‘Text neck’: South Korea sees surge in health complaints linked to chronic smartphone use

Julian Ryall
In 2018, 5.46 million people in South Korea required treatment for at least one of the four prime complaints associated with prolonged use of a mobile phone - Bloomberg

Doctors in South Korea are reporting a new raft of physical and mental health ailments which they believe are are directly attributable to chronic over use of mobile phones.

It is likely the phenomenon will be replicated in the UK as mobile phone use continues to grow.

According to data collated by the government-run Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service, the number of people diagnosed with illnesses related to the use of mobile phones has nearly doubled in the last four years. 

In 2018, 5.46 million of the 51.47 million people in South Korea required treatment for at least one of the four prime complaints that are associated with prolonged use of a mobile phone; “text neck”, dry eye syndrome, insomnia or carpal tunnel syndrome, the agency said. 

That figure was up 14.8 per cent on the previous year and is expected to climb again in 2019.

Some 2.1 million Koreans received treatment last year for text neck, which is caused by stress on the neck due to having it at an unnatural angle for a prolonged period of time, up more than 12 per cent on 2014.

Other medical issues grew even more rapidly. The number of people seeking treatment for dry eye syndrome was up nearly 15 per cent to 2.6 million cases over the year, while around 600,000 people consulted their doctor about insomnia, a figure that was up more than 29 per cent on 2014.

Lee Hyang-woon, a neurologist in the Sleep Centre at Ewha Women’s University Medical Centre, told The Korea Herald that exposure to light in the evening can “severely inhibit sleep” by interfering with the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. 

“The greater the intensity of light from smartphone screens and the longer you are exposed to it, the more likely you will experience sleep disturbance and reduced quality of sleep”, she said. 

In some cases, this can develop into a more serious disorder known as delayed sleep phase syndrome, the serious disruption of a person’s biological clock.

The best way to avoid the complaint is to avoid looking at a mobile phone or other smart device for at least a couple of hours before going to bed, the experts said. 

The South Korean government in 2005 opened its first treatment facility specifically for teenagers addicted to the Internet, with a new unit for young people who cannot put down their mobile phones opening in 2014. 

Last year, around 40,000 teenagers visited counselling centres and Kim Sung-byuk, head of the youth protection division of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, told the newspaper that children with signs of addiction to mobile phones are getting younger every year. 

“Children younger than two should not be exposed to screens, experts say, and less than an hour a day under adult supervision for those aged five or younger”, he said. 

The cost of treating all mobile phone-related health complaints came to an eye-watering £287 million in 2018, up nearly 47 per cent on the figure in 2014. 

The rising number of health complaints coincide with a study by the Pew Research Centre that confirms that South Korea has the highest mobile communications penetration rate in the world, with 95 per cent of the public owning a smartphone and the remaining 5 per cent having a phone that is not connected to the Internet. 

The rate stood at 88 per cent in Israel, followed by the Netherlands at 87 per cent and Sweden at 86 per cent. The rate came to just over 82 per cent in the UK.

The epidemic of medical issues triggered by over-use of smartphones has triggered calls in the South Korean parliament for the government to intervene.

Kim Kwang-soo, a member of a cross-party health and welfare committee told the house in October that “smartphone maladies” are taking a toll on the health of the nation.

“Health authorities should come up with measures to deal with the possible health effects that come with newly emerging technologies”, he said. 

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