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How print could save your life

We examine the scientific evidence that shows how putting down your phone and picking up a print publication may help you live longer.

Most of you reading this will be reading on a screen, grabbing five minutes on a train or at work to peer closely at your phone. All fine and good for the time-poor print fan, but given the weight of evidence stacking up against screen time, you may want to rethink how much time you spend staring at your phone – after reading this of course.

Health check

According to recent research, the average adult now spends four hours a day staring at their smartphone, keeping it within arm’s reach almost all of the time (Moment, 2018). That amount of time spent with a device interferes with an alarming range of life elements and cognitive skills, from sleep time and quality of relationships to short- and long-term memory, attention span, creativity, productivity, and problem‑solving and decision‑making abilities.

But while these are troubling in their own right, what should be worrying the average phone user is the fact that using the device raises the levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone. Cortisol is the hormone that controls the fight-or-flight reaction, triggering psychological changes that help the human body react and survive dangerous threats.

“Elevated cortisol levels have been tied to an increased risk of serious health problems, such as depression, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, fertility issues, high blood pressure, heart attack, dementia and stroke”

Unfortunately for the phone fan, these changes include rapid increases in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar – none of which are good for the body, especially when they can happen every time your phone makes you angry or frustrated, happy or excited – the exact emotional triggers that makes your phone so compelling.

“Your cortisol levels are elevated when your phone is in sight or nearby, or when you hear it or even think you hear it,” says David Greenfield, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. “It’s a stress response and it feels unpleasant, and the body’s natural response is to want to check the phone to make the stress go away.”
Elevated cortisol levels have been tied to an increased risk of serious health problems, such as depression, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, fertility issues, high blood pressure, heart attack, dementia and stroke.

The flipside

Just as there are many physical and psychological dangers of smartphone overuse, there are just as many benefits to reading print. Whether it’s a newspaper, magazine, catalogue or book, print has been proven to improve the health of its readers, lowering heart rate and blood pressure, while giving them a deeper and more satisfying understanding of a subject or story.

Neurological studies have shown that brain activity when reading print is significantly different to when reading from a screen. When reading digital content, the brain skims across the copy, only taking in key words or highlighted or bold text. But reading in print stimulates visual memory, improving understanding, retention and retrieval of information.

Given this, it’s now considered vital that children read print books rather than digital screens to improve their reading skills and knowledge. The tactile nature of print and lack of distraction in a print book, combined with the increased amount of time parents spend discussing the story rather than the device, results in much greater comprehension and improved development.

Sleep tight

Perhaps most importantly in an increasingly distracting and message-driven world, reading print helps you have longer and better quality sleep. Since sleep deprivation has been linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes, having a consistent sleep pattern has become increasingly important.

In a groundbreaking study, Harvard Medical School asked 12 students to spend two weeks reading an e-book before bed, then two weeks reading a print book. The study showed that reading an e-book resulted in less sleep and increased tiredness the next day.

“Participants reading an e-book took longer to fall asleep,” explains Anne-Marie Chang, an associate neuroscientist at Brigham Women’s Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, “and they had reduced evening sleepiness and reduced next-morning alertness than when reading a printed book.”

So tonight, when you pick up that screen for one more email or social media post before you go to sleep, pick up a book instead. It might just save your life.

Article by Sam Upton