Ever left your phone at home or temporarily misplaced it? If you are like me, when you realize you do not have your phone, you feel anxiety ranging in intensity from mild discomfort to panic! Technology is such an integral part of our lives, it’s almost impossible to imagine life without it, even though I grew up without smartphones, tablets, social media, email and texting. Technology is a gift in so many ways! I have experienced the wonderful connective power of texting, FaceTime and social media and been so thankful for these platforms. I have also noticed myself spending way too long on my devices for no apparent reason. I have mindlessly scrolled through my phone while in the presence of dear people that I love, ignoring them completely or at least only giving half of my attention. I have gotten sidetracked from important tasks because of constant notifications, texts and emails and had unproductive days. I have succumbed to the demon of comparison as I look at other people’s beautifully curated Instagram feeds. This leads me to feel unsatisfied with myself and my life and makes me feel pretty crappy.
Our devices are meant to be helpful tools, but sometimes it becomes more than that. We treat them like lifelines, like our only connection to the world. Technology is helpful and important but cannot fulfill us the way real face to face human connection and interacting with the real world does. But connecting through technology takes much less effort, so we can default to settling for shallow connection or entertainment.
Now I am NOT going to tell you to throw away your smart phones and laptops and return to flip phones and dial up internet. Again, technology can be a wonderful tool and gift IF we keep it in its proper place. More and more studies have emerged making connections between overuse of technology and increasing rates of anxiety and depression. Here are some reasons why and some ways to counteract these negative effects so you can use your technology in a helpful and healthy way.
1) Technology has an addictive component to it
This sounds intense but hear me out. Behavior that is reinforced is repeated. Our technology is designed to reinforce using it more and more. The most obvious forms of this are those annoying red dots that tell you have an unread message or task on an app or email and the pull to reload features on most apps, such as Twitter, nowadays. The pull to refresh feature is like a slot machine: you pull and don’t know what you’re going to get. It might be the best cat video ever or some infuriating political post from your Uncle. The most repeated behaviors are those that are reinforced intermittently. This means you do not get the same result each time. This is what makes gambling so addicting-the drama and excitement of what could be and not knowing.
In addition, studies show that whenever we receive a notification, a small amount of cortisol is released into our bloodstream. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released when we go into a fight or flight threat response. It increases our heart rate, makes our muscles tense and can even make our palms get sweaty. Think of the last time you felt threatened or something scared you like someone almost hitting you on the freeway. You probably got a surge of cortisol that helped you deal with the situation. When we get this hit of cortisol when we get a notification it causes us to be on edge until we can check that notification. The relief and ability to relax when we do check those notifications reinforces the behavior. This is very similar to how process addictions (gambling, food, sex) as well as Obsessive Compulsive Disorders and Eating Disorders work. There is tension until the behavior (viewing pornography, checking the locks, binging and purging) happens. It is these tensions that send people to continue engaging in harmful behaviors because those behaviors offer the release they need. While checking your phone may not be a “harmful behavior”, it reinforces the tension/release cycle so that checking your phone is automatic even when it’s inappropriate to do so.
Maybe you have experienced hearing your phone buzz during an important discussion or during a meeting. You know it would be rude to check it but now your attention is split. You are still somewhat paying attention but now your attention is also on wondering what that buzz could be. Until you can find out, it is hard for you to stop thinking about it.
What to do about it
Most apps and programs allow you to choose whether or not you want to receive notifications. If it’s too hard to not check your phone when you get a notification, maybe turn off notifications. This way when you do check your phone it can be in your timing and your terms. Set aside certain times of the day to check your email, messages, social media so it’s not interrupting you. Doing so can also help you avoid the pitfalls of multitasking.
2) Divided Attention and Multitasking
Because of the discomfort we feel when not checking notifications, technology leads us to have split focus and promotes multitasking. Countless studies show that multitasking is far less productive than focusing on one thing at a time. Steve Bea, Doctor of Psychology at a non-profit academic medical centre Cleveland Clinic explained: “There’s this phenomenon called “switch cost” that occurs when there’s an interruption – we switch away from the task that we’re on and then we have to come on back . . . We think it interrupts our efficiency with our brains by about 40 percent.” Other researchers suggest that simply having your phone in the same room affects our attention and focus (I type this right after I glance at my phone that has not buzzed or ‘dinged’ once since I started writing!).
