BACKGROUND: Previous literature suggests the use of smartphones and tablet devices may result in various postural and musculoskeletal disorders, predominantly of the neck and upper extremities. However, factors that contribute to the symptoms have not been adequately explored.
METHODS: This study aimed to investigate the prevalence and patterns (e.g. types, sites and temporal distributions) of musculoskeletal symptoms among adult smartphone and tablet device users. It also investigated device usage in terms of usage time, postures adopted during use, operational methods and purposes of device use in order to explain the symptom occurrences. Participants from eastern states of Australia retrospectively reported device usage and symptoms in the preceding two-week period, via an online survey. Data was analysed using Chi-square [χ2] analysis to determine the relationships between categorical variables; Mann-Whitney U tests to compare two groups (e.g. smartphone-only users versus tablet users) where dependant variables were ordinal; independent samples t-tests if dependent variables were continuous and approximated a normal distribution; and Spearman's correlation analysis to assess the relationships between pairs of continuous or ordinal variables.
RESULTS: Of the 207 participants, 59.9% reported musculoskeletal symptoms during or after device use; for 64.5% of these, symptoms began within the first 30 min (mostly between 15 and 30 min) of commencing usage. No statistically significant differences were observed between smartphone-only users and tablet device users in proportions reporting symptoms during device use (χ2 = .350, N = 207, p = .554). The most prevalent symptom was stiffness. The most prevalent symptom occurred in the neck (18.1% in smartphone-only users and 19.3% in tablet device users). Tablet users who were 18-24 year-old and used their device for more than 30 min in each usage session more often experienced symptoms (82.4% prevalence) than those who used a device for 30 min or less (52.2%) (χ2 = 4.723, N = 63, p = .030).
CONCLUSION: These findings suggest that user age, duration and frequency of usage, and type of device are important factors to consider in the formation of evidence-based guidelines to reduce experiences of musculoskeletal symptoms among smartphone and tablet device users. If usage was capped at < 15 min, the majority of smartphone and tablet device users would avoid symptoms.