- Have cell phones (and most recently, smartphones) deformed us?
- Have they affected our physical or mental health?
Those are questions that I’ve been meaning to write about for quite some time now. In fact, the idea goes back to 2006 when I first came across the term “blackberritis,” referring to the ache that people start feeling in their joints after typing for hours on their tiny Blackberry keyboards. But a recent article in the February 2012 edition of Wired Magazine got me thinking about this topic again.
Despite all the hype and panic about radiation emitted from cell phones that might be affecting our brains, I think there are other, more tangible, albeit less malevolent, effects through which cell phones have deformed us (physically and mentally). So far, I have come across articles about two of the most obvious ones, but I am sure there are others.
In this post, I’ll comment quickly on the two well documented phone maladies based on what I have read. I will also list all the other effects that I have personally started to observe when I use my smartphone. Please let me know if you have observed similar syndromes or — even better — if you can contribute to the list with other disorders (or as I prefer to call them “maladies”).
The Well Documented Maladies
1. Blackberritis (aka Blackberry Thumb)
Back in June 2008, the U.S. News & World Report wrote an article called Beware the “Blackberry Thumb.” In that article, the magazine quoted several hand therapists and other experts who commented on the new phenomenon of thumb injury from madly typing away on the small keyboards of our phones. To quote just one of them, Kristen Crowe, a certified hand therapist with Beaumont Hospital in Michigan, “Blackberries and other PDAs can cause tendonitis from working in such a small space with the thumbs. The problem is that people are doing the same activity for long periods of time that the body just wasn’t meant to do.” The Blackberry Thumb neologism has become so popular that it even has its own Wikipedia entry (click here to read it).
2. Ringxiety (aka Phantom Vibration Syndrome)
The February 2012 edition of the Wired magazine exposed me for the first time to another cell phone syndrome, called Phantom Vibration Syndrome. Unfortunately, the actual article is not publicly available online, but there are plenty of other publications on the topic, including this recent one by Fast Company. The idea here is simple — cell phone users often experience tactile hallucinations where they think the phone in their pocket is vibrating when, in reality, it is not. I am sure many of you would be able to ascribe to that feeling. Having gone through a two-year long-distance relationship, I am intimately familiar with that feeling. I kept the phone in my pocket throughout the whole day, to make sure I won’t miss any calls from my “better half” who lived thousands of miles away from me. Oftentimes, I would feel that the phone was vibrating, but would be disappointed to see no incoming calls when I took it out of my pocket and checked the screen. Some people are attributing this phenomenon to the so-called Mirror Neurons in our brain, which were examined a few years ago in a research study on smoking. When you see someone light a cigarette, your Mirror Neurons kick-start a reaction in your brain that incites the craving to smoke. A similar reaction probably goes through your brain when you know you are keeping a phone in your pocket and expect to receive a phone call. Whatever the cause, the Phantom Vibration Syndrome is real for our generation (and the ones coming next) and will probably stick around for a long time.
(A milder form of Phantom Vibration Syndrome, which still falls under the Ringxiety bucket, is when you are so attuned to your ringtone that you keep imagining that you hear it in the background noise of your busy daily life. Of course, this works mostly when you use one of the omnipresent factory installed ringtones — such as Nokia’s Grande Valse.)
Other Observed Physical & Mental Disorders
So what else have I observed? Below are a few examples. Those are not exhaustive and I do not claim any scientific validity. I am just raising questions that may be going through your mind, as well.
3. Touch Screen Illusion Syndrome
After having used a touch screen device for a few years, I have started finding myself in awkward situations where I am sitting in front of my desktop computer at work, working on a complicated spreadsheet, and am desperately trying to swipe the spreadsheet to the right to see Columns AA through AM. A friend of mine once posted on Facebook that his 3-year-old stood in front of their living-room TV and tried to switch the channel by swiping her little hand across the 50-inch screen.
4. Uncontrollable Status Checking Disorder
Do you catch yourself incessantly unlocking your phone and checking the status for any new emails, text messages, or missed calls? I bet you do that more than once a day — especially when you’re waiting for a meeting to start (or even worse during the actual meeting). I know I fall prey to that habit. It looks pretty ridiculous to a by-stander as he or she can clearly see that you obviously haven’t received any message or missed any call because there was no ring or vibration. But to you, deep into your frenzy for constant influx of new information, it seems like an absolutely normal exercise. So you keep pressing those unlock buttons or swiping that slider on the touchscreen to see what “important” new communications you may be missing out on.
5. No New Message Depression
Ah, the joy of having a new message waiting in your inbox! Or a mysterious missed call in your call log! That’s exciting, isn’t it? I bet it is! Now imagine the opposite — it must be pretty depressing to unlock your phone only to find out no one has thought about you or needed your opinion in the past 30 seconds. I can almost picture in my mind many of you jumping and shouting, “Wait a minute! This is not merely depressing, it is a DISASTER!” :)
Update#1: Additional Malady Identified
One of the readers of my blog (Sam Baird) has identified yet another cell phone malady. So I thought I’d list it here.
6. Post Urgent Message Anxiety (P.U.M.A.)
Everyone who has ever worked in a company’s office must have experienced this disorder at least once in their professional lives. Now that I think about it, I can’t believe I missed it in my original list. Perhaps it was too obvious. Imagine you’re relaxing on a beautiful sunny Saturday, enjoying the good weather outside. Then, all of a sudden, your phone vibrates (or rings), and you read this very urgent and disconcerting message from your boss (or an important client). Something has gone wrong and people are not happy with that. You’re completely shaken down and the rest of the weekend is ruined for you. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But, I am sure you’ll also recognize the anxiety that typically overshadows your weekends for a long time following such an “incident.” For weeks in a row, you will be probably constantly looking at your phone, expecting to receive another one of those urgent messages from a disgruntled boss or a client. You’ll probably miss some happy moments over this (and lose a few precious hours of sleep, as well). I call this the Post Urgent Message Anxiety. It nicely abbreviates to P.U.M.A. Ha – who would have thought it! :) (You can read about Sam Baird’s account of one such P.U.M.A. “incident” in the Comments section below.)
Care to share your experiences with any of those deformations? Can you contribute to this list with other smartphone maladies that you have discovered throughout the years of heavy use? Answer my poll or leave me a comment. Thanks in advance!