How to use your smartphone without ruining your health

Your phone is wearing down your body in ways you don't even realize.

Our smartphones are our constant companions. We hunch over their screens, gaze at their blue-tinted light, and sacrifice human companionship for digital company. Over time, all these habits can wreak havoc on our health.

Luckily, you can avoid some of these negative effects without entirely relinquishing your pocket computer’s company. Here’s how to protect your health from your smartphone.

Improve your posture

How do you stand or sit when you’re occupied with your smartphone? If you bend over the screen, neck cricked, then you’re not alone.

Unfortunately, this unnatural position, dubbed “text neck,” could be causing an increasing number of neck and spine injuries, research suggests. As we gaze down at our phones for hours every day, we’re reversing the typical backward curve of the neck, Todd Lanman, spinal neurosurgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, told Reuters last year.

He has a fix, although it might attract a few odd looks from the people around you. Keep your phone at eye level when texting, emailing, or social networking (the higher you hold your phone, the better). This habit lets you hold your head up and your shoulders back, as you should when you’re trying to sit ergonomically at your computer.

The posture coaches at Vertical Align also recommend that you hold your phone at eye level. In addition, they suggest that, while standing, you keep your arms close to your body. When you’re sitting, lean forward—again with your phone at eye level—with your elbows supported on your knees.

Your hand position also matters. Experts also recommend operating your phone with two hands in symmetrical positions. This spreads out the strain on the arms and spine. If you’re tapping and swiping with one hand, according to the Vertical Align team, you should switch hands regularly.

Cutting down on prolonged smartphone sessions will also help improve your posture and prevent other potential problems like eye strain. Essentially, you should avoid spending extended periods staring down at your phone. If you must use your phone, break up the time with small stretches, such as rolling your neck.

Reduce blue light

The sun and your digital devices both emit short-wavelength high-energy blue light. These waves are great when they’re coming from our star—they help us stay awake during daylight hours by blocking the brain’s production of melatonin, which makes us sleepy. But when the light keeping you up is coming from a screen as you lie in bed, that’s not so good. Darkness naturally makes us sleepy, and staring at a phone late at night interferes with that.

That’s not all. Recent research has identified a process through which too much blue light can significantly damage cells in the eye. If the light kills off enough of these photoreceptor cells, scientists say, it can cause serious conditions like macular degeneration.

Luckily, both Android and iOS come with settings that can help reduce your exposure to blue light.

On an Android device, head to Settings > Display > Night Light. Select Turn on now to change the screen’s color to an amber tint, reducing the blue-wavelength light it emits. To schedule this change so it occurs automatically at a certain time of day, tap Schedule.

For iOS, you’ll find a similar option called Night Shift. Access it by going to Settings > Display & Brightness > Night Shift. To switch it on only when you need it, tap Manually Enable Until Tomorrow. Or make it turn on and off automatically by hitting Scheduled.

These color-changing options should reduce the damage blue light does to your eyes and sleeping patterns. But we’d recommend restricting your nighttime phone use as well. No matter what light settings you adjust, keeping your mind racing with social media or Netflix shows isn’t the best preparation for a smooth night’s sleep. With that in mind, think about replacing that late-night Twitter check with a book or asking your Amazon Echo to read the evening news aloud so you don’t have to look at the text.

Manage screen time

One of the best ways to protect your health from your phone is to use the gadget less frequently. To help with this goal, both iOS and Android are introducing so-called “digital wellness” tools that inform you about and help you limit your smartphone use. However, you may not be able to access them just yet. Apple’s new suite, called Screen Time, will appear in the iOS 12 update due to roll out in September; Google’s version, an app dubbed Digital Wellbeing, is in beta testing, so you need to install Android 9 Pie on a Google Pixel phone in order to try it out.

When you get the iOS update, you’ll be able to play around with it by heading to Settings > Screen Time. It will display your daily device usage, broken down into app categories, such as gaming or education. Tap the name of your device at the top of the screen to see additional stats: weekly usage, lists of the most frequently-used apps, and charts showing how frequently you pick up your phone and receive notifications. To restrict the amount of time you spend on a given app, tap that program and then hit Add Limit. You can also set limits by category by heading to the front page of the Screen Time menu and tapping App Limits. Once you reach your time limit, the apps in question will appear grayed-out on the home screen, although you can manually override this block.

When your Android phone receives an update that will enable its time-management app, you’ll see a new Digital Wellbeing entry in Settings. Here, you can view recent information on the apps you’ve used, how many times you’ve unlocked your phone, and how many notifications you’ve received. Tap on the pie chart that displays this information to access a more detailed day-by-day breakdown, and swipe right to see your statistics over the previous days and weeks. As on iOS, you can set limits: Tap the No timer button next to a given app. Again, when you reach that limit, the app appears grayed out, and launching it produces a deterrent message. To override your self-imposed limits, you need to go back to the Digital Wellbeing menu and disable the timer.

Both Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing also include tools—Downtime on iOS and Wind Down on Android—that wean you off evening phone time by blocking your app access after a certain hour. Wind Down can also also gray-out the screen or switch into Night Light mode during that time.

While you wait for the Android and iOS tools to arrive, try a third-party creation like the free app Flipd, which gently nudges you when you’ve spent too long on your phone, or the $2 purchase Forest, which encourages you to take breaks by growing a virtual forest when your phone is idle. For more options, check out this list of time-management apps.