Put your head up: How bad phone posture is wrecking your spine

The next time you're out in public, I want you to take a nice long look around. Look at cliques congregating at the food court, at the coffee addicts waiting around Starbucks, look at the families in the park or grocery store or restaurant. You're bound to see the tops of a lot of heads as people look down — or worse, completely hunch over — their smartphones and tablets.

Whether you're 6 or 65, chances are you're holding the phone down near your lap when sitting and maybe elbow-high when standing, peeking down at your phone while you walk around and answer text messages. For thirty seconds, this poor posture isn't a crime.

Problem is, this is a bad habit that's accumulating over time, and after a decade of smartphone use, it's starting to strain our spines in ways that are totally preventable.

I'm just as much in need of this lecture as anyone, especially now that I hunch over my lap-sitting Chromebook most afternoons and evenings, but it's at Disney World where I've been exposed to just how widespread this stooping strain is spreading. Theme parks are great for people watching, and I've been watching people hunch over their phones for hours on end while standing in line, relaxing in the shade, or just sitting near the castle waiting for fireworks, whole families in head-down huddles around their phones and toddlers tapping frantically at tablets in their stroller trays.

For years, we've rolled our eyes at "text neck" and "pinky-propping", but like your mother nagging you to eat your greens before dessert so that you get your proper nutrients, taking care of your spine is something that can seem evil at first but can quickly change from a bad habit to a good one if you do it properly.

While there's an easy answer to RSI-inducing pinky propping — a $10 phone grip (opens in new tab) — the power is inside you to fix your posture, but it goes a little beyond "just sit up straight, you idiot."

Situational awareness

There's one place where most people already have the proper smartphone posture: the bathroom. While tweeting on the toilet is a joke to the masses, it's the one place we tend to keep our arms up and our phones eye-level while we try to will that bowl of chili beans to release our intestines from their gassy grip, if only because we want to try and keep our phones away from any of the filthy surfaces surrounding us.

That said, when sitting at a table or desk, prop an elbow on the tabletop and get your phone face-high instead of laying it on the table and hunching over it. Another good trick to remember when sitting at a table is to hold the phone further away from you, because the further away the phone is, the less of an angle it'll be to look down at it.

This gets trickier when using your phone while sitting on a bench or couch, but avoid setting the phone on your lap, even if all you're doing is watching YouTube videos.

Reminders are key

Like all bad habits, you're not going to break it overnight. Trust me, I've tried. Instead, make yourself a little reminder, be it a note in Google Keep or a Google Assistant nag or a vertically-focused wallpaper like this gorge-ous lightplay wallpaper from reddit. Gentle, consistent reminders can help make the transition more natural and help it stick, because it's easy to start slumping and slouching again when you're exhausted and scatterbrained after walking 7 miles in the Florida heat.

My shoulder holster also helps remind me to sit up straight because the straps tend to slide around my shoulders when I slouch. Not everyone can rock the Tomb Raider, but slip a bracelet or rubber band on your wrist, anything that you can see and associate with the habit you're trying to establish.

Accessorize if you need to

If you're biggest problems are hunching over a phone or tablet while sitting around at home, invest in a stand that you can elevate as needed.

PhoneProp Silicone Smartphone Stand (opens in new tab) ($9 at Amazon)

I've used one of these my Android Central video conferences for four years. The center gap is enough to get a flexible charging cable in so you can recharge while you video chat until 3 a.m.

Plinrise DinosaurDesk Phone Stand (opens in new tab) ($9 at Amazon)

Available in almost 20 color styles — as well as a zoo of creature shapes — this prehistoric phone stand will help you avoid hunching over your screen in the office, kitchen, or anywhere else.

iKross 2-in-1 Tablet Mount Stand (opens in new tab) ($30 at Amazon)

This multi-tasking stand comes with two wall brackets, allowing you to mount your tablet in the kitchen for recipe notes and slide the mount itself out to use at your desk or nightstand for a few quick episodes before bed.

I have the PhoneProp and frequently stack it on brownie tins or popcorn tubs to elevate it for reading while I snack or eat a quick meal. It's also squishy enough that I can throw it in my gear bag for longer days at the park so I can prop my phone up while sitting at a restaurant or when I'm proping my phone against a wall ledge for a wider selfie.

