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Will our hands evolve to make smartphone use easier?

ByStaff Writer
Mobile phone in use

With the iPhone X utilising the latest technology to make the display edge to edge, have you ever used your smartphone and thought ‘longer thumbs would be really useful’? Do aches and pains creep in through excessive texting or scrolling? Is there a chance our bodies might adapt to the constant repetitive motions of phone use?

We investigated what the optimum human hand would need to look like to be fully equipped to handle and use smartphones. Over the course of our investigation, we consulted with an evolutionary biologist to see what changes might be possible in the future (spoiler alert: not many) and we even got some tips from a physiotherapist to help keep phone related injuries at bay.

So what would the optimum hand look like? If you have a delicate disposition, look away now.

Hand concept

As can be seen in the concept image, adaptions include a more pointed index finger for navigating the smartphone, gel-like pads on some of the fingers for a more secure grip, and crooked thumbs and little fingers to hold the smartphone better and reach further up and across the screen.

The little finger would also change substantially to more easily cradle a smartphone, due to its use as a support underneath the device. In the image, it is crooked in order to further that angled support, with an indentation in which the phone could rest. Further indentations can be seen across the palm of the hand, where again the device would sit.

Hand concept - X-ray

The good news is, our hands will never end up looking this way through evolution. We've consulted with evolutionary biologist Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin to find out what the future may hold and she had the following to say:

"As for the way the human hand could change with continued mobile phone usage, I understand and agree with the vision that the thumb muscles could stretch and bones potentially curve to allow easier access to the bigger screens on smartphones. I also see how it could come about that the little finger could curve for ease of holding the phone, along with a potentially increased surface area on the pads of the third and fourth fingers.

"However, this would take many, many generations, and it is very likely that mobile phones will no longer exist by that point in the course of human evolution.

"Even in some hypothetical scenario in which the speed of evolution is massively sped up, this could probably only happen if the changes somehow took place during generations rather than only between them, leading to some sort of Lamarckian 'Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics', which is unlikely to happen for characteristics that are so inherently morphological and not just involving simple methylation of the DNA. 

"Furthermore, such drastic changes in the structure of the human hand, something that has stayed pretty much the same for millions of years since early hominids started to evolve specialised characteristics for tool-use and throwing/clubbing, are quite unlikely. In order for these changes to actually take place across the species and to become fixed in the population, a more efficient ability to use smartphones has to provide an individual with a significant evolutionary advantage, in that it has to significantly increase their likelihood of survival and reproduction.

"Despite our increased reliance on phones for things like ordering groceries/food and the rise of online dating, I doubt that a slightly better ability to use smartphones will ever provide an individual with enough of an evolutionary advantage that changes in hand morphology could take place.

"This is especially the case since these proposed changes, especially the lengthened thumb, could drastically affect other actions humans have to undertake that require an opposable thumb - many of which are far more crucial for survival, such as holding food/cutlery in order to eat or hold a steering wheel properly to avoid accidents."

Smartphone injuries are more common than you think

We polled 1,000 British adults to find out more about smartphone injuries that perhaps result from our poorly equipped hands, which revealed the top injuries that Britons encounter due to smartphone use.

28% of those we surveyed have suffered what they consider to be a smartphone-caused injury, with getting a black eye from losing their grip when using a smartphone in bed (which we've rather unaffectionately dubbed 'phone planting') coming top at 58%.  Our respondents also listed 'hand strain' (31%), 'neck strain' (31%) and 'bruising' (23%) as occupational hazards of smartphone use.

Furthermore, when we asked what they had been doing with their smartphone at the time the injuries were sustained, 'browsing social media' (58%), 'texting/messaging' (42%) and 'playing a game' (31%) were the top actions. Facebook (50%) and Snapchat (31%) were the top social media apps being used at the time.

When we asked if they'd injured anyone else whilst using their smartphone, half of respondents (50%) confessed that 'yes' they had. Awkward! Almost half of respondents admitted to being a 'smartphone zombie' too, walking into someone whilst distracted (46%), whilst a further 30% had dropped their phone onto another person, as you do.

Top tips to avoid smartphone strain

The physiotherapist we consulted with, Hannah Cox of HC Sports Therapy, gave us some useful tips and exercises to carry out for avoiding smartphone-related injuries (you know, because our hands are so poorly designed to use them with ease)! Take it away Hannah…

1. Take stretching breaks (squeezing hands in and out to make fists and star shapes).

2. Roll putty with your thumb in all directions to improve movement and flexibility.

3. For better range of motion, use your other hand to move the thumb in different ranges of movements.

4. Make a fist with your thumb inside your fingers. Now try and lift your thumb towards the ceiling, whilst squeezing your fingers to match the resistance. Your thumb shouldn't move. Hold for 5 seconds, relax then repeat. These are called isometric holds.

5. Flex and extend your wrists. Move them through the ranges of movements.

6. Shoulder roll breaks are important. Roll your shoulders, attempting to squeeze your shoulder blades down and together.

7. Neck rolls work wonders too. Roll your neck from side to side and up and down.

8. Most importantly, take phone breaks!

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