junk food and phone showing how modern life is making us ill

Are You Suffering From 21st Century-itis? How Modernity Is Now Making Us Sick

9 mins

From text claw from gripping our mobiles for so long each day to obesity, and breathing in toxic air, modern 21st century life is having a negative impact on all of us

As society progresses and we make huge advances in medicine, nutrition and technology, it’s easy to believe every generation lives a healthier life than the one before. After all, we have all the tools to do so – more money, knowledge and access to everything we need to improve our bodies, minds and lives than before. 

Our attitudes have changed towards damaging substances such as tobacco; junk food and sugar for children is a total no no – with some countries even putting a ‘sugar tax’ on fizzy drinks – while effective vaccinations and disease control are a priority the world over. 

Meanwhile, health and safety measures around the globe help to minimise our exposure to hazardous situations, materials, and practices. So we should all feel, look and be healthier than our parents, grandparents and their parents. 

So why, despite all this growth in our understanding and abilities, is modernity making us ill. The truth is 21st century life is stressful and should come with a health warning. Here The Ethicalist outlines what exactly is damaging your health and what you can do about it.

The Air We Breath

traffic jams make fumes we all breathe in the modern 21st century
Every Breath You Take…Will Be Full of Car Fumes

‘For people to be healthy, they must breathe clean air from their first breath to their last,’ said  Dr Flavia Bustreo, former Assistant Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

While the industrial days of ‘the big smoke’ and toxic clouds pumped from factories may be waning, a less visible and more insidious form of pollution has grown in their place.

Emissions from vehicles, alongside those from the heating and cooling of buildings, increase the amount of carbon, nitrogen, and sulphur oxides in the air we breathe. Combined with soot, dust, mould, and other fine particles, this can have a severe effect on our respiratory and circulatory systems and is estimated to cause more than six million premature deaths globally each year.

fumes from diesel car leave plume of black smoke
Ditch the diesel car for a clean electric one so we can all breath easier

According to IQAir’s World Air Quality Index, Lahore, Pakistan, is the most polluted city with a ‘hazardous’ score of 386. Anything over 150 is considered ‘unhealthy’ for most people. Dubai is listed at a ‘moderate’ 88. By comparison, Europe’s most polluted city is Skopje, North Macedonia, with 159, and a score of 63 puts Salt Lake City at the top of the U.S. naughty list.

‘Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV, and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death’

While this is obviously concerning, nations around the world are setting targets for phasing out petrol-powered vehicles and tightening regulations regarding emission production of all kinds. Similarly, initiatives to improve public transport, reduce the number of vehicles on our roads, and implement methods of removing pollution, such as living buildings, are all key to current urban planning strategies.

In addition, we can play our personal part in reducing pollution by:

  • Switching to an electric vehicle.
  • Ensuring all potentially polluting equipment is regularly cleaned and serviced.
  • Using public or human-powered transport wherever possible.

And we can help protect our own health by:

  • Avoiding built-up areas during the most polluted times, such as rush hour.
  • Spending time in locations with cleaner air wherever possible.
  • Keeping our homes and offices clean and well-ventilated.
  • Using electricity or gas rather than wood or coal for heating and cooking.

Everything, Everywhere, All At Once

‘If you’re constantly connected, you’re going to feel anxiety… that can lead to other things like mental health and physical ailments.’ Dr Nancy CheeverProfessor of Communications at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

Advances in technology have made our world faster and filled with more potential than ever. Our smartphones, computers, and TVs place endless information, instant communication, and constant stimulation at our fingertips. Fast transport, both locally and globally, allows us to travel distances in hours which would have previously taken days, weeks, or even months. These things make modern life exciting, but there are also downsides which can seriously affect our physical and mental health.

