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Tech neck: here’s how technology is affecting your posture in the age of ‘Zoombies’

First off, I want you to look away from whatever digital device you’re reading this article on and analyse your current posture. Are you scrolling through your phone, laptop or tablet with your head down and bent forward? When was the last time you actually got up from your seat, or even worse, looked away from your screen before I told you to? Have I hit the nail on the head? If you feel a little attacked right now, then I hate to break it to you but you may be on the fast track to a condition called ‘tech neck’.

What is tech neck?

Tech neck, also referred to as ‘text neck’, is a 2022 repackaged version of an old issue: the repetitive strain of muscles while using digital devices—resulting in neck injuries, shoulder pain, stiffness and soreness. Broadly put, it’s a condition caused by holding your neck still for long periods of time.

While headaches, neck spasms, reduced mobility, jaw discomfort and pain between your shoulder blades, down your wrists and elbows are common symptoms, some complain of facing a hard time looking up after spending hours looking down into their devices. In severe situations, one could even experience tingling, numbness or weakness in their arms triggered by a pinched nerve in their neck.

But what does the weight of our heads have to do with tech neck? According to Doctor Daniel Riew, director of cervical spine surgery at the NewYork-Presbyterian Och Spine Hospital, our necks aren’t built to withstand the type of force that comes with prolonged periods of strain. This is because the muscles in the back of our necks have to contract in order to hold our heads up. “The more you look down, the more the muscles have to work to keep your head up,” Doctor Riew said in an interview with Health Matters. “These muscles can get overly tired and sore from looking down at our smartphones, working on computers or looking down at our tablets all day.”

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However, bad neck angles are not the only villains behind tech neck. Remember how we’re often told to correct our postures and “sit straight” when sitting at our desks? As per Doctor Riew, our childhood was a lie as this is incorrect advice. “When you sit with your back straight, you not only put a lot of force on the discs in your lower back, but the muscles in the back of the neck have to contract to hold the head up,” he said, adding that if you sit straight up for hours, you may actually end up with both back and neck pain instead. Tell that to the next person who says you shouldn’t slouch so much.

A pandemic-accelerated concern

At a time when work from home has birthed a new generation of ‘Zoombies’, tech necks have evolved into an e-epidemic most of us with a digital device face today. You just rubbed your shoulders and sighed a while ago, am I right? According to Doctor Riew, the number of people suffering from the condition currently is at—surprise, surprise—100 per cent.

“Virtually anybody who spends a lot of time on a computer is eventually going to complain about it,” he explained. “Almost every patient that I see says that working on a computer usually makes their neck pain worse. It’s the rare person with a neck issue who says, ‘Oh yeah, I can work on a computer for hours every day and not have my neck bother me’.” With the smell of Vicks Vaporub wafting into the living room from my desk as we speak, it’s (concerningly) safe to say that I’m among the 100 per cent.

Apart from the pungent odour of pain-relief ointments, however, how can someone actually tell if their posture has succumbed to tech neck? According to osteopath and yoga teacher Anji Gopal, as noted by Glamour, neck and shoulder pain is one the basic symptoms you should look out for. Early signs of the concern also include your head feeling heavy as you fidget around to find a comfortable position while sitting down.

Another telltale is “when your shoulders become slightly tilted forward causing your head to drop and come forward,” explained Anisha Joshi, an award-winning osteopath. “It may be characterised by general discomfort in the lower neck, shoulders and upper back, or an increase in how often you experience headaches and reduced mobility or stiffness.”

A quick scroll through the 27,000 Instagram posts on #techneck will also plop you in a parallel land of a rising cosmetic concern. Head over to the closest mirror, tilt your head slightly upwards and inspect your neck. If you see lines running along the area from ear to ear, then congratulations, you—like me—won’t be able to unsee it for a while now. As noticed by cosmetic surgeons all around the world, these lines have significantly worsened with tech necks over the pandemic.

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Welp, what can be done?

One of the most basic things you can do to confront tech neck while you’re reading this article is move around at home. “If you have a sedentary job, at least every 15 to 30 minutes, you should get up and walk around—even if it’s for a minute,” Doctor Riew advised. This will not only get your blood flowing but will help reset the position of your neck and your body. “Studies show that sitting for long periods is dangerous to your heart and that it leads to a shortened life span,” he urged.

Need a more long-term solution? Why not try switching up your workplace furniture while opting for a reclining chair with good lumbar support? And before you ask, no, asking your furniture retailer about the lumbar support offered in different seating options won’t magically transform you into a millennial. So do your research and analyse the ones recommended to you. Then take the furniture home and lean back as much as practical while you’re working to take pressure off your neck muscles.

“You can tell if you are leaning back adequately by doing the following: first, if you were to fall asleep in that position, your neck should fall backward. Alternatively, if you put your hand at the back of your neck, as you lean forward, you’ll find that the neck muscles contract and stiffen up. As you lean backward they will relax and get soft,” Doctor Riew continued.

Other tips also include propping your elbows with pillow support to keep your phone at eye level while scrolling through endless TikTok FYPs and incorporating exercises like scalene muscle stretches, head unweighting and spine retractions into your workout routine. Developing good posture and learning to recognise what that feels like are additional milestones to a healthy lifestyle in a tech-gilded age. So get up and moving already, because if tab overload doesn’t have your swollen butt yet, tech neck sure will.

