Cognitive science suggests the way we use smartphones is making us feel powerless

What to watch for.
What to watch for.
Image: Reuters/Andrew Burton
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It makes sense that only a small percentage of people in the United States are choosing to go without a smartphone in 2016. After all, smartphones are one of the most convenient tools ever invented. They’ve changed the way we learn and the way we experience and interact with the world.

The effects of some of those changes are a little disconcerting, however. At best, we know that too much phone time kills productivity. But for technology that has become so ubiquitous so quickly, the full effects of constant smartphone usage have yet to be studied.

So far, it seems the way we use our devices may prove to be one of their most detrimental aspects. In social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s wildly popular 2012 TED talk, the Harvard Business School professor warns that posture can actually change our hormones. The phenomenon is part of a philosophy called embodied cognition, which holds that the relationship between our mind and body is so interconnected that what we think can influence how our body reacts. Meanwhile, researchers are looking at the way the position of our bodies could be triggering how our brains reacts.

Clearly, the proliferation of smart devices has lead to a noticeable increase in slouching. For anecdotal proof, just take a look around the next time you’re in a public place. This downward slant of the neck and shoulders was dubbed the iHunch posture by New Zealand physiotherapist Steve August.

“Our posture is partially shaped by our external environment,” Erik Peper, a professor in health education at San Francisco State University, tells Quartz. “We now sit more and more collapsed— especially looking downward at smartphones, tablets, and computers—or we sit in couches again collapsed. This posture is [known as] a powerless position, and can increase cortisol and decrease testosterone.”

What does this mean? A chemical change happens in our brain when the steroid cortisol—produced by the adrenals in our blood—becomes elevated, usually in response to physical or mental stress, explains Peper. While not always bad, a flood of cortisol can send our body into a “flight or fight” response, making people more likely to respond impulsively. On the other hand, a decrease in testosterone in men has been linked to depression and a reduced sexual drive.

This 2014 study concluded that for depressed people, sitting in these head-down, “powerless” positions may be more likely to conjure negative or “depressive” memories as opposed to positive ones. But Peper believes the effects of these positions may be more widespread. The reason why, he explains, has everything to do with “classical conditioning,” a learned process whereby we shrink and collapse our bodies to protect ourselves from danger. This biological posture of submission once helped save us from predators.

Today, researchers like Peper and Cuddy believe a collapsed position elicits similar responses in our brain, bringing us closer to a stressed mental state. It’s similar to the way familiar smells transport you back to a time and place where your brain first logged that scent.

The good news is that bad posture is fairly easy to correct—if you’re thinking about it. Sitting up straight can increase your confidence levels, as Cuddy and her colleague Maarten W. Bos, found in their 2013 preliminary research. In the report, 75 students were randomly assigned to interact with four smart devices ranging in size from a smartphone, tablet, laptop, and desktop computer.

Once it was clear that the experiment was completed, the researchers waited to see how long it would take each student to ask whether they could leave. Interestingly, the researchers found that the participants with larger devices—meaning those less likely to be sitting in the iHunch position—were more assertive in asking to leave the room. On the other hand, the smaller the device, the less assertive the participants acted. Additionally, sitting upright has been linked to the ability to recall more positive self-character traits, and importantly, to believe in the veracity of those positive character traits.

So what can you do about it? While they may not seem like much, Peper says there are a few things you can do daily to prevent harm from constant mobile phone usage.

  1. Check your posture. Set reminders on your phone if you have to, but make sure to check in with yourself throughout the day.
  2. After every phone call, put your hand behind your head, pull your elbow back, and look up. This forces your body into a more open position.
  3. Pick up your tablet, phone, or music player to eye level when in use. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but it’s a smart habit to cultivate.

We’re still very early in the research stage when it comes to the connections between smartphone technology and well-being. While it may turn out some of the more hyperbolic dangers we’ve been warned about do not pose a significant threat, there’s no denying that heavy phone usage is not great for our bodies. At the same time, we know there are small steps we can take to mitigate some of the most obvious effects smartphone use has on our health. Don’t wait until it’s too late.