Encourage your friends and family to get in on the act

Kids learn from their parents, and while many of the millennial generation have already figured out the posture and positioning to keep their 8 hours of Snapping and redditing from hurting their necks, positive reinforcement and having someone to do it with helps make any chore better. Have a phone jar: anyone in the house that gets caught hunching over theirs sticks in a quarter — or their phone for a quarter of an hour.

If you see me doing this, tell me to stop. Light punching is allowed.

If you see me doing this, tell me to stop. Light punching is allowed.

However you go about it, this is a habit 100% worth breaking, as it's putting hundreds of hours of extra strain on your neck. Hold your phone — and your head — up high and keep it from becoming a pain in your neck. After all, the only pain in the neck your phone should give you is not having enough time to play with all the cool apps and games you have on it!

Ara Wagoner

Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.

  • Great article, Ara. Where did you get your cell phone should holster?
  • I kickstarted the Phonster X, and they just finished the kickstarter for the new Phonster Z and preorders are now open on their site. I'm not sure I'm 100% sold on zippers for all pouches instead of a flap/pouch style for the phone pouch, but the straps on the new ones look more comfortable: https://age.com.ua/index.php/shop/phonster-z
  • TRUTH!! My neck hurts even now hahaha.. I try to remind my self every time and I just fall back into the same position. Thank you for this!
  • Ara, you make a better Ariel than a Quasimodo! You better sit straight! Lol. I use a folding stand for my lunchtime YouTube and Crunchyroll binges, and a flexible arm that attaches to the headboard at home if I want to watch something while laying down. But, sometimes I do lay face down and hold the phone in bed. It's only for a short time, or at least that's how I plan it. We have a few houseguests, and one of them has no sense of personal space, so she just hops up and watches whatever I'm watching. I don't mind, but it turns a quick view into something longer than I planned. When I first bought "Into The Spiderverse", I was only checking out the playback quality, and we ended up watching the entire movie. I got tired of being propped up my arms!
  • Great article to read without straining your neck . Thank you for the article and I like the products you suggested.
  • Good thing I spend most of my time on my desktop computers that I built myself, when I am not at work. No hunching issues for me. :)
  • Maybe people should actually look at their phones less.
  • This is also why we need lighter phones folks. Heavier phones use more of our shoulder blade muscles tensing it up. Also bad for the spine after years of doing it.
  • Amen to that!
  • Been there - done that - had a mild herniated disc at C5/C6 to show for it. Phones, tablets, laptops, and a 20+ year career in IT just killed my neck. Luckily for me I was able to get relief and most of my resolution from PT, lifestyle changes, posture changes, and exercises. At it's worst I was away for work and woke up in the middle of the night with the feeling of a red hot poker being jabbed into my back between my shoulder blades. The pain came over the top on my left side into my chest and down my left arm. I was compressing a nerve that caused me to have a burning sensation in my left bicep and had lost all feeling and strength in my left hand. My chest muscles also constricted to the point I was hunched over and in pain. It was my body's last ditch reaction to project my spine. Full strength RX lidocaine patches didn't even make a dent. Taking Advil like candy - no relief. It was traction that saved me. I still have the device today and use it every few months. The other savior was targeted exercises to open up my chest and shoulders to reduce the strain. Another over looked item that kills office folks - desk ergonomics and posture. Get a good chair - they can be found for under $300 so your boss won't have a budget heart attack. Get you angles right - straight on to your monitor. Don't work/sit at an angle to your monitor like at a 90 degree corner of your desk. Proper arm support is also key. Make sure you get up every hour, stretch, walk around a-little bit and drink plenty of water besides coffee/tea and soda as those are dietetics which remove fluid from the body. My last bit of advice that will save you this pain, save your sanity/anxiety, relationships - put the damm phone away. Set limits like no more then 2-4 checks an hour and limit those checks to under 1 min or less. Once you break your digital habit your body and mind will thank you and the art of human interaction will return I promise.
  • Hold your phone up higher, head/chin up, eyes down!!!
  • Same position humans have been assuming since the invention of the written word.
  • Too true! I hunch over when reading a book.
  • Thanks for the article! After I read it I've been making a conscious effort to hold the phone higher and look at it straight. I usually just glance at it to check notifications typically but, as you point out in the article, those seconds of looking down add up. Hadn't dawned on me before.