Cell phones can be bad for your health, if you let them be. Don’t worry – I am definitely not telling you to ditch that lifeline. Instead, I have outlined eight essential habits to ensure your healthier use of everyone’s favourite toy: the cell phone.
Cell phones (also known as mobile phones by those of us who like to be a little more Euro-chic, and smartphones for those of us mostly residing in Bangladesh, apparently) get a bad rap for the damage they’re causing to our health. The screens are bright, we know about the nervous system effects of the wifi signal and we let them bleep and buzz all night long, disturbing our sleep.
Drake can sing about how we used to call him on his cell phone, late at night when we need his love. But let’s be real about this. There will be only love lost if we’re up in the middle of the night staring at that bright blue screen – even if Drake is on the other end of it.
Now, I am not hating on the beloved mobile phone here. I love mine. I really do. And if used properly, it can actually be a boost to our health. My favourite healthy uses of my iPhone include:
- Browsing my favourite craft and gardening accounts on Instagram.
- The HeartMath app for meditation when I’m feeling overly anxious.
- Email – mostly receiving the TreeHugger newsletter every morning while sipping on my Elixir.
- Taking photos with it because that camera is way easier to use than my SLR.
- Recording jingles. Josh and I often make up songs and then record them. We’re working on our first album. No one will want it.
- Facetiming with my family and most of all, my nieces and nephews (until they invariably just use it to look at themselves, make faces and fart noises).
I am not here to tell you that your iPhone is evil and you must ditch it. No, not at all. These phones are rather amazing and allow us to do, be, create, and share amazingness. That being said, they also have the potential to contribute to the degeneration of our health.
The radiation of phones are often considered the biggest hazard. This is how it works according to Dr. Devra Lee Davis:
“A cell phone is a two-way microwave radio. In order for it to receive information, it must send signals to the tower for the tower to send signals back to it. Whenever you are moving (e.g. in cars or on bikes) while you are on your phone, the phone operates at full power to maintain connection with one cell tower after another. That means continuous, maximum microwave radiation. On top of that, you have constant microwave radiation plumes generated by Wi-Fi and Bluetooth two-way transmissions as well as notifications and updates of numerous smartphone apps. The mobile industry euphemizes this radiation as “radiofrequency energy,” because marketing cellphones as two-way microwave radios used next to the brain would not make them very popular.”
Because phones aren’t going away anytime soon, I kindly ask that you take on these healthy cell phone user habits to reduce any potential harm they could be doing to your health.
8 Healthy iPhone & SmartPhone Habits
1. Avoid Wearing Your Phone
I cringe when I see women wearing their phone in their bra, or men keeping it in their front shirt pocket. Front pants pockets for men aren’t any better. Woman aren’t usually as guilty of this as men as often when we’re out, our phones are in our purses. Though I always love a man who can rock a good purse, few do, and even fewer are sporting a fanny pack.
The goal here is to have your phone on your body as infrequently as possible. Cell phones work by constantly sending and receiving signals. This erratic radiation is what is causing concern. The World Health Organization has classified cell phones as a Class B carcinogen. References continue to circulate about young women getting breast cancer in the top quadrant, closer to the surface of the skin, indicating a link to where they store their phones. Other studies have indicated a link between cell phone radiation and impaired fertility in men.
Aim to carry your phone as far from your body as much possible, especially while travelling where your phone has to continually send and receive to maintain the signal. If you’re not expecting a call and aren’t actively using your phone, switch it into airplane mode. This will switch off the send and receive signal. It can easily be switched back on when you need to use it.
2. Avoid Pressing Your Phone To The Side Of Your Face
A phone, though once intended to make and receive phone calls, isn’t used for this as often as it once was. If you actually read the legal terms that are present on your iPhone (Settings -> General -> About -> Legal -> RF Exposure) you’ll find the following statement, or variation depending on the date/phone you’re using. I was going to highlight the important parts, but it’s all important.
“SAR measurement may exceed the FCC exposure guidelines for body-worn operation if positioned less than 15 mm (5/8 inch) from the body (e.g. when carrying iPhone in your pocket). For optimal mobile device performance and to be sure that human exposure to RF energy does not exceed the FCC, IC, and European Union guidelines, always follow these instructions and precautions: When on a call using the built-in audio receiver in iPhone, hold iPhone with the dock connector pointed down toward your shoulder to increase separation from the antenna. When using iPhone near your body for voice calls or for wireless data transmission over a cellular network, keep iPhone at least 15 mm (5/8 inch) away from the body, and only use carrying cases, belt clips, or holders that do not have metal parts and that maintain at least 15 mm (5/8 inch) separation between iPhone and the body.”
