How does the internet impact men’s health? This is the question posed by this year’s Men’s Health Week initiative, particularly with the innovation and widespread adoption of smartphone technology.
The iPhone was birthed in 2007, and I remember it well because one of the lead product designers within Apple was a chap called Jonathan Ive. It’s fair to say he was (and still is) a hero of mine, having graduated from the same Industrial Design degree at Northumbria University 10 years prior. He was the guy that everyone on my course wanted to be; an incredible British designer who made it all the way to the top. Little did we know, and I’m sure the same is true of Ive, what a monumental impact the iPhone and other smartphones would make on society in the years that have followed.
Back in 2007, the concept of having the internet on your phone, with access to information at your fingertips, and being able to communicate with others and entertain yourself 24/7 was insane; but a great thing to happen, right? There’s no doubt that the birth of the smartphone and the evolution of the internet has opened new avenues from which men’s health can benefit, with easy access to mental health-based apps such as Calm and Headspace and therapy sites such as Better Help. There are support groups and forums for men to participate in where they can talk openly, share experiences and understand that their personal issues and struggles are commonplace. For our physical health, there are apps and trackers that help to promote healthy lifestyles and routines, with instant feedback on performance and tips to maintain a healthy fitness regime.
But we must recognise that for all the positives of smartphone technology, there are emotional, mental, and physical impacts on men’s health that require careful consideration. This is particularly true for Gen Z and the upcoming Gen Alpha, who have lived with smartphones for a greater proportion of their lives than most.
Like with most things in life, I think it’s a question of balance. A 2022 study with the aim of finding if there is an association between smartphone use, and mental health and well-being among young Swiss men, resulted in a linear association between time spent using a smartphone and higher rates of social anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and lower levels of life satisfaction. However, the same study found non-users of smartphones also have lower levels of mental health and well-being, indicating that although there is deep concern about the negative consequences of the ever-increasing use of smartphones, not using one at all may also result in problems.
The internet and smartphone revolution has certainly blurred the boundaries between work and home life. With emails, instant messaging, and social media perpetually accessible, it’s become all too easy to extend the working day; whether you are office-based or remote.
I’m guilty of falling into this trap, as I’m sure many of us are. A notification pops up on your phone, it’s an email, you read it, and before you know it, half an hour has passed as you’ve slipped back into work mode while trying to relax and unwind. It’s hard to switch off, but you must do it, otherwise, you’re at risk of burnout. Indeed, I recently listened to The Diary of a CEO podcast with Steven Bartlett, who spoke openly as a man in his mid-20’s about his belief that social media and smartphone notifications have created an increase in mental health conditions in men of his generation.
There are physical factors we must discuss too. Men tend to keep their smartphone in their trouser pocket, I certainly do. Investigations into how smartphone electromagnetic radiation can negatively affect sperm count and its quality, plus other major health conditions such as cancer, are ongoing. According to a study conducted by the Cleveland Clinic Foundation of Ohio (US), smartphone usage decreases semen quality by reducing sperm count, motility, viability, and normal morphology. In 2010, the International Institute of Population Sciences, Mumbai, released stark findings highlighting the fact that there has been a 30% increase in infertility in India between 2000-2010. I’d be interested to know how many men ever stop to think about the physical risks associated with carrying a smartphone around in their pocket. I’ve done it for the last 20 years and it’s never once entered my mind. So, I ask the question, what more should society, healthcare institutions and smartphone manufacturers be doing to ensure their users are safe from the risk of potential long term and life changing effects?
I think my work in the healthcare industry and the learning I’ve done around leadership has exposed me to useful information about switching off your phone for periods of time. But for boys, teenagers, and young men I can appreciate how addictive smartphones can be. I also think about my own two sons, who are going to be asking for their own phone soon enough. Installing a sense of balance is going to be my number one priority; keeping them active and interested in health and fitness, I believe, will help, but I would like to see the smartphone manufacturers, mobile contract suppliers and app developers do more to educate men about the associated emotional, mental, and physical risks associated with exposure to the internet and the overuse of smartphone technology.