Our society has a crippling technology addiction, and no age seems immune.
The internet is a non-stop stream of content and diversions designed to be as distracting as possible, and accessing it has never been easier. The result is a species that's spending huge chunks of their waking lives hunched over iPhones, tablets and the like.
A 2015 Common Sense Media report found American kids ages 8 to 12 spend over 4.5 hours a day with screen media. For teens, it was a staggering 6.5 hours per day, even after excluding time spent on screens at school or for homework.
There's reason to believe this tech addiction is causing issues with sleep, well-being and cognitive development among our nation's kids. But another issue is much more visible—it's bending their bodies into unnatural forms riddled with pain. The average American teen and adult now spends an extraordinary amount of time in flexion. We're typically in a seated position with our eyes looking down, our neck craned in front of our shoulders, our spine rounded forward, and our hands out in front of us.
Our spine is designed to handle flexion, but serious problems can occur when excessive flexion becomes the norm. The body will always strive to adapt to implied demands, and you might be shocked at the demand you're placing on your body all that time you spend staring at your phone.
In a Washington Post article, Dr. Ken Hansraj, orthopedic surgeon, explains that the weight placed on your cervical spine dramatically increases when your head tilts forward—as shown below:
- 0 degrees - 10-12 pounds
- 15 degrees - 27 pounds
- 30 degrees - 40 pounds
- 45 degrees - 49 pounds
- 60 degrees - 60 pounds
60 pounds! That's a lot of weight constantly pulling down on some very important regions.
Dr. Tommy John, chiropractor and owner of the Tommy John Performance and Healing Center in San Diego, writes about this topic in his book, Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance: A Sports Parent's Survival Guide.
"What's happening to most kids today is that overuse of tech is reshaping the cervical curve (the first seven vertebrate of their spine located in their neck) in a way that's only supposed to be present in the very young and the very old. When properly aligned, the hole of their ears should be directly above where their collarbone meets their shoulder blade when viewed from the side. But on average, their head is shifting forward an average of 4 to 5 inches," John writes.
This has ramifications all throughout the body, as forward head carriage often leads to "pelvic roll," a postural issue that sees the pelvis roll under and back to compensate for the forces of a head that's constantly pitched forward. This removes much of the natural curve in their lower back. Forward head carriage can also create a pain referral pattern that leads to chronic, splitting headaches.
"When we were born, we were C-shaped. And as soon as we come out of mom, our object, our main goal, is to shape our own spine to handle vertical forces. Because we're going to be standing up at some point," John tells STACK. "What we're doing now is going back to being C-shaped because of our choice of lifestyle."
Babies will often be compelled to shape their spine on their own given the opportunity, but parents are now frequently encouraged to ensure this occurs through the use of "tummy time"—periods where they deliberately place their infant on their stomach. Tummy time helps babies develop the muscles of the neck, shoulders, back and core needed to develop a four-curved spine and perform activities like standing and walking.
According to John, many modern tweens, teens and adults could benefit from integrating something akin to "tummy time" in their daily routines. OK—you don't have to call it "tummy time" unless you really want to. But if you've got poor posture related to too much tech, more time on your stomach might be just what you need.
John recommends the following position in his book:
(On their stomach), have them lie flat with their head up and elbows bent to support their torso, or with their chin resting on their hand. You can have them prop pillows under their elbows to make the position more comfortable.
What this position does is reverse the misalignment of posture that regular tech use causes in the young athletes through restoring the curvature of the low back, strengthening the erector spine muscles (located along the sides of the spine) and bringing the ears back behind their shoulders.
John recommends starting with just one to two minutes a day, as the muscles you'll be activating in this position may be very weak at first. From there, you can gradually work your way up. John likes to recommend limiting certain types of tech use to this position—that way, people build their bodies up when looking at a screen instead of breaking them down. The added bonus is that most people can only hold this position for a few minutes before getting uncomfortable, so it really helps cutdown on mindless scrolling.
"Laying in that extended position helps reform the cervical curve, the lumbar curve, and it also takes away the extreme nature of that thoracic kyphosis we have, that rounded shoulder," John says.
"I will tell people to kind of wean yourself into that environment…You'll get uncomfortable. Why? Because this is training. You're integrating and facilitating areas that've been deadened and weakened. So what happens when they get tired? They burn, they ache. We become aware of them. So there's only so much time you can do it. But by attaching that position to tech, hopefully it gets people to say, 'Oh man, I can't lay here that long. Tech's over.'"
Even for the most trained of individuals, it's recommended not to spend more than 40-50 minutes in the position at one time, but most people won't even approach that figure. John says the issues this position is helping address may also be the culprit behind another common movement deficiency—limited shoulder mobility.
"I don't necessarily think we have a shoulder mobility problem, but it's more of a spine shape problem," John says.
"Whenever we have people raise their arms or move their shoulder, everyone's like, 'Oh, your shoulder mobility is awful.' Well, wait a second. What if you took away that rounded mid-back and you had them come up and then raise their arms? All of the sudden, their shoulder mobility is huge."
Photo Credit: Tatyana Batueva/iStock
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