You can read more about these warnings here.
Studies have shown the connection between cell phone radiation exposure has been linked to brain tumors, salivary gland tumors, mouth cancers and more. There have also been increases in brain cancer in children and adolescents.
When you are using your smartphone to make or receive calls, aim to use the speaker phone functionality or a headset as often as possible (even better, an EMF blocking headset). If the call is of a more private nature and you don’t have a headset, hold the phone at least 15mm from your head, as outlined on Apple’s legal disclaimer. And the same applies for children, but in all caps: THE SAME APPLIES TO CHILDREN.
3. Get A Radiation Protective Case
Not all cases are created equal. At all. I am not sure why a phone case seems to be such an important personal branding thing, but the case matters for more than how it will look in your mirror selfies. If you start to search around on the topic of metal cases, you’ll see commentary about how it reduces the cell phone signal, making your phone weaker. That’s an inconvenience sure, but it’s more than that. In addition to weakening the signal, it also increases the levels of radiation according to the Environmental Working Group.
* Total Radiating Power values estimated by EWG from tests conducted in spring 2012 and submitted to the FCC by Pong Research Corp, on May 31, 2012. Available in ET Docket No. 13-84 (http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/proceeding/view?name=13-84) and WT Docket 11-186 (http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=7021921006).
** Percent TRP decrease rounded to the nearest decile.
And it’s not just metal cases that can be problematic. From this study done by Pong Research, all cases will affect radiation levels to some degree.
*SAR values are from tests conducted by Pong Research Corp on March 29, 2012 and submitted to the FCC on May 31, 2012. Because the SAR values were submitted to the FCC in graph form, EWG estimated numerical SAR values based on the chart available in WT Docket 11-186 (http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=7021921006). Pong’s filing to the FCC did not indicate whether SAR measurements were done at the head or in a body-worn configuration. In a personal communication, Pong informed EWG that the SAR measurements were done in a body-worn configuration, with the same distance from the test mannequin used by the phone manufacturer. Tests in the body-worn configuration were done at a 10 millimeter separation distance.
** Percent SAR increase rounded to the nearest decile.
The moral of the story with the first three points on my list of eight is that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) isn’t looking out for our optimal health and safety, the makers of these phones aren’t doing it out of their own free will, and so it’s our responsibility to be smart about it.
I know your selfie photos in the mirror that show off your phone case, or your perfectly curated “Look at me! I’m at work” Instagram posts may suffer, but your brain, breasts, heart, uterus/ovaries or testicles and general nervous system will thank you. So will your healthy-brained children.
I have been a long-time user of the Pong Case. Pong has research available that shows that their cases don’t reduce radiation but effectively ‘organize’ the radio waves and move them away from you, rather than towards you. If the case isn’t fancy enough for you, buy some stickers or rhinestones and go to town. There are loads of other products that claim to protect you from the radiation from your phone including wearable stones and crystals, but it seems to me that if you get the phone itself protected, you’re more inclined to be consistent. If you have other recommendations, please post in the comments and I’ll add them in. The reason I like Pong is that they have loads of research available.
4. Avoid Streaming Content – Especially For Your Kids
Some might go so far as to say your children should never be on your phone or tablet, that you shouldn’t be on it near your children, that you should definitely not be on it while nursing, but it’s possible all of these options may seem impossible. Previously I mentioned switching your phone to “Airplane” mode when it’s not in active use. Children are the most vulnerable users. Children face the most serious health risks. According to WebMD and a study published in the Journal of Microscopy and Ultrastructure, “The rate of MWR [microwave radiation] absorption is higher in children than adults because their brain tissues are more absorbent, their skulls are thinner, and their relative size is smaller. Fetuses are particularly vulnerable, because MWR exposure can lead to degeneration of the protective sheath that surrounds brain neurons.”
Once upon a time, kids survived without having technology in their face during every gap between activities.
Your kids are going to reach your phones, likely with the same frequency you do (or would like to). Again, we don’t need to eliminate but we do need to reduce the harm. In addition to limiting overall time, whenever your child is using your phone, switch it to airplane mode. This means letting videos fully buffer or download, then switching it to airplane mode and handing it over to let them watch. This keeps the phone from sending and receiving the signal. If you don’t have room on your phone to save videos, you can get a simple app like Dropbox and store everything there.
