We look at our smartphones too often. You’ve probably heard that already. According to the makers of the productivity app RescueTime, we devote an average of 3.25 daily hours to looking at our phones; many power users devote as much as 4.5 hours to them. The consequences of this smartphone addiction are increasingly well-documented and, anecdotally speaking, easy to spot: When the pandemic lifts, you’ll once again see restaurants full of diners Instagramming their meals, and concerts and sporting events full of fans ignoring the action in favor of filming it.
But that disconnection from the present isn’t the only danger our smartphones pose. As it turns out, that rectangular wedge is packed with dangers to life and limb. Here are a few ways your smartphone is out to get you, and just as many methods for outsmarting it.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but your phone is filthy. “The pathogens that have been found on the surface of cellphones—and of course, some people are not going to want to hear this—include Staphylococcus aureus, and other species of staphylococci as well,” says Dr. Terry Else, a professor at Touro University. “Plus E. coli, and a few strains of the MRSA.”
If you don’t believe that your phone could host a Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, just think about where it, and your hands, have been lately. “Part of the problem with cellphones is that you’re putting it down on all sorts of surfaces. And that’s just not only picking things up, but transferring anything that might be on the
phone onto other surfaces,” including your hands and face.
Luckily, these trespassers can be easily removed with a solution of 70% alcohol or an eyeglass/electronics cleaning spray that contains ethanol. “Spray it onto a cloth and then wipe the phone with it; you don’t want to spray stuff directly on your phone and ruin it,” Else says. She also recommends UV light boxes designed for the express purpose of sterilizing personal objects: “The surfaces radiate ultraviolet light, and UV radiation is quite effective in killing most bacteria.” (See this Forbes ranking of UV sterilizing devices for suggestions: bit.ly/38NCL6n.)
Whatever method you use to clean your phone, be sure you do it at least once a day. While not every dirty surface will make you sick, all of them have that potential. Think about what we’ve been through during the past year, virus-wise, and act accordingly.
The blue light wavelengths that come at us from electronics screens and energy-efficient LED lighting aren’t harmful on their face. In fact, according to researchers at Harvard Medical School, they can even prove beneficial during daylight hours, when they can “boost attention, reaction times and mood.”
After sundown, however, those same wavelengths inhibit sleep by suppressing melatonin. In a blue light-versus-green light wavelength study, those Harvard researchers discovered that blue light “shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much [3 hours versus 1.5 hours].” And shortened sleep can lead to all kinds of bad stuff, from depression to heart disease.
The good news: There are several remedies for the blue light from your phone, and some of them are free:
• Avoid looking at bright screens at least an hour before bedtime. Longer is better.
• Get lots of exposure to bright light during the day. Sunlight is best.
• Use your phone’s blue light filter. Nearly all recently made phones have them. If it doesn’t have one, or if you need to look at other screens just before bed, try blue-blocking glasses.
TEXTING AND DRIVING
While your car might welcome your phone—most newer cars have Bluetooth capability, at a minimum—the two machines aren’t necessarily compatible. Nevada Revised Statute 484B.165 is pretty clear on this one: “Using [a] handheld wireless communications device to type or enter text, send or read data, engage in nonvoice communication or engage in voice communications without use of hands-free device [while operating a motor vehicle is] unlawful.”
In short, the legal consequences for texting, web-searching or using your phone for anything other than navigation, playing music or making hands-free calls include cash fines ($50 for the first offense and up to $250 for the third, doubling in work zones) and driver’s license demerit points. And the physical consequences range from property damage to death: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, distracted driving causes some 3,000 fatal accidents nationally every year. (The CDC also offers up this scary factoid: “At 55 miles per hour, sending or reading a text is like driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed.”)
Fixes for this problem aren’t as easy as screen cleaners or blue blockers, because they require serious willpower. But there are a couple of ways to force yourself into a safe driving habit:
• If your car supports a phone-interface app (CarPlay for iPhones, Android Auto for Androids), use it. It ports your navigation, calls and Spotify over to your car’s instrument panel, or if you’ve simply mounted your phone on your dash, it provides streamlined versions of the apps you use while driving and takes away all the apps that could distract you from it. (It can also read text messages to you.)
• A slightly more extreme approach: Preset the things you’ll need for your drive—the hands-free phone headset or Bluetooth connection, the Spotify playlist—and put the phone away in a bag, your glove compartment or even your trunk. If you need to consult the phone for navigation, mount it at eye level on your dash and/or set it to issue voice instruction. Whatever else your phone has to say can wait until you’re done steering a 3,000-pound machine past other drivers who might not be looking at the road, either.