A decade into the smartphone revolution, some ways it’s changed our lives

Photo by Gonzalo Baeza/Creative Commons

Smartphones, owned by 77 percent of U.S. adults, have had a profound impact on the way we socialize, pay for things, connect with people and spend our downtime. It’s been 10 years since Apple’s first iPhone was introduced in June, 2007, launching a technological revolution. To mark the mobile phone milestone, we asked three UCLA experts to offer their thoughts on how the smartphone has changed our behavior and health over the past decade.

Dr. Gary W. Small, Parlow-Solomon Professor on Aging and director of geriatric psychiatry at UCLA:

These handy devices have transformed our social and professional lives by creating extraordinary efficiencies in communication and information gathering. Our UCLA brain scan studies and other research suggest that using these devices will activate and strengthen certain brain neural circuits and improve some cognitive skills.

However, too much technology use can distract us, impair memory, and diminish empathy. The good news is that the negative aspects of excessive device use are not permanent: Our research group found that when teenagers had no tech time for just a five-day period, measures of emotional and social intelligence showed significant improvements.

The key is to balance smartphone use with off-line time so our devices enhance, rather than disrupt, the quality of our lives.

Alethea Marti, postdoctoral researcher with the Semel Institute’s Center for Health Services and Society at UCLA:

Since smartphones are so prevalent across all social classes, they can be really valuable in research and therapy. Instead of giving a patient or research subject something new to juggle, you’re making use of a device that’s already embedded in their everyday life.

The project I'm working on, which is led by Dr. Bonnie Zima, a child psychiatrist and researcher at UCLA, uses a mobile app in pediatric mental health care to ease communication between parents and the doctor and provide a useful everyday tool for parents.

We're looking at parents whose children have just started taking ADHD medication. This is a very stressful time for these parents: they may have mixed feelings about the meds; they have to monitor side effects, get teacher feedback, do behavioral therapy, etc. – on top of all the usual parenting responsibilities.

We're trying to see if a phone app can lighten some of that load. The app reminds parents when it's time to give the medication and sends them quick questionnaires on the child's status (things they get asked about during appointments like symptoms and side effects). With the parents’ consent, we also do the same with the teacher.

The parent-teacher information is aggregated into an iPad dashboard where the doctor and parents can see and discuss graphs of changes over time.

Dr. Alon Avidan, professor of clinical neurology and director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center:

This is an important week to question the health effects of smartphones, tablets, computers and other devices that have been introduced at an exponential rate into or lives. Recent data show the majority of American adolescents maintain at least one electronic media device in their bedroom. While these devices were initially conceived to help us keep in touch with each other and become better organized during the day, their inappropriate use at night has adversely affected sleep.

Blue light from your smartphone or tablet at night disturbs the body’s internal 24-hour circadian clock, known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus. Besides influencing our own sleep-wake circadian cycle, this disturbance also alters endocrine function, cell physiology and the integrity of the immune system. Abnormalities of the circadian system put people at risk for obesity, mood disorder, heart disease and even certain tumors such as breast and prostate cancer.

We can minimize the long-term impact of abnormal light exposure during the night by following a few rules:

1) Avoid bringing electronics into the bedroom area and avoid all artificial light emitting from screens (like televisions, iPads, and iPhones) beginning two hours before bedtime.

2) Avoid additional artificial light exposure in the bedroom by turning away your alarm clock so that the light faces away from you.

3) Read before bedtime. Make sure that what you read is not too exciting or you may not be able to fall asleep right away. Your medium should be an old-fashioned book or magazine with lighting from an incandescent source– not a LED or fluorescent light.

4) Remember, the bed is for sleep only; it is not a place to watch TV, answer emails or post to Facebook. This also includes browsing the Web about the reasons why you cannot fall asleep!




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