How to keep the internet from harming your health

Broadband brings blessings and curses - here's how to mitigate the downsides.

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Tuesday, 12 November, 2019

The internet is a great benefit for any home. It lets us explore, create and learn about the universe in ways our ancestors would envy.

It keeps friends and family in touch, connecting people with shared interests regardless of their location or even language.

Yet broadband is also capable of having detrimental effects on our physical health, quite apart from mental health issues like trolling or addiction.

Fortunately, there are simple ways to improve our internet health, making web-surfing more comfortable and practical in the process…

A pain in the neck (and head)

Most people know that using any internet-connected device can make your eyes hurt.

In fact, a range of problems may be caused or exacerbated by going online, classified by the American Optometric Association as Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS).

Symptoms of CVS include eye strain, headaches, problems with vision, and pains in the neck and/or shoulders.

These tend to get worse with increased screen time, while diminishing after time away from web-enabled devices.

If you already have vision problems but don’t know (or haven’t had them corrected), CVS symptoms may be worse – and they could last longer.

Everyone who goes online regularly or for extended periods should have regular eye tests.

If you wear glasses, special coatings can be applied to reduce glare or the effects of blue light.

There are also filters, settings and apps to control the level of light coming from your screen(s).

But none of these are a substitute for the basics of self-care and optimal internet health.

Foremost among these is following the 20-20-20 rule.

That means having a screen break every 20 minutes, focusing on an object more than 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.

You can also help your eyes by increasing the contrast on your screen, and making text larger.

Make sure the brightness is similar to the ambient environment, in the same way smartphone displays dull down in dark conditions. A glaringly bright screen is harder to look at.

Owners of a cathode ray tube monitor should consider replacing it with a high-resolution LCD screen, which will flicker less and thereby reduce eye strain.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Optimising internet health also involves minimising muscle strain or damage.

The neck, shoulders, back, arms and hands may be affected, especially when using laptops or tablets which require a bent neck.

The tips for avoiding CVS are relevant here, while muscular issues also occur when people tap keyboards too hard, don’t support their wrists or force their body into unnatural postures.

The ergonomically optimal posture for working at a fixed screen is having a monitor at arm’s length and eye level, while a chair is adjusted to deliver a comfortable sitting position.

However, these principles don’t really apply to mobile screens and laptops, for which guidance is less widely available.

It’s harder to use a laptop safely, because we often use them on the move or in various locations.

And despite the name, the most dangerous way to use a laptop is by putting it on your lap.

In general, mobile devices should rest in a comfortable sitting position on a desk, as with a desktop PC.

Avoid repetitive movements such as looking down (which strains your neck and upper back), or stretching for a mouse at arm’s length.

Try to employ accessories like footrests, gaming mouse mats (these are much wider than normal mouse mats for extra coverage) and wrist supports for both keyboard and mouse.

Creating a healthy environment can offset the inevitable times when you compromise on posture, such as trying to work while on a train, or in a café.

Ergonomically optimal use of computers and the internet won’t just help you to feel better. You’ll probably achieve more, too, since discomfort is hardly productivity’s best friend.

A life more ordinary

Finally, it’s worth taking a moment to consider a health category that’s harder to define – specifically, the relationship between time spent online and real-life relationships.

Numerous studies into the links between internet use and relationships have concluded that excessive time online harms social connections, making interpersonal relationships harder.

If too much screen time is starting to harm your real-world activities and behaviours, don’t be afraid to step away for a while and immerse yourself in the real world…

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!