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Mobile devices and the harm done to the young

By Jean-Claude Elias - May 18,2017 - Last updated at May 18,2017

I will spare the readers of this column any additional information, analysis, advice or comment on the WannaCry ransomware, though some may be expecting me to do so. So much has been written and said about it over the past week that there is really nothing to add here that would not be redundant, or even boring.

Besides, there are other hot topics in the world of Information Technology. One of them gives us perhaps more reasons to worry than viral attacks, it’s the harm that mobile devices are doing to the young.

Ever since computers got personal, circa 1980, there has been specific but constantly changing health concerns caused by excessive use of the technology and the equipment. I can hear some saying “define excessive”.

At some point in the relatively short history of computers it was the damage that CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) screens would do to your eyesight that would be reason to worry. Then came the carpal tunnel syndrome for those using a mouse all day long, clicking and rotating the wheel non-stop. Then the concern shifted to the backache caused by sitting for long hours before the computer.

After that IT-related health issues moved from physical to downright psychological. Playing computer games for long hours would make you epileptic or psychotic — nervous and insomniac in the best case.

Today all the above symptoms still occur, but on one hand their actual impact is not as dramatic as they were first presented or described, and on the other hand the population has learnt to live with them, to adapt and in some case to find a cure. For example, most of us have made it a habit not to remain seated long hours at a desk. Moreover LCD screens have once and for all solved the eyesight hazard that was associated with the old CRT type monitors; those days are gone for good.

Mobile devices like smartphones and tablets are now affecting the young in significant ways, both physical and psychological. The effect is greatly amplified because precisely of the mobility factor. The devices are small, can run on batteries for much longer than laptop computers, and are light and easy to carry around everywhere, outdoor and indoor, including in the kitchen, the bedroom and even the bathroom. Plus the fact that there is a certain number of them in most households, making them very accessible to the young and therefore exacerbating the problem.

In addition to the addiction generated and to the time spent (wasted?) using or playing with them, new ergonomic issues have been reported and associated with them, mainly the particular “bent neck” and “lowered head” position that is typical to using them.

Eyesight is also and again at stake here. Whereas a laptop screen is usually kept at about 40 centimetres of your eyes, mobile devices are kept at only about half this distance, creating serious problems of vision accommodation, the ability to focus on the target, on the object you are looking at. Of course you can always try and convince teen-agers that they have to take their eyes off the screen every few minutes and look at some distant point to reduce eye strain; perhaps one per cent of them will be wise enough to follow the advice. 

There’s also the damage done to the young ears. Laptops already are cursed with speakers that deliver sound that ranges from poor to terrible. Smartphones and tablets are worse, understandably, for technology till now is unable to build tiny speakers that can deliver decent sound. Young people who keep listening to poor quality sound become used to not hearing some of the essential frequencies of music and of speech. In acoustic terms you would say that the sound of mobile devices is coloured, unnatural.

Still, as it has already happened with CRT monitors, mice and other aspects of using computers, the next phase will probably show that the young and the less young have perfectly adapted and aren’t feeling too bad after all living with IT equipment, whether mobile or not. That is until new issues emerge and become fashion to discuss.

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