iPhones Have Changed the Way We Poop... for the Worse
Ten years ago, on a dark stage in San Francisco, Steve Jobs proclaimed that "Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything." And in unveiling the iPhone, everything changed, in seismic ways. While Apple's smartphone (and all of its subsequent imitators) has opened the door to near-omnipresent access to the internet and the world, new heights of convenience, and peak efficiency, the gizmo has also introduced many insidiously dangerous side effects: it has altered the way we think, it isolates and distracts us, and it has even removed the simple joys of pushing a fully clothed person into a jacuzzi without consequence. And that's not the worst of it. The iPhone has imperiled one of the universal rituals of the human race: bathroom time.
There's a good chance you're reading this article on the toilet. A recent study recorded that 90% of people bring their phones into the bathroom. Compare that to the statistic that only 70% of Americans admit to having a one-night stand. And, apparently, more people follow through with their New Year's resolutions than poop without a phone in their hands. Dr. James Roberts, a professor at Baylor University who has written extensively about phone addiction and its impact, said that our devices have "certainly changed how we spend our time in the bathroom…. When we take our phones away, we get stressed, and anxious, and irritable. We get FOMO. Nowadays, people have trouble being alone with their thoughts, because they usually don't have to."
But when we use phones in the bathroom, we're putting our health and our brains at risk in multiple ways. And we literally need to figure this shit out before we lose our minds.
Threat No. 1: Germs, Germs, Germs
There's no avoiding that phones attract germs. "You can easily find hundreds of bacteria on phones, as well as fungi and yeast," said microbiologist and author Jason Tetro. "Most are harmless, but many are potential pathogens that can make you sick." And if you really want to find some bad ones, head to the head. "Many bathroom surfaces, such as urinals, toilet seats, handles, sinks, and faucets, are covered in germs, and the [risk of] even more contamination of our phones becomes greater."
Your phone is like a doorknob -- not because it opens up a whole new world of exciting possibilities, but in that it's covered with disgusting pathogens. Luckily for humans, we don't usually take doorknobs out, put them on top of bars and restaurant tables, and let people borrow them to call their grandmas. But our phones are essentially fused to our hands.
And these germs aren't fooling around. According to Tetro, fecal pathogens can include things like E. coli (hello, urinary tract infections!), the strain of bacteria that causes staph infections, and Acinetobacter, an "opportunistic pathogen" that takes whatever opening it can get to ruin you, usually in the form of a contagious respiratory infection.
Even if you're extra careful, and make it a point to put your phone away before you reach for the toilet paper, and not touch your device again till you thoroughly scrub your hands, mistakes happen. Germs are literally everywhere in the bathroom. You can be as careful as you want to be, but there's no telling what other people have done (or more importantly, not done) to infect every surface. So until they invent a self-sanitizing phone case, assume that your post-bathroom screen is full of germs just waiting to make the leap to your swiping finger.
Threat No. 2: Hemorrhoids and other toilet-related ailments
For many, the toilet is a retreat, a time of quiet sanctuary from your your job, roommates, or children. Throughout modern history, many have opted to prolong and luxuriate in this solitude with a little reading material, be it a magazine, newspaper, or book. But even Infinite Jest has a finite amount of text: A phone brings you that and every magazine, book, and social media outlet to skim, time-suck games, and video rabbit holes to go down -- all in one easy-to-conceal, pocket-sized container. By removing the prohibitive social stigma of being seen entering a workplace bathroom with a paper tucked under your arm, there are more incentives than ever to dangerously extend your toilet visit and tempt rectal fate.
"When you stay on the toilet for upwards of 20, 30, 40 minutes, you're putting unnecessary pressure on the rectum, [which] can cause hemorrhoids, and definitely make any pre-existing hemorrhoids way worse," said Dr. Partha Nandi, the creator and host of the Emmy-award winning, gastro-centric show, Ask Dr. Nandi. "By prolonging this pressure on the rectum, you can exacerbate gastrointestinal issues, and a problem that is moderate, like going too much or too little, can become very severe. Really, you want to get in and get out as quickly as possible. When you just sit there after you're done, being sucked into your phone, that becomes a problem." Not only that, said Nandi, but the awkward and uncomfortable position of sitting on the toilet can exacerbate nerve and hip problems.
While Nandi notes there has been no extensive research or definitive conclusions regarding an increase in hemorrhoid diagnoses post-iPhones, there has been a significant uptick in Google searches for 'rhoids since January '08. It may be easy to assume people are spending more time on the toilet, but the only way to truly know is to ask.
