Smartphone ergonomics is an emerging topic in the field of ergonomics. The modern touchscreen smartphone has been around for a few years, but research on evaluating the physical exposures and determining subsequent MSD (Musculoskeletal Disorder) risks is relatively new.
Saturn Ergonomics is hosting an Auburn University ISE (Industrial & Systems Engineering) Senior Design Team project over the Fall 2020 Semester. The five-person student team is working to make advancements toward a better understanding of the physical exposures of smartphone use, and investigating potential solution technologies. The team will apply industrial & systems engineering tools, including DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control). Additionally, the team plans to develop a Smartphone Ergonomics Problem & Solution Guide and investigate measurement/quantification of ergonomic risk factors (i.e., force, posture, and repetition) associated with smartphone use.
Academic research is having a difficult time keeping pace with the technology advancements of the smartphone. For example, research over the last 5-7 years relies heavily upon literature published prior to the advent of the modern smartphone with its expansive touchscreen interface. Today’s smartphone is quite different from the earlier “Blackberry type” mobile devices common just a few years ago. These devices had small display screens and tiny button inputs. It stands to reason that much of the previous research may be of limited use addressing the physical exposures of the modern smartphone. In addition to research lagging behind the technology advancements of the smartphone, user demographics are changing as is the sheer volume of smartphone use/exposure.
Of particular concern is the potential MSD risk to children, teenagers, and young adults. A 2015 longitudinal cohort study of approximately 7,000 young Swedish adults (aged 20-24 years) found cross-sectional associations between text messaging and reported symptoms of neck & upper extremity MSD symptoms, with OR's (Odds Ratios) ranging from 1.3 to 2.0. But this five-year longitudinal cohort study, which concluded in 2012, may not be representative of today’s higher texting exposure levels experienced by young adults and teens. Today’s young adults and teens send text messages in much greater volume than was the norm during the period of the Swedish study (2008-2012). In the Swedish study, the highest survey response choice was sending 10-20 text messages per day. [ 1 ] More recent data indicates a much higher volume of texting by teenagers between the ages 13-17. Nielsen reported that the average teenager sends 110 text messages per day, with teen males sending 85 texts per day and teen females sending 133 texts per day [ 2 ]. It’s difficult to project the future health consequences if today’s teenagers continue this volume of texting (and generally high volume of smartphone use) into early adulthood and beyond.
Murray Gibson, PE, CPE, Founder of Saturn Ergonomics in Auburn, AL said
“I was concerned that the Auburn University students might not be interested in a smartphone ergonomics project, but to my surprise more than one team member indicated the project was their first choice. This is a very strong team, and I look forward to their contributions. This is a modern, highly relevant topic.”
Smartphone ergonomics impacts most of us one way or another. Even people that haven’t experienced a smartphone-related MSD themselves tend to know someone who has … a family member, friend or co-worker. There are even coined terms for such injuries … “texting thumb”, “selfie elbow”, etc.
Ravinder Thaper, a PhD classmate of Murray’s at Auburn University, understands the physical hazards of smartphone use. She said,
“I have personally experienced pain in my hand and thumb, due to holding and operating my smartphone. This pain forced me to use my alternate hand to relieve the stress I was experiencing”.
Ravinder is collaborating with Murray on a separate project, completing a SLR (Systematic Literature Review) on the physical exposures of modern smartphone use.
Gibson went on to say,
“There are approximately 3.5 billion smartphone users in the world (45% of the human population), but smartphone manufacturers provide very little information to users concerning the MSD risks, or possible solutions. Advancements in smartphone ergonomics have the potential to be quite impactful. The smartphone itself is capable of collecting user data such as recognition of the individual finger(s) used, finger tap/touch force, tap/touch frequency, duration, etc. It’s quite possible that one day the smartphone’s internal software will monitor the user’s physical exposure, helping prevent MSDs. The smartphone itself could potentially warn the user when unsafe physical exposure limits have been reached, or recommend the user change/modify their technique (i.e., text with two thumbs instead of one, tap/touch less forcefully, use speech-to-text feature instead of repetitive tapping, etc.).”
Stay on the lookout for updates on this smartphone ergonomics project.
1. Mashable, Ben Par. The Average Teenager Sends 3,339 Texts Per Month, Sep. 10, 2019 (https://mashable.com/2010/10/14/nielsen-texting-stats/)
2. Gustafsson et al. Texting on mobile phones and musculoskeletal disorders in young adults: A five-year cohort study. Applied Ergonomics 58 (2017) 208-214.
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