The internet has revolutionized the way we live and work, but like many modern inventions, its benefits haven’t come without consequences. A growing body of research suggests that excessive use of the internet is detrimental to both physical and mental health. Read on to learn more and get my tips on how to protect your health without giving up the internet entirely.
We’ve made amazing strides in technology and communication in recent decades. Most of us have either drastically increased our internet usage over the last 20 years, or we have simply never known a world without it. Forty percent of the global population has access to the internet today, compared to less than 1 percent in 1995 (1), and Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has a plan to make sure that 100 percent of the world is connected to this resource (2, 3).
The internet has opened up the entire world of data and research to us, making the very resource that you are now reading not only possible, but a source of credible information for you in a place where literally anyone can write and share anything. The internet provides the means to become self-educated, to gather information, to shop, to build businesses, to market services, to communicate with others via social media, to find mates, to seek entertainment, to make money, to manage money, and to share data, including personal information.
At the dawn of widespread internet usage in the mid-1990s, researchers were already beginning to examine the effects of internet usage on our mental health. The concept of “internet addiction” was first studied in 1996 (4). Since then, there have been many studies linking problematic internet usage to various psychological issues, including anxiety, ADHD, autism, depression, hostility, schizophrenia, social anxiety disorder, loneliness, and stress (5).
Has the rapid expansion of internet access created a new environment that is detrimental to our health? Let’s take a closer look at the environmental loads and pressures that characterize internet use today.
Take these 10 steps to protect your health when using the internet.
The experience of internet use includes screen-time, and the number of hours spent staring at screens these days is ever-increasing. Researchers at Childwise, a UK organization that specializes in research with children, estimate that there has been a recent shift in what our children are consuming online (6). Of their three to nearly five hours a day online, children are spending more time on social media and playing games than watching television shows. In fact, a new documentary called Screenagers by director and physician Dr. Delaney Ruston (7) addresses the new problems that have risen in family dynamics, social dynamics, physical brain development, parental influences and controls, and emotional changes as a result of our children being constantly stimulated by a screen.
Looking at an artificially illuminated screen has an influence on the human body’s circadian rhythm (8, 9, 10, 11). In particular, the isolated blue light that emanates from electronic devices is shown to be disruptive to the natural hormonal fluctuations that we experience in concert with the day and night cycles. Unnatural light can delay melatonin secretion (the hormone that primes you for sleep) in the evening, which can lead to any of the associated chronic and acute health consequences of insufficient sleep, including weight gain, reduced immunity, cardiovascular health, metabolic disease, cancer, and reduced motor skill function (12).
The environmental input from screen use goes beyond its artificial lighting and attention-grabbing nature. Screen-time creates a very near, static focal length for our eyes. The ciliary muscle in the eye relaxes when distance vision is engaged, and it contracts at shorter focal lengths (13). Gazing at a screen for hours on end is effectively practicing constant contraction of the ciliary muscle. Near “work” in the absence of mid-range and distance “work” influences the progression of myopia (14).
Prolonged internet use is closely associated with prolonged sedentary behavior and all of the associated health consequences (15). There are numerous studies supporting the connection between sedentary behavior and cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and all-cause mortality (16, 17, 18, 19).
Sitting for excessive periods has been shown to reduce the natural glucose and insulin response in the body (18). Recent studies demonstrate that prolonged sitting is a risk factor for hospitalization, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality independent of the amount of exercise one gets (19, 20).
The cardiovascular system changes in response to sedentary behavior. Capillary growth (called capillarization) occurs only in moving body parts for the purposes of nourishing the cells that are in use. This is made possible by the presence of a protein called VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) (21). In non-moving body parts, VEGF is reduced and the capillaries retreat from those areas. The more non-moving parts we have, the less capillarized we are, and the less nourished our bodies will be. Studies have shown that this process can happen even if your body is moved passively (22).
Hypertension is a possible health consequence of excessive internet use. The less we move, the less capillarized we will be, and the higher our blood pressure is adapted to be (23). The model, explained nicely by Katy Bowman in her podcast called “Cardio & Natural Movement,” describes your cardiovascular system as a container. All other things being equal, when that container gets smaller, your blood pressure must rise in response.
