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Texting—Reshaping Our Brains, Necks, and Relationships

Have you ever stopped and wondered if texting is actually good for you?

Vector Illustration, heads, gears and puzzle
Vector Illustration, heads, gears and puzzle

When was the last time you picked up the phone and called a friend to confirm plans?

Or figured out what restaurant to meet at via a telephone discussion?

If you’re like many people, you don’t talk on the phone much anymore.

Instead, you text.

We text to get advice.

We text confirm appointments.

We text to check in on our relatives and friends.

We text to end relationships or relay terrible news (you know it happens).

Then there is texting and driving.  We know how dangerous that is (let alone illegal in most states).

Heck, we even text people before we call them to see if it’s a good time to talk…then often wind up not talking in lieu of more texting.

Texting has become to go-to means of communication for almost everyone in nearly every circumstance.

But, as convenient as it is to relay a short message without being roped into a potentially lengthy conversation, have you ever stopped and wondered if texting is actually good for you?

While it may sound antiquated and anti-tech to raise question like this in 2018, the scientific community is starting to ask these questions.

And what they’re discovering is pretty darn alarming.

For example, a Mayo Clinic-led study has now shown that texting can change the rhythm our brain waves

In the study, led by researcher Dr. William Tatum at the Mayo Clinic’s epilepsy center, researchers monitored the brain waves of 129 subjects over a period of 16 months.

What they discovered was, about 1 in 5 of the subjects displayed a unique “texting rhythm” in their brain waves when using smartphones for texting.

While the subjects also performed other activities on their devices, it was only texting which produced measurable changes in their brain rhythm.

Why does this matter?

Dr. Tatum believes this change in brain activity while texting affects the part of brain responsible for attention and focus.

And he believes this evidence confirms the commonsense advice not to text and drive…and probably not to text while trying to do anything else which requires focus either.

It struck me that, while more research is needed here, when we text several times throughout the day it puts us into a constant state of distraction or “partial attention”.

Which brings me to our next important point…

Texting Has Been Shown to Perpetuates a Unhealthy State of What’s Called: “Continuous Partial Attention”

I had the pleasure of learning about “continuous partial attention” from the very person who coined the phrase in 1998: writer, consultant, and tech expert, Linda Stone.

When I met Linda the digital age was still in its infancy, yet I remember the feeling she was onto something…little did I know.

So what is continuous partial attention?

As the name suggests, Linda describes it as a state of on-going partial attention.

It differs from multi-tasking is its intention. When we multi-task, we’re doing it so we can be more productive and efficient and thus have more time to live our lives.

Conversely, with continuous partial attention, our intention is to always remain “on” and hyper-connected to our networks. This may include social media, the news, email, our phone different alerts, etc.

While multi-tasking certainly has its cognitive health pitfalls, continuous partial attention has the potential to produce even more dire consequences.

This is due to the hyper-vigilant state it puts us in, which revs up our stress response, spikes our cortisol, makes us anxious and irritable, kills productivity (which creates more stress), and ruins our ability to focus and stay present.

You know what I’m talking about…especially when it comes to texting.

It’s impossible to be fully present with yourself or another living being if your attention is always split.

Entire new parenting philosophies are being built around this new awareness of continuous partial attention—or “distracted parenting”—in child rearing.

And research has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt, that children whose parents split their attention between them and their phones, are emotionally, mentally, and even physically worse-off1.

I’ve noticed the increase of how many people text and talk on the phone while walking their dogs. In fact, I was planning to write a post on this subject for awhile, but what got this to press quickly was when I recently was out walking a dog from the animal shelter where I volunteer, and I saw a man running by with a dog on a leash on his wrist and he was using his fingers to text. While. He. Ran!

After he ran by I paused a moment to take it in. Then he ran back past me again, this time dog on leash in one hand and now talking on his phone!