5. Use The “Night Shift” Functionality In The Evening
All screens project primarily blue light. Perhaps you’ve heard about how late-night screen time can impair your sleep? Well, a big contributor to that is the blue light. This light is much like daylight. Because we are humans, and not owls or bats or monk seals, we are meant to be asleep during the darker, nighttime hours and awake in the daylight hours. Our hormones know this. A recent Harvard study has also connected this late-night blue light exposure to an increased risk of diabetes and obesity.
“Harvard researchers and their colleagues conducted an experiment comparing the effects of 6.5 hours of exposure to blue light vs exposure to green light of comparable brightness. The blue light suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much (3 hours vs. 1.5 hours).” Melatonin is the hormone that lets us sleep at night.
Further, decreased levels of melatonin have also been associated with increased risk in some cancers.
Of course, there are simple and essential benefits to getting a good night’s rest. If you or your children are having trouble winding down at the end of the day, getting to sleep and/or staying asleep, could it be that “one more video” before bed that is part of the problem? It’s definitely not part of the solution.
The new IOS on the iPhone has what is called “Night Shift”. You’ll find it under your settings and what it does is shift your phone’s usual display to block out the blue light making your screen appear more orange/red in tone. You get used to it. Android phones have their own version, too.
There is also an app you can download for your computer or tablet called Flux. Get it. You can adjust your settings to have your screen shift around the time it begins to get dark. Of course, an even better solution might be to have your shutdown time a good hour before your appropriate pre-midnight bedtime.
6. Cut Yourself Off
Oh now, this is hard. I know. Start slow and steady, you can do it. There is some joy to missing out, just a little. The world will continue, all will be okay. Research on kids has shown that more than three hours a day on social media increases rates of anxiety and depression. Is it possible the same can be said for adults. It’s okay to shut it off. There is no FOMO if you are blissfully unaware.
Of course, as I mentioned at the top of this article, smartphones can be super fun. And so is human interaction. I’ve recently taken measures to fill my time with more tech-free activities like macrame wall hanging and tapestry weaving. I am not joking. There are also ways to taper off and reduce the tendency to grab at your phone just because the person you’re out with went to the bathroom.
It’s all good to have time that you spend on your phone catching up on things, reading articles on your favourite blog, following your favourite Instagram stars and such. But perhaps try also not doing this during those quiet moments. Put a book in the bathroom like the olden days. Sit quietly at the bus stop and look around. Make eye contact and maybe have a conversation. Breathe for 30 seconds. Make room for a few intentional distractions, a few moments everyday. You’ll be okay.
7. Switch To Airplane Mode For Overnight Use
This is a big one. A big, big one. If you have to use your phone for your alarm, ensure you have the “Night Shift” mode activated and turn off the wifi signal by switching your phone to airplane mode. There is absolutely no reason to sleep with your phone under your pillow, in your hand or on your night table and let it buzz and ping, and ding and ring when your main purpose is to be sleeping. These subtle sounds pull you out of your deepest sleep and have long-term consequences for your health.
I’ll get texts from people that say things like “I hope it’s not too early to text”. Send me a text at all hours, it won’t bother me. My phone is off. But it will be disruptive to you and your rhythms.
Turn your phone off at night and take it a step further and ban them from the bedroom. If you use it for an alarm, switch it to airplane mode. And if you have other people (ahem, teens and spouses) who don’t want to play along, then unplug the router at night. Have a time when it gets unplugged and that signals that it’s time for everyone to shut down.
8. Set A Turn On Time
Just as it’s ideal to have a shut-off time, set yourself a turn-on time too. It can be very easy to turn your phone on first thing when you wake up in the morning. Give yourself a breather: some time to welcome in the day, take some deep breaths, maybe some exercise, or perhaps just a little meditation time. Maybe you can focus on the people in your home rather than all the ones on the other side of those walls. Reading all those work emails before you get to work does not make you more productive.
There is huge benefit to starting your day with positive messages, positive intentions and calmness. The morning news very rarely welcomes that in.
Give yourself a set amount of time in the morning that is yours and yours alone. Time to wake up to the day before you turn it on. Chances are usually quite good that you won’t miss anything.
Though I am rarely a proponent of the “All Things In Moderation” mantra, I also believe that a little of something is a good thing and too much becomes bad. Kind of like wine, right? With these tips for healthier cell phone use in mind, stay consistent. What feels awkward or cumbersome or a nuisance at first will very soon become your normal, a new habit, kind of like checking email when we first got email. Or Facebook when that happened.