World Wide Wellness or World Wide Risks: How the Web Affects Our Health
If newspaper headlines are anything to go by, the disadvantages of using the internet are endless: hacking scandals, security risks from online transactions or uncovering paedophile rings seem to be an everyday occurrence. These aspects of being online can certainly be stressful, but does using the web also have direct health risks?
Before we even think about the risks attached to time spent online or the content available, it is important the think about the risks associated with the Wi-Fi networks and signals that bring internet into our homes, schools and workplaces. Since the rise of the internet thousands of studies have been conducted into the effects living in such close proximity to Wi-Fi routers. The most recently publicised research came from a school group project conducted in Denmark which tested the potential impact of phone radiation on surrounding objects. Trays of cress seeds were grown in two separate environments: six trays in a room with no Wi-Fi router, and six trays in a separate room next to two Wi-Fi routers. Photographs of the results went viral showing one set of successfully sprouted seeds and the other set which failed to germinate; turned a brownish shade and died. The school group attracted lots of media interest from scientists who called for a more thorough investigation into the health effects of radiofrequency radiation levels from Wi-Fi equipment.
While the Danish students won a science prize for their study and the research has generated lots of discussions about the health effects from mobile phones and Wi-Fi-equipment, many scientists remain sceptical about the validity of these results and any other studies which indicate that Wi-Fi is dangerous for health. Generally, the scientific community finds that since the waves emitted by a router are long waves, their intensity is so low (around 100,000 times lower than a microwave oven) that it’s not worth worrying about . Admittedly, some doctors and scientists recommend working is a separate room from the router, sitting at least one metre from it, and not putting the Wi-Fi connection on your lap. Of course, this current generation is the first to be constantly surrounded by Wi-Fi signals, so research is constantly underway to study any health implications, but the majority of studies indicate that there is no known risk from Wi-Fi yet.
Parents often encourage their children to switch off the computer or television or iPad and go outside to get some fresh air instead. The worry is that too much time spent indoors with electronic gadgets is bad for them. It now seems like this claim has more scientific basis than first thought – especially when that gadget is the web. A study conducted by the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine in Switzerland looked at internet use for 16- to 20-year-olds in Switzerland. The research found that both male and female high Internet users (two or more hours online per day) had a higher risk of depression than regular Internet users. Boys in this group were also at risk of being overweight, and girls were at risk of not getting enough sleep. A study conducted by the University of Leeds in 2010 indicated that people who compulsively browse, chat and play online have higher rates of moderate to severe depression than people who aren’t compulsively driven to use the internet. Another recent study by the psychologists Janet Morahan-Martin and Phyllis Schumacher showed that people who are already depressed have certain internet behavior characteristics like very high e-mail usage which tend to further fuel depression. In fact, frequent checking of email may relate to high levels of anxiety, which itself correlates with depressive symptoms.
On the contrary, other studies have indicated that that regular access to the web improves mental health. The Swiss study above concluded that the 16- to 20-year-olds with the least internet use had a higher risk of depression than regular Internet users. Researchers believed that these internet ‘abstainers’ could be more prone to depression because they felt disconnected or isolated. Likewise, the web advantages for older people have received lots of positive press, as it is thought that being connected enables them to feel more social, active and confident because they can communicate with and be connected to the rest of society, even if they are not physically able to get out and about. Lastly, people who suffer from anxiety, shyness or even depression often find it hard to interact with new people in normal social situations. In this way, using social media sites and chat rooms or even dating websites can be a good option for developing friendships to help gain confidence and overcome anxiety.
With increased use of the web via small portable devices like smartphones, laptops and tablets, serious posture problems may be on the rise. Unlike traditional desktop computers which were positioned on a desk in a fixed place and encouraged users to sit straight, smaller tech devices are more flexible, which is actually bad news for our back, neck and shoulders. Research into posture and the effects of these new types of technology identified nine new poses which are said to be responsible for an increase in aches and pains. These poses include the scrunched up ‘cocoon’ and the tablet-focused ‘swipe’ position; both causing lots of strain on an unsupported neck, and potentially leading to long term postural issues in the future.
While all of the above is worrying, there is no denying the considerable number of online resources which have been designed to help improve posture, flexibility and balance which can help to counteract and correct some of the negative effects of bad posture due to overuse of phones and tablets. There are thousands of yoga and pilates videos available online. These videos are often led by world class instructors, are available without a subscription and do not require any equipment to get started. Try searching for yoga or pilates posture exercise using YouTube (where videos can be streamed for free), or look on other websites like the iTunes store, which sells workout videos and podcasts to be downloaded, practiced and perfected wherever you are.
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