So, in the name of anecdotal science, I first posed the question to 30 of my most personal acquaintances (varied in gender, ethnicity, and age): "More often than not, do you use your phone in the bathroom?" Twenty-five said yes, two asked me to never contact them again, and let's assume the other three are straight-up lying and/or prefer a good book.
I had the subjects/suckers who said "yes" conduct an experiment over the course of two weeks: For the first week, use a phone when taking a poop, and record your time spent in the bathroom; then, for week two, note your times while leaving the phone outside. This graph reveals a few of the more interesting findings of my very scientific study:
First, a general observation about the impressive range of the same human experience: I found people tend to operate on wildly different defecatory schedules. With their phones, the 25 I surveyed reported average toilet times of 15 to 45 minutes with a phone, with a median of about 25 minutes per poop, once per day.
Now, when phones were left outside the bathroom, no one in my survey spent more than 10 minutes in the bathroom. And the speed poopers, who recorded toilet times of 15 minutes with a phone, were down to just five minutes when operating device-free. And the leisurely, lingering poopers reported cutting their time by as much as 30 minutes, sans phone. That's an entire episode of Master of None! Shortening each trip by this amount could mean 3.5 less hours per week spent atop a porcelain throne. That's seven episodes of Master of None!
Threat No. 3: Your brain desperately needs a break
While some retreat to the bathroom to escape work (and get paid doing it), many type-As see taking their phones into the bathroom as an opportunity to stay ahead, losing no time in the work day by reading and shooting off emails in a stall. But as my father once said (and Lt. Aldo Raine later echoed): When you hear a story too good to be true, it ain't. "The bathroom used to be a place free of distraction and technology," said Dr. Roberts. "It's not like that anymore. And it's certainly not great for our mental clarity."
Bowel movements may be the mind's way of begging for a break. "Probably the worst thing for your productivity is to be on your phone in the bathroom, for sure," said author and productivity coach Peter Bregman. "If you never let your brain relax and wander, you'll never solve the deeper, stickier creative problems that are ultimately more important than responding to an email within five minutes. These moments of boredom that we are increasingly losing help our brains explore the recesses of our thoughts, and this is where almost all of our best and most creative ideas come from."
Plus, at the end of the day, emailing on the toilet as a way to get more work done only creates more work. "If you respond to everything as it comes in, you are expanding the number of emails that go back and forth, expanding the number of emails you have to open," said Bregman. "Our obsession with constantly being on technology and responding as fast as possible is inefficient in the long run, and a complete waste of time."
The Solution: Make your bathroom a zone of serenity again
Cold turkey with a phoneless bathroom trip is much easier said than done. My small sample of phone-reliant lab rats struggled in their one week of unplugged quarantine for 15 minutes at a time.
"I ended up realizing just how heavily I rely on my phone while I poop," said Dave, a 27-year-old real estate agent from Los Angeles. "I ended up just staring at the wall for five minutes, finishing as fast as I could, then leaving… It made my poop a lot more boring. It felt like something was missing. And that I was missing everything."
Shannon, a teacher in her mid-40s from southern New Jersey, had pithier, thoughts. "As the mother of a toddler, my bathroom time is basically the only time I have to myself. Removing the phone from the equation made me woefully behind on current events, movie reviews, and tweeting. It may have made me a better mother, but it made me a worse citizen."
Gianni, an Austin-based colleague, was only able to go phoneless after accidentally dropping his phone into the very toilet that held him prisoner. "[Bathroom visits] have become boring as hell," he told me sadly. "I'm definitely in and out more quickly… but being alone with my thoughts is kind of scary. I can't say I love it."
As difficult and crushingly boring as decoupling your phone/toilet link may be, it's one worth the effort. "Look," said Dr. Roberts, "breaking this isn't easy, in any arena. The most important thing is designating a time and place that is 100%, no questions asked, a phone-free-zone. And then sticking to that mandate, no matter what."
Right now, the only zone in our lives where we don't commonly bring our phones is the shower (at least until all phones are waterproofed), so why not widen that electronics-free zone, turning "shower thoughts" into "entire-bathroom-area thoughts"? So I challenge you all to break the vicious, counter-clockwise-swirling cycle. Remove the screens from your commodes. We have to learn to be OK being alone with our thoughts, again. Our brains, our rectums, and anyone who asks to borrow our phones will thank us.