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The threat of the ‘Zoombie’ and how to avoid becoming one if you work from home

It’s Monday morning, you find yourself dragging your body out of bed. You’ve hit the dreaded snooze button, yet again, and somehow managed to sleep soundly through all of your following alarms. With your phone stranded and forgotten by the wayside of your bed, you rustle for a clean shirt to throw over your pyjamas to be somewhat presentable for your first meeting of the day. You bid a tearful farewell to your comfy sheets as you haul yourself up. After what felt like a hazy choreography, you find yourself sitting in a Zoom team meeting. You’ve already scarfed down breakfast—a cup of lazily-made tea and quick spoonfuls of cereal (if you’re lucky). Cut to midday and there you are, still at your desk. Your eyes bloodshot, clacking keyboards buttons hurting your brain, waiting with all your mustered up strength to enthusiastically say bye bye for the fourth time today. Sounds familiar? Well, my friend, you might just be a Zoombie.

Now the word might sound like a bad dad joke, but it’s real, people. It’s the rise of the Zoombies and they’re coming to convert all of us, one team meeting at a time. Being a Zombie is a far cry from being a Zoombomber, which is when someone eagerly hop on to Zoom calls uninvited. On the contrary, Zoombies dread the endless online call meetings and video chats—even with their added perk of fuelling the need to check yourself out on screen non-stop.

A lot of things have changed since the initial COVID 19 pandemic hit—the good, the bad and the ugly have all been revealed, with, let’s be honest, more emphasis being put on the latter two. Office jargon has transformed, mutating to include a whole host of terms that we never would have thought of before. Polyworking, blursday, covidiot and even the all-important question of to ‘bra or nah?’ have become embedded into the nine-to-five experience.

So we have yet another term entering our vocabulary for this topsy turvy time we find ourselves in. Zoombies are the newest work from home danger to avoid and we’re going to explain why—think Night of the Living Dead if you’re staring at a computer screen all day.

What is a Zoombie?

According to the sacred gospel on internet speak Urban Dictionary, a Zoombie is defined as “a person who becomes the living dead by spending all day on video conferences, especially on Zoom.” Sounds like we all might be Zoombies by now.

On the topic, The New York Times wrote, “Anyone who has entered the eighth hour of staring at a co-worker’s pores and wished to be back under the fluorescent lighting of an open floor plan knows what it’s like to turn into a Zoombie.”

Being a Zoombie is essentially the zombified product of Zooming all day, every day at work. The Guardian published a whitty piece towards the end of 2021, where it discussed the nature of our new normal and gave a lowdown on Zoombies and the demise they face at the hands of their homebound desks. The publication labelled them as “the exhausted, zombie-like survivors of back-to-back Zoom meetings.” Again, sounds familiar?

Is it more than just screen fatigue?

Now, I’m all for working from home, as much as the next person. It has all the benefits of slumming it in your jammies, gorging endless snacks and beverages of your liking, and having well-earned breaks during your day without judgement. However, there are some downsides to it too—you know, other than the onset of eyesight issues and tech neck for gen Z and millennials, typically seen in people thrice our age, inherited from hunching over screens and keyboards.

“Zooming recreates all the stress of the office without the mitigating compensation of actual human contact. It’s dispiriting and exhausting,” The Guardian noted. For the Financial Times, Gianpiero Petriglieri, a medical doctor and associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD, wrote about the Zoombie crisis as it was occurring back in 2020. Describing the picture of horror the world of work used to be, is not so far removed from ours now two years on. “Zoom meetings are like seances of sorts—troubled attempts to reestablish a connection with somebody we have lost and still care about, often disturbed by many lost bodies that we care little for and who forget to press mute. We are Zoombies to each other,” he shared.

“Like fictional zombies, we Zoombies are relentless yet not fully human. Unlike them, we have a heavy heart and sometimes we wear elegant clothes to show up on screen. But our digital projections retain all the constraints of a literal imagination and none of the freedoms of a literary one,” Petriglieri poetically continued.

The chronic signs to look out for in a Zoombie are fatigue and the kind of dazed and confused blind blinking at all faces on the screen that I am sure most of us are familiar with. Word to the wise though, “If you can’t spot the Zoombie in the Zoom meeting, then the Zoombie is probably you,” stated The Guardian.

How do you avoid turning into a Zoombie?

Though many of us have flashbacks to the Zoom call days of 2020, some of us still aren’t out of the woods yet. With more potential lockdowns looming on the horizon—special thanks to all the variants out there—we think it’s best to reflect and remind ourselves of the zombie epidemic and how to survive without becoming one.

Psych Today made a couple of helpful suggestions to avoid the clutches of the Zoombie. The outlet noted that opting for conference calls rather than Zoom for smaller meetings, meaning going audio only, and maintaining a healthy work/life balance could all help. It might even come down to asking yourself the tough tech questions you may not have considered before the pandemic, such as whether playing with your limit for screen time could fight—or at least fend off—the foe. Keeping a routine and making time to go outside daily (no matter how cosy your bed is) is also high on the priority list.

The main thing to remember is to try to maintain as much of an active and healthy lifestyle at home as you would when leaving it to brave the outside world. At least we don’t have to worry about Zoombies eating our frazzled and fried Zoom-filled brains—probably not that appetising.