and we won’t get addicted to the actual screens themselves nor will our hands lose their shape.

But because we are rarely sprinting and browsing on our iPads, or swimming and texting: We are exercising less and less.

As Dr. Gordon Blackburn puts it, “If the trend of increased video-screen viewing continues to increase, it is realistic to expect that greater health risk will accompany that trend.”

Especially on the heart.

But, one question remains: Is Apple holistically improving these oh-so desirable commodities?

Yes, absolutely, Apple has developed eye-friendly screens, with light-weight hardware, easy-to-understand software, in chic, new colors and sizes. But, are they improving the health side?

As an industry leader—and one of the most admirable companies in the world—are they designing new phones that thaw into the shape of your hand, as to prevent Carpal Tunnel? Do their new iPods automatically turn off, after 17 hours of continuous play, as to force you to take a mental breather?

Should Apple, HP and Microsoft start an industry-wide age limit on their gadgets, as to encourage two-year-olds to run in the grass, catch lighting bugs, and eat worms?




This article would not have been possible without Jeff Barrett, Lisa Worley, Dr. Kendall E. Donaldson, Rona Menashe, Dr. Paul J. Dougherty, Gary Stephenson, Ellen Beth Levitt, Dr. Michael J. Blaha, Len Saunders, Courtney Nelson, Kory Zhao, Dr. Tristan Gorrindo, Phyllis Fisher, Julia Doty, Victoria Vinci, Dr. Gordon Blackburn, and Wyatt DuBois.


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Abhishek Seth

Abhishek Seth is an expert in public and business relationships. In addition to writing for The Washington Times Communities, Seth is also a writer for the philanthropic publication Look to the Stars. If he is not consulting clients on CSR/corporate citizenship, the former White House intern is interviewing international thought-leaders on their humanitarian work.

Contact Abhishek Seth


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