South Africa has the highest average screen time of 10 hours 46 minutes per day. The UAE currently ranks 10th with 8 hours 36 minutes but since 2020 has been the fastest growing user of screens in the world. The global average is 6 hours 57 minutes a day

Smartphones and other screen-led devices come with a series of risk factors. The blue light they emit damages our ability to sleep, which can lead to a slew of health problems. The presence of easy access to information encourages us to underuse or mistrust our cognitive abilities. This causes our minds to weaken, just as our muscles would. Overwhelming levels of information create fatigue and pressure which can amplify anxiety and impair concentration. Micro-dosing validation and serotonin through social media can drive addictive behaviours and feelings of low self-worth.

woman on her mobile phone as well as two computers

While there is no universally agreed ‘safe’ level of screen time for adults, statistics compiled at the start of 2023 suggest usage has reached alarming levels. South Africa has the highest average screen time of 10 hours 46 minutes per day. The UAE currently ranks 10th on the list, with a total of 8 hours 36 minutes but, since 2020, has been the fastest growing user of screens in the world. The global average is 6 hours 57 minutes each day.

In general, the pressure modern life places on us to be everything, everywhere, all at once intensifies stress and anxiety while reducing our ability to escape, rest, and recharge. Listing the dangers in this way might be causing you to feel overwhelmed right now. Fortunately, there are actions we can take, most of which involve setting boundaries.

  • Stop screen use at least one hour, preferably two, before bed.
  • Take regular breaks away from devices, at least every 20 minutes.
  • Set time limits, both for total time per day and duration per sitting.
  • Reduce notifications to a minimum and give yourself permission to be unavailable.
  • Do one thing at a time and give it your full attention.

Modern Sedentary Days

‘Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV, and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death,’ Dr James Levine, Professor of Medicine, Mayo Clinic.

While modern life is mentally overstimulating, it is physically the opposite. In many nations, up to 80 per cent of people spend their entire working day sitting. We sit in cars or on public transport on our commute, if we change locations at all. We find our entertainment and socialise via our phone, computer, or television. Overall, it is easy to spend the vast majority of our lives sitting or lying down. Even if we devote an hour every day to exercise, we are often sedentary for the rest. This lifestyle can contribute to sleeplessness, heart and circulatory problems, diabetes, obesity, cancer, and mental health issues including stress, anxiety, and depression.

‘The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison’ 

The least active nation is Malta with 71.9 per cent of adults living sedentary lives. In Bangladesh, an inactive population of just 4.7 per cent makes it the most mobile nation on Earth.

‘The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison,’ Ann WigmoreNatural Health Advocate.

woman working and eating three doughnuts

In addition to inactivity, modern diets are having a severe impact on the mental and physical health of people all over the world. Eating badly can be the result of poverty, convenience, lack of education, or even just poor choices by those who have the means and resources to make better ones. The list of health issues to which a substandard diet contributes is almost endless. When combined with a sedentary lifestyle, people can find themselves suffering more quickly and severely than they might ever have expected.

According to the most recent Global Nutrition Reports, the average adult in the UAE is eating too much red meat, dairy, and fish, but not enough fruits, vegetables, legumes, or whole grains. This is a similar pattern to the world as a whole, except the UAE does particularly well when it comes to consuming the right amount of nuts.

‘Move more and eat better’ is an easy mantra to offer, but it oversimplifies the steps we need to take to combat these two dangers.

How to avoid sedentary days:

  • Get up and walk for a few minutes every 20 minutes, or as often as possible.
  • Work standing up or hold meetings while walking wherever practical.
  • Find a hobby or task that keeps you active for at least 30 minutes each evening.
  • Set a step target and make sure you reach it every day.

Basic diet and nutritional tips:

  • Make your diet as varied as possible – the more colours on your plate, the better.
  • Eat at least five different fruits and vegetables every day.
  • Include fibre for digestion and starchy carbohydrates for energy.
  • Keep salt intake to under six grams a day, but don’t cut it out completely.
  • Drink at least a litre of water every day. Ideally 3-4 for men or 2-3 for women.
  • Avoid processed foods and replace them with whole foods as much as you can.

While these are the three main ways in which modernity is making us ill, there are also many other, smaller, more specific issues such as ‘Text Claw’ – a variety of RSI resulting from constantly gripping our mobile phones – nerve damage from excessive time spent in the saddle, and hearing loss caused by using headphones for long periods or at high volumes.

Progress is always a balancing act of benefits and threats and there is no denying the countless benefits of the modern world. What is important is that we also stay vigil to the threats and do what we can to protect ourselves, and those around us, from being made ill by modern convenience itself.

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