It's an undeniable fact of modern life: our cell phones are a part of us. If you're the type that panics when you realize you've left your phone at home or in the car and are going to have to get through a few hours without it, you're definitely not alone. But those few hours might just be good for you, and it might do you even more good to forget it more often. While the science is still out on just how bad our cell phones can be for some aspects of our health, we have discovered some pretty scary stuff.
It's covered in germs
It's safe to say no one likes germs, and if you're an outright germophobe, you might want to listen extra closely to this one. Cell phones have about 10 times as many germs as the average toilet seat, and if that doesn't make you cringe, nothing will. According to a microbiologist from the University of Arizona, Charles Gerba, the problem with phones is that not only do we carry them with us all the time and everywhere — including into the toilet — but we pass them around to other people for a germ-swapping show of our photos and videos. That's where the danger really comes in, as we're generally not made sick by our own phone germs — we're made sick by other people's phone germs.
It's worse than you think, too. When Buzzfeed writer Caroline Kee surprised her coworkers by swabbing their phones for germs and handing the samples over to Columbia University's Medical Center to see what would grow, 100 percent of the phones grew something. There were a handful of germs that are common to all of us, but others were more scary. There was MRSA, staphylococcus aureus (which causes staph infections and toxic shock syndrome), and E. coli.
Gerba says this teeming mass of bacteria, mold, and viruses thrives because we tend not to clean our phones. Fortunately, it's a simple thing to do. There are a number of commercial cleaning solutions available, but you can also use a diluted alcohol spray to make sure your phone is actually as clean as it looks. You're welcome.
Nomophobia is a very real thing
If your phone has a chance to damage your physical health, what about your mental health? Our ever-changing world and ever-present reliance on our phones has led to the coining of the term "nomophobia," which came about after a 2010 study from the UK's Post Office found that more than half of cell phone users report the development of anxiety when separated from their phones, or when they run out of battery life. Nomophobia stands for "no-mobile-phone phobia," and it's a very real thing. The study found people equate it with being as stressful as at least a trip to the dentist and, for some, it was on par with the stress levels of their wedding day.
In 2014, researchers from the University of Genoa in Italy put forward a petition to include nomophobia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The proposal argues that nomophobia is simply the newest in a long line of phobias that causes the same mental distress that other phobias already listed in the manual do, and cite similarities between the panic of being without a phone to the reaction of, say, exposure to snakes and spiders, or situations like flying or driving through a tunnel. In some cases, nomophobia can manifest itself in symptoms like hearing and feeling phantom rings and vibrations, a compulsion to keep checking the phone (called "ringxiety"), and even avoiding places that don't allow the use of cell phones. With some studies suggesting that nomophobia is an ever-growing and ever-present source of anxiety, it's becoming such a concern that treatment options (like cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy) are also proposed.
It's impacting your memory
Quick, how many phone numbers do you actually know off the top of your head? If you're like many people, that's probably not many. Now, we tend to just hit someone's name and tell our phones to dial for us, and that might be having a weird impact on our mental health, too.
Our increasing reliance on our phones — and other technology — is slowly but surely impacting something called our transactive memory. The idea basically says when we have sources of knowledge right at our fingertips, we're less likely to make the effort to actually commit things to memory. Think of how many times you've used the Google Maps app on your phone to find your way from Point A to Point B. Could you find your way again, without the app's help this time? Probably not, because research has shown that we've become so reliant on GPS technology that we're losing our ability to navigate on our own.
Psychologists from Columbia University conducted a series of experiments where they tested how memory worked in the modern world, and they found that many times, we're remembering where we can find information instead of being bothered to actually remember the information itself. We're starting to regard our phones — and the internet — a sort of external memory device, which begs the question, "What happens if that fails?"
It's causing serious eye strain
Technology with screens is still relatively new enough that we're not quite sure just what kind of long-term damage spending most of our day looking at screens might cause, but according to a 2015 study from The Vision Council, about two out of every three people report suffering from eye strain after spending a long amount of time staring at screens. There's even a name for it: digital eye strain, or computer vision syndrome.
Typically, it's characterized by blurred vision or dry eyes, but there might be more to it than that. Your cell phone screen is putting off something called HEV light, and that's the kind of light that's been linked to the highest possibility of being able to damage our tissues. That goes for our eyes, too, and while we haven't been exposed to our cell phone screens for long enough to know whether or not this is a danger, it certainly might be a risk.