Mobile Technology

The state of smartphone safety

The state of smartphone safety
The state of smartphone safety: A look at the risks inherent to smartphone use, and how mobile technology companies are responding
The state of smartphone safety: A look at the risks inherent to smartphone use, and how mobile technology companies are responding
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The state of smartphone safety: A look at the risks inherent to smartphone use, and how mobile technology companies are responding
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The state of smartphone safety: A look at the risks inherent to smartphone use, and how mobile technology companies are responding
Distracted driving is a widespread problem associated with smartphone use
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Distracted driving is a widespread problem associated with smartphone use
The infamous "smartphone slump"
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The infamous "smartphone slump"
Studies have shown that the blue light from smartphone displays can disrupt sleep
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Studies have shown that the blue light from smartphone displays can disrupt sleep

Are smartphone manufacturers and developers doing enough to keep users safe and healthy? If you've been hit by a car because of Pokémon Go or your Galaxy Note 7 went up in flames, you may be inclined to say no. Nevertheless, here's a look at the most epidemic dangers associated with smartphone use, and how mobile technology companies are responding.

Problem: Distracted driving

Texting and driving kills, plain and simple. It's a bad habit that sweeps across ages and genders, with younger drivers being the most visible and likely offenders. But it would be unwise to ditch smartphones in the car altogether – they're essential safety tools in the event of a crime, accident or if mom will kill you if you don't call and check in.

Windows phones have the only platform with a built-in driving mode, and it relies on in-vehicle Bluetooth to work. Once you set up this feature, the phone automatically goes into driving mode when it detects your car's Bluetooth connection. It can be set to block calls and/or texts and even auto-respond to let contacts know you're driving.

Distracted driving is a widespread problem associated with smartphone use
Distracted driving is a widespread problem associated with smartphone use

Similar capabilities have yet to be worked into iOS or Android operating systems, but apps bridge the gap. Some of them are designed for families and parents in mind, such as LifeSaver (free for iOS or Android) which runs in the background. It locks the phone when a car's motion is detected, excepting hands-free calling and navigation. The accompanying Driver Portal app gives parents tools like the ability to set arrival alerts and notifications if LifeSaver has been disabled.

If you don't need as many family-oriented capabilities, check out TextNinja, a brand new Kickstarter-backed app that builds on the Bluetooth-based safety features of the Windows phone. The app is free, but it's optimized for use with a special OBDII car adapter, starting at US$25-30. The Bluetooth connection means your phone won't have to rely on GPS to detect movement, so battery and data usage is minimized.

Considering that distracted driving is such a widespread problem, we are crossing our fingers that operating systems and/or phone manufacturers will take a cue from apps like these and make similar safety features native in the not-so-distant future.

Problem: Sleeplessness

Smartphone displays emit a heaping helping of blue light. Blue light is known to disrupt the human circadian rhythm, which is responsible for regulating the sleep and other essential daily processes. Because of this phenomenon, phone and tablet use before bed has been shown to interfere with a good night's sleep.

Studies have shown that the blue light from smartphone displays can disrupt sleep
Studies have shown that the blue light from smartphone displays can disrupt sleep

In order to combat electronics-induced sleep problems, apps (and now iOS settings) can skew the phone's display to warmer colors after sunset or on a schedule of your choosing. This measure has not been explicitly proven to help you sleep, but evidence does suggest that less blue light is a good thing for circadian rhythm regulation.

On iOS 9.3 or higher, navigate to Settings > Display & Brightness > Night Shift to enable this feature. In the Android realm, you'll have to rely on an app to adjust the display. The Nougat developer version included a built-in Night Mode, but the setting got axed sometime before it went live. The Night Mode Enabler app adds this setting back into the operating system (Nougat only), or the Twilight app can adjust nighttime display settings on any Android phone.

Posture problems

If you really spend a lot of time on your phone, you'll end up with a sore neck, wrist, shoulders, strained eyes and any number of additional aches and pains. If sitting is the new smoking, then sitting around glued to a smartphone is probably akin to enjoying a cigarette in an asbestos-filled coal mine.

Maybe that's a stretch, but it's an even greater stretch to consider smartphone use anything close to ergonomic. Manufacturers have made some efforts that allow more freedom of movement: Bluetooth headsets, voice control and phone stands/mounts all fall under this umbrella. But these measures don't change the fact that most of the time, smartphone use entails staring into a small glowing screen, hunching over and putting pressure on your neck and shoulders.

The infamous "smartphone slump"
The infamous "smartphone slump"

Your best bet to combat the signature "smartphone slump"? Put down the phone. Paradoxically, apps might help correct bad habits. Try BreakFree (free, with in-app purchases): Through usage monitoring and notifications, the app informs you how often you check your phone and how much time is spent on individual apps. Use this information to wean yourself off of non-productive uses, or switch some activities over to a more comfortable laptop or desktop.

An increasing number of posture-focused wearables have also hit the market. The Alex posture sensor ($99) is specifically designed as an anti-neck strain measure: It perches on the ears and rests on the back of the neck, and issues a vibration warning when neck and head posture is poor. You can also view patterns over time on the accompanying app.