The internet was designed to connect us with others. It has certainly done this, but it’s also true that the internet can be a cause of disconnection in our lives. For example, a common scene in the modern household is for all family members to be present, with each person staring into their own screen, co-existing without sharing the experience of life. Likewise, it’s not unusual to go out to a café and see nearly every person there completely immersed in their digital device, or to go to a restaurant and see couples or groups of people at a table all staring at their phones.
Electronic communication has revolutionized the way we work and play and provided important social benefits. But when it comes at the expense of interacting with people in person (or even over the phone), there are consequences. Genuine social interaction has been part of the human experience for as long as we’ve been human, and it’s as necessary for health as a nutrient-dense diet, appropriate physical activity, and adequate sleep.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there have been many studies linking excessive internet use to increased social isolation. One study (24) discovered a relationship between the amount of time that adolescents spent online and the ability to connect with others. It was found that kids who self-reported as “low” internet users (less than one hour per day) had better relationships with friends and family than those who reported “moderate” (one to two hours per day) and “high” (more than two hours per day). The authors concluded that excessive internet use can interfere with face-to-face relationships.
Caplan (2003) studied a person’s preference for online interaction as a factor in the development of problematic internet usage and the psychological health consequences that can develop as a result. He found that those who preferred to connect with others online would tend to become lonelier and more depressed over time and that people who identified as lonelier and more depressed would have a stronger preference for online interaction rather than face-to-face interaction (25).
Researchers are finding that persistent loneliness and social isolation should be given the same attention as chronic illness with respect to mortality. They have discovered that one of the most important predictors of longevity is a feeling of social connectedness (26). Importantly, this feeling of connectedness can be actual or perceived, highlighting the effect of mindset on overall health. Ultimately, the isolating influence of excessive internet use may do more than distract a person from “real life”—it could potentially rob one of years of life.
The built environment
Although we can access the internet from almost any environment, it is generally associated with the indoors. When this is the case, the health effects of excessive internet use can be extended to include excessive exposure to indoor environments and deficiencies in the nutrients provided by outdoor environments.
Exposure to an indoor environment is a burden on health when that environment contains inadequate ventilation. High concentrations of particulates from smoke, burning wood, cooking emissions, or overexposure to biotoxins such as mold are some of the most problematic factors with respect to indoor air quality; these factors have been related to the study of “sick building syndrome,” (27, 28) a non-specific condition that describes the poor health of a population of residents in a building (29). Typical symptoms includes headaches and dizziness, flu-like symptoms, eye, nose, and throat irritation, cough, itching skin, asthma, allergies, fatigue, poor concentration, and even personality changes.
Excessive internet users may have a deficiency in outdoor nutrients, such as fresh air, sunlight, beneficial microbes, and a feeling of some sort of connection to nature. Studies are demonstrating positive physical, cognitive, social, spiritual, and psychological health benefits for those who spend time in nature (30). It has been suggested that “nature contact” should be considered to reduce work-day stress and overall health complaints in the workplace (31).
What can you do?
Awareness is key, and if you interact with the internet on a daily basis, you might consider the following opportunities:
- Recognize that there is a difference between “internet use” and “problematic internet use.”
- Make a point of looking away from your screen routinely to focus on mid-range and far distances.
- Make a point of standing up from your desk routinely to move your body.
- Crowd out unnecessary screen time to do things that bring you joy.
- Schedule face-to-face meetings with friends, family, and coworkers to cultivate community.
- Head outdoors to experience movement and natural environments.
- Question your indoor air quality and work to improve it (32).
- Turn off screens at a certain time each night; install a program like F.lux on your computer to eliminate blue light in the evening.
- To limit blue light on mobile devices at night, try an app like Twilight for Android or Apple’s Night Shift feature that is new with iOS 9.3.
- Put your wireless router on a timer so that the internet is “shut off” each night.
Despite all of these warnings, the internet may in fact be making you healthier. The internet was immensely helpful for me in my own recovery, and I know that’s the case for many of you reading this article.
Since I am absolutely positive that some people will misinterpret my intentions with this article, let me be crystal clear: I am not suggesting that you stop using the internet or that it’s inherently unhelpful. I am merely pointing out that excessive use carries proven and significant risks.
In this respect, the internet is not unlike alcohol and coffee. When used in moderation, they have health benefits, but when they’re abused … watch out!
Now I’d like to hear from you. Have you experienced any negative effects from too much internet use? Is it easy for you to get sucked into too much time on the computer? What strategies have you found to be helpful? Let us know in the comments section.