Tech and gadgets may have a lasting impact, both good and bad, on our mental and physical well-being, says studies. 

We spend a lot of time on our gadgets, from home computers to smartphones and tablets. Researchers are beginning to see the effects our modern tech-dependency and the changes they have on our wellness.  

Social networking, decision-making and crucial timing

Does being part of a social network change our decision-making process? A new study applied mathematical models to that question and says all equations point to “yes.”

Social media makes us want to pass on information we see. This spreads news, products, gossip or just cute cat pictures, and with the correct timing makes them go viral on the Internet. – AFP

“The way in which information, decisions, and behaviours spread through a network is a fundamental social phenomenon,” says study co-author Flavio Chierichetti. The process is like a disease spreading. However, because it involves individual decision-making, it is more complex. 

Chierichetti and his team's study found that when a product trends on social network, decision-making includes how popular that product is. This is known as 'cascading behaviour' where information or products is passed through social media from one user to another resulting in something going 'viral'.  

“Often, cascading behaviour in a social network is guided by an entity that wants to achieve a certain outcome,” says co-author Alessandro Panconesi. “For example, a company might be trying to guide the adoption of a product by word-of-mouth effects, or a political movement might be trying to guide the success of its message in a population.”

To understand how they manage to instigate a cascade, order and timing must be considered, says co-author Jon Kleinberg, for early adopters of the trend can influence the network, creating the next great wave.

“Consider for example how a company can choose to roll out a product at different times in different geographic areas or to different markets,” says Kleinberg, who adds that the success of the cascade can depend on a strategic choice of timing.

While a considerable amount of research has been done about decision cascades, little is understood about how timing applies and the authors’ aforementioned algorithms take it into account based on popular economic theory.

The authors’ study was published in the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) Journal on Computing; more research will be necessary, they say, to take into account behaviour at the individual level.

Tapping, swiping and typing on smartphones enhances electrical activity in the brain. – AFP

Gadgets, brains and thumbs

Much has been said about the downfalls of spending too much time tinkering with smartphones, but a new study says it leads to greater brain activity when the thumbs and other fingertips are touched.

This could mean that cortical sensory processing in today’s brain is constantly being trained by personal digital gadgets, says the research team, led by Arko Ghosh of the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich in Switzerland.

While many studies have been done pertaining to individuals with fine finger coordination such as musicians, Ghosh saw smartphone obsession as an opportunity to study the everyday plasticity of the brains of regular folk.

“I think first we must appreciate how common personal digital devices are and how densely people use them,” says Ghosh. “What this means for us neuroscientists is that the digital history we carry in our pockets has an enormous amount of information on how we use our fingertips and more.”

Because smartphones contain digital footprints of users’ activity, Ghosh was able to collect much of his data by evaluating their logs, which he says expressed many variations in fingertip-associated brain signals from one user to another.

To assess the actual brain response, he attached participants to electroencephalography (EEG) machines.

Using their gadgets under observation, a control group who hadn’t given up old-style phones was compared to a test group of smartphone users.

Ghosh and his team found enhanced electrical activity in smartphone users’ brains when contact was made with the tips of the thumb, index and middle finger.

What’s more, the level of cortical activity associated with the tips of the thumb and index fingers was directly proportional to the amount of touchscreen time, which was, again, provided by the smartphones.

Smartphone users’ thumb tips were particularly sensitive after an episode of intense touchscreen time, but the sensitivity wore off as time elapsed, according to the study, which was published in the journal Current Biology

Eye strain, neck pains and headaches 

Too much time on tech devices can pose a threat to eyesight, says a new report. 

According to The Vision Council, 93.3% of Americans spend two or more hours every day on digital devices for work or play, resulting in “digital eye strain”. A shocking 30% spend more than half of their waking hours (nine hours or more) using a digital device.

The condition is defined as “temporary physical discomfort” felt following two or more hours in front of a digital screen. Its symptoms include redness, irritation, dry eyes, blurred vision, eye fatigue, back and neck pain and headaches.

The severity of digital eye strain can be tempered by adjusting things like text size, posture, computer setup and, of course, the amount of time we spend sitting in front of the screen.

“We look at our mobile phones more than 100 times a day, yet people aren't understanding how this constant use of technology is impacting vision health,” says Dora Adamopoulos, OD, medical adviser to The Vision Council. “Digital eye strain is likely to continue to grow as a health concern.”

The report, titled Digital Eye Strain Report 2015, was released at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES). , which runs through January 9. – AFP Relaxnews