Smartphones: not so smart for our health


We spend a serious amount of time on our devices – around 4 hours per day. The number of smartphone users in 2019 stood at around 3 BILLION and the forecast is for that number to grow. Monthly data usages averages out at around 9GB per active device – that’s a lot of screen time!

According to Ofcom, people in the UK now check their smartphones, on average, every 12 minutes of the waking day. Two in five adults (40%) first look at their phone within five minutes of waking up, climbing to 65% of those aged under 35. Similarly, 37% of adults check their phones five minutes before lights out, again rising to 60% of under-35s.

Does this resonate?

Does this worry you?  It should ... increasingly, the evidence shows that our smartphone dependence is having unexpected consequences, impacting on and interfering with our sleep patterns, relationships, attention span, productivity, and even more worryingly, our mental health.

When we find ourselves spending more time on social media, or playing games on our devicdes than we do interacting with real people, or if we can’t stop ourselves from repeatedly checking texts, emails, or apps, it’s probably time to get a grip and pull in the reins.

“The cellphone has become the adult’s transitional object, replacing the toddler’s teddy bear for comfort and a sense of belonging.”

- Margaret Hefferman

And it doesn't stop there... another even more sinister reason why we need to re-examine our relationship with our smartphones it this: excessive usage chronically elevates our levels of cortisol (the body’s main stress hormone) which will negatively impact on every single aspect of our health and help to shorten our lives.

"Stress kills sleep. Poor sleep kills health. Managing stress and getting restorative sleep is health mission critical."

- Izabella Natrins

According to David Greenfield (Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction), “Your cortisol levels are elevated when your phone is in sight or nearby, or when you hear it or even think you hear it. It’s a stress response, and it feels unpleasant, and the body’s natural response is to want to check the phone to make the stress go away.”

And this repeated behaviour is likely to escalate... have you noticed that any time you check your phone, you find something else there pulling at your attention, spiking yet another cortisol rush and yet another craving to check your phone to make your anxiety go away. This never-ending (and self-fulfilling) cycle inevitably leads to chronically elevated cortisol levels.

“We take better care of our smartphone than ourselves. We know when the battery is depleted and recharge it.”

- Arianna Huffington

Chronically elevated cortisol levels have been tied to an increased risk of serious health problems: depression, obesity, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, fertility issues, high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, autoimmune and degenerative disease, dementia and cancer.

It's time to stop the clock.

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Tips for healthier, more nourishing relationship with your smartphone

Dealing with smartphone-induced stress is not as simple as having periods of going cold turkey... like a 'digital detox fast'. Rather than going on a digital detox, we should be aiming for digital nutrition. That is, establishing and maintaining a healthier relationship with our smartphones, where we are more mindful and intentional about what we consume digitally, so we can maximise the benefits and minimise the stress they bring to our lives.

  • Audit: Use screen time apps to take an audit of how often (and how long) you use your phone and which apps take up most of your time
  • Record: Note the triggers that make you reach for your phone. Are you lonely or bored? Are you struggling with depression or anxiety and using your smartphone to 'self-sooth'.
  • Replace: Instead, find healthier and more effective ways of managing your moods, such as practicing relaxation techniques, or leaving your phone at home and going for a walk in nature.
  • Restrict: To make your phone usage less stressful, turn off all but the most important notifications so you can take control of when you look at your phone. You can also allocate certain times of the day to be notification-free by switching on the ‘Do Not Disturb’ function
  • Control: Turn off the ‘push’ option on your phone’s mail app, so emails will only appear when you open the app and physically refresh it. (As an added bonus this will help extend your phone’s battery life)
  • Declutter: Complete a digital ‘declutter’: unfollow people/pages; unsubscribing from email lists that you rarely open and read; delete unused apps - pay attention to how individual apps make you feel when you use them. Which do you check out of anxiety? Which leave you feeling stressed? Hide these apps in a folder off your home screen (or, better yet, delete them for a few days and see how you feel).
  • Create tech-free zones in your house, such as the dining table or, better still, your bedroom.
  • Set a digital curfew and don’t take your phone to bed! This will promote better, properly restorative sleep – you won’t hear it buzz and you’ll remove the temptation to have a ‘quick check’ of social media, emails, or news apps. In the morning, instead of reaching for your phone first thing, start your day with a brief meditation, some gentle exercise, or a phone-free breakfast.
  • Be mindful and curious about how often you pick up your phone during the day simply out of boredom. Regular breaks can be an effective way to rebalance your body’s chemistry and regain your sense of control. A 24-hour digital break can be surprisingly relaxing, especially if you fill that time with something you love doing, but even just putting your phone away when you go for a coffee break or get some lunch is a huge step in the right direction.

“If you practice noticing what is happening inside yourself, you will realize that you can choose how to respond,” says Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist teacher at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. “We don’t have to be at the mercy of algorithms that are promoting the fear of missing out.”

“The challenge of modern relationships: how to prove more interesting than the other’s smartphone.”

- Alain de Botton

There is no doubt that smartphones have completely changed our work, relationships and our lives. They're here to stay... but let's make them our instruments not our masters!

Izabella Natrins

I'm here to inspire and support women at midlife and beyond to re-ignite purpose and meaning to take back control of their health and create the radical, resilient heath they want and deserve. As a whole-health expert with over 30 years experience in the field, a qualified Health and Wellness Coach and Ballymaloe-trained nutritional chef, my real food nutrition and lifestyle medicine programmes support women fighting fatigue, struggling with overwhelm, weight gain, sleep, energy and niggling or multiple diagnosed health issues. As an advocate for real food nutrition, regenerative agriculture and whole-health, my book 'The Real Food Solution' is an evidence-based treasury wisdom for energy, vitality and better health for people and planet and a call to action to change the way we grown, source and cook our food. As the CEO at The UK Health Coaches Association, I'm proud to continue the task of leading the first professional association for Health and Wellness Coaches in the world and the gold standard for the UK and Ireland.

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