I can only hypothesize (but I’m sure there will soon be research to back me up) that these behaviors diminish the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of walking a dog…and the human-animal bond suffers as a result. Often people who walk dogs socialize with other people in the neighborhood; being on the phone can take away those organic opportunities to connect with one’s neighbors. In an era where research is showing that although people are becoming more and more connected through technology, they are reporting more feelings of isolation. It’s the simple things like walking in the neighborhood and greeting your neighbors that can help to keep the bonds strong.

Of course, it is great to have access to the communication that is available through texting and talking. It is up to us to use this technology wisely. Similarly, we have access to thousands of different kinds of foods in the supermarket, it is up to us to choose wisely.

The important thing to remember is, it’s the continuous partial attention which is proving detrimental to our health, not the non-continuous partial attention…say checking your phone a few times a day at an appropriate/safe time.

Then, there’s the infamous health detriments of “text neck” or “text neck syndrome”

By now, most of us have heard of “text neck” or “text neck syndrome”: neck pain that comes as a result of looking down at our phones whilst texting.

But did you know that when lean your head forward to text, it’s the equivalent of carrying a sixty-pound weight around your neck?

It’s true.

The poorer our posture, the more pressure it puts on our necks, which not only leads to pain and discomfort but can actually degrade and injure the spine over time.

Per a recent article published in the Washington Post, text neck has become epidemic—people are even getting surgery for it, and chiropractor’s offices are full of patient complaining about neck pain2.

So while it may seem like a small issue, it’s actually a really big deal—especially for young people with developing bone structure who will spend years of their lives texting…

…not to mention the rest of us “older folks” who need to take special care of our spines as we age.

The Bright Light in All of This? Conscious Awareness about Technology Use Can Quickly Change Everything

You can’t be expected to change what you aren’t aware of, that’s a given.

But now that you are aware of the health consequences of what I call “chronic texting”, you can choose to take simple steps to protect yourself.

Just like we choose our way of eating given the seemingly unlimited options, our screen time demands a similar conscious relationship. 

Here are some easy modifications you can make to enjoy a healthier relationship with your mobile device:

#1: Talk on the phone more & establish a text-free zone

While it may not be as convenient, the more you talk on the phone the less you’ll need to text.

And chances are, you’ll save time (less texting and more real conversations mean less miscommunications) and make more meaningful connections too.

The easiest way to do this is to establish a text-free zone by use texting for information exchange-only: “running ten minutes late, see you soon”— versus a primary means of communication: “how about that party last night? I can’t believe Steve fell into the pool. did that guy you were talking to ever call you?

You get the idea. A true conversation warrants a phone call.

#2: To avoid continuous partial attention, give yourself a phone allowance

I can’t tell you how many of my patients tell me they check their phones every 5 minutes.

That type of habit is a perfect recipe for continuous partial attention, anxiety, chronic neck pain, dry eye, insomnia, and (eventually) burnout.

Instead, try checking your phone every hour or more.

For parents with children, many experts recommend putting your phone in another room while you’re all together so you can be fully present and set a good example.

Sure you can check your phone, but do it when the kids aren’t around—or tell them you need to focus on replying back to so-and-so for 2 minutes, that way they don’t feel ignored.

And if you want to hog-wild and really experience a drop in your stress levels, try putting your phone away 2-3 hours before bed.

For a good night’s sleep, charge your phone overnight in another room.

#3: Hold your phone at eye level

This is simplest way to prevent text-neck—bring your phone to your eye-level and stand up straight.

We’ve barely touched on the potential health pit-falls of chronic texting today, and I have no doubt the body of research on this important topic will continue to grow.

Thankfully, with what you’ve learned today coupled with a more conscious awareness of your screen time, you have everything you need to avoid some of the most common health consequences of texting while boosting your sense of inner peace, contentment, and happiness.

In health,

-Dr. Patricia

  1. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/07/the-dangers-of-distracted-parenting/561752/
  2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/11/20/text-neck-is-becoming-an-epidemic-and-could-wreck-your-spine/?utm_term=.0d862a98ce35
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