The startup Prana promises a less intrusive option: The wearable sensor clips onto the waistband and monitors spinal posture and breathing. But the company has missed its June 2016 planned ship date and a new timeline is uncertain.

Counterpoints

Before writing off smartphone use as a wellness disaster, keep in mind that they are capable of placing an immense wealth of fitness, nutrition and general health information into in the palm of our hands (literally). The drawbacks are certainly outweighed by the potential benefits, but at the moment, human discipline is still the biggest factor in preventing health problems associated with mobile technology. Apps and accessories aren't magic bullets, they're only tools to assist individual efforts.

For more about wellness technology, check out New Atlas' health coverage or the latest news in wearables.

9 comments
Imran Sheikh
the biggest hazard is yet to come with kids having very less physical activity and fixed eye focus where they hold phones and no blue light filters.
Tommo
Add to this the current problem of having your Samsung smartphone blow up on you....
Joe Blough
Any psychologist will tell you that cell phones are addictive and there is a lot of research proving this. The concept that it would be unwise to automatically inhibit cell phones from displaying or transmitting while a vehicle is moving is just nonsense. Pull over, stop, use the cell phone. Instead, people injure and/or kill themselves and others using their devices while driving. Both the networks and the cell phones themselves know when they are moving and could easily go into a store incoming and stop outgoing messages mode and refuse to display anything. If safety is the issue, then enabling 911 calls but that's all, is easily accomplished. AT&T has offered this option for years. It appears however that people refuse to do or support that which is good for them and others. So keep driving, surfing, texting and dying, it's more important than any sensible safety issue. Using alcohol (also addictive) while driving ought to also be allowed as it is less dangerous. Bring back cigarettes, who cares about health of self and others. People are too stupid to do the proper thing so legislation and laws are the only way bad behaviors will stop. Force the mobile device makers to auto-inhibit all be 911 calls. Do the same to the networks.
piperTom
From the article: "Windows phones have the only platform with a built-in driving mode..." Nonsense! My last two Motorola phones have had such a feature and it works very well. As to the idea of forcing the phone, unconditionally, into such a mode, it's good that customers won't tolerate it. Did you never hear of "passengers"? Despite the authoritarian urges of some, we have to, and we can, depend on people's judgement... at least until self-driving cars make it a non-issue.
FloteYourTablet
Studies from Harvard and articles from leading ergonomic researchers indicate that holding a tablet for long durations causes muscle pain and fatigue. Even using a case that props your tablet up is rarely an ergonomic solution. The truth is that using our tablets for long periods of time is hazardous to our health and well being. In addition to apps like Breakfree, there are hardware solutions on the market that hold a tablet or phone for more ergonomic and pain-free use. See goo.gl/fA9z19 to learn more.
Calson
What is needed is government intervention and forcing auto makers to incorporate hands free conversation in all cars they sell to the public. The FCC can also order phone companies to block calls to phones that are in motion and only allow calls through the vehicle's bluetooth system. They can also allow incoming calls but not allow outgoing calls. But the government needs to force the changes as it forced auto makers to put seat belts in every car and air bags and ABS brakes and air bags. Fatalities per passenger mile have been reduced by 80% with this government mandated changes that were fought by the car companies. What is pathetic is that 45% of Americans have no alternative to owning, maintaining, and driving a car to get to work or to school or for any other need. Even the 55% who have access to public transportation have to deal with a train and light rail transit that is worse now than it was in 1950. The government subsidizes motorists but not those who wish to pollute less and the result is that more than half the land area of cities is taken up by motorists and their cars for roads and parking. The costs are enormous but paid for by all taxpayers whether they drive or not.
ljaques
Some good points were brought out here. Idiots continue to shave, do their makeup and hair, discipline kids, read, and text while attempting to steer (I surely couldn't call that "driving") down the road in traffic. Curiously, missing is the danger presented by cell phone use: RF damage to cells. Disbelievers can google "ucsd cancer cluster" for one example. I use the speaker phone option, JIC.
amazed W1
The real "anti" is the distraction and loss of concentration on the job in-hand, which is driving safely. It's true that after 10 years or so of driving much of what the eyes see while driving almost by-passes the conscious so that the reaction to other road users is nearly instantaneous. ( and the internal or external comment come fractions of a second later.) BUT talking to somebody while driving, whether somebody in the vehicle or on the cell-phone occupies a much larger fraction of this semi-autonomous consciousness than most people accept, specially if the conversation is about work, what to do with awkward children or calming a worried partner. The vital first fractions of a second in which the key decisions are made almost automatically are lost. Multi-tasking simply isn't realistic if certain activities, like driving or mountaineering are involved.
JanKirchner
Thanks for a good article, however, you fail to even touch on super important health issues concerning user exposure to damaging cell phone radiation. This is an especially glaring issue now that most young people are walking around tethered to a cell phone. Their skulls have not even developed to a thickness that will offer at least some protection for their gray matter! There may be a call here to do an entire article on the cell phone radiation issue. Hope to read it here soon! Thank you...