When our attention is divided we make more careless mistakes and we forget things but even worse, multitasking can increase our stress and anxiety levels. In her book, Switch on Your Brain, Dr. Caroline Leaf takes a strong stance against multitasking saying, “Scientists have found that the amount of time spent [multitasking] among American young people has increased by 120 percent in the last 10 years. According to a report in the Archives of General Psychology, simultaneous exposure to electronic media during the teenage years– such as playing a computer game while watching television– appears to be associated with increased depression and anxiety in young adulthood, especially among men.” She is talking specifically about youth and young adults but it affects older adults too! Here she is specifically talking about the form of multitasking often called “double screening.” My favorite form of double screening is watching Netflix while scrolling on social media or watching YouTube on my phone. When I describe it out loud I realize how pointless this is! Usually I lose track of what’s happening in the movie or show I’m watching so what is the point?
What I notice in myself and the people around me is that we get bored so much easier and have a hard time being quiet and still. We have become accustomed to taking in so much sensory input all the time. So when we are focusing on one thing (a movie or conversation) we get bored. This matters because in order to have healthy emotional lives, we need space to just be, to focus our attention on what we we think and feel. If we are always entertained and always distracted, we cannot do this.
What to do about it:
Multitasking is the opposite of Mindfulness, a practice that has grown in popularity in the mental health field over the last several years. It involves focusing on one thing at a time (your breath, a thought, sensory information, how the ground feels under your feet) without judgement. There are innumerable ways to practice mindfulness. You can do an intentional mindfulness meditation (there are multiple mindfulness apps to choose from) or you can simply do your daily tasks mindfully. For example, focus on all the sensory information you get while taking a shower: the smell of your shampoo, the feel of the water hitting your skin, the sound of the water and so on.
You can also set up your apps and notifications so you are not interrupted as discussed above so you can more easily stay focused on one thing at a time. You may need to intentionally choose and resolve to not multitask. You might catch yourself double screening or scrolling through instagram while talking on the phone. Notice how engaged you are with each task. What is suffering as a result of your multitasking? When you notice this, there is no need to beat yourself up. Simply choose to let one task go and bring your focus fully to one thing.
3) Overuse of technology (and specifically social media) can increase our FOMO and steal our peace, satisfaction and self-esteem.
FOMO (fear of missing out) is rampant among our youth and young adults today. But I must admit, I fall prey to FOMO too. I notice in myself that when I am feeling bored, a little low or not super great about myself, going on social media makes me feel worse. I might go on hoping to be entertained or stimulated to improve my mood, but more often than not, I feel lower afterwards. This is often because I am comparing my real life with other people’s well-curated, carefully chosen portrayals of their lives. This is a very unfair comparison. A friend and colleague of mine has a saying: “Compare and despair!” This is because comparing ourselves rarely leads to positive feelings.
In addition, we can get information and change plans more quickly than ever right now. So it may feel difficult to detach from phones or computers and miss some important information. This keeps us on high alert, with partial attention being ready for a notification rather than being in the moment. It is hard to be at peace in this state. FOMO keeps us from being fully present and content in the moment because we are wanting to be available for the next better thing. In our attempt to not miss out, we miss out on the present moment and experience.
What to do about it:
Be aware of your own emotional state. If you are feeling not so great, maybe going on social media is not the best way to boost your mood. Think about what you really need. Is it connection, some laughter, inspiration? What are other ways you can get these things? Maybe text or call a friend instead of commenting on their photos or watch an episode of a funny show (my go to is Parks and Rec). Doing these things instead of scrolling through social media will keep you focused on the present and more aware of your feelings, thoughts and needs. This allows you to take better care of yourself.
Practice positive self talk when you feel discomfort or anxiety about not checking your messages or social media. A phrase like, “There is no one I need to talk to right now.” Or, “It feels tempting to just zone out and look at social media, but I know what I really need to feel better is…”
With all of these suggestions comes a requirement to be aware of yourself. This is something else technology can often take away from us. We do not need to be aware of thoughts and feelings, we can just distract ourselves from any negativity by getting online. And some distraction can be good. But as we continue to ignore our feelings, they grow and find other ways to manifest such as in anxiety or depression. Technology is not going anywhere but we need to adapt in ways that take into account our humanity and our needs for true connection, peace, solitude and introspection. I hope as you read these suggestions that you have some of your own ideas of how to set boundaries with your technology. Boundaries are not one size fits all and need to be tailored specifically to fit you. If you are willing, please share your ideas in the comments! As always, if you want some support in developing a greater self awareness and better self-care practices I would love to assist you as your therapist. Call, email or fill out a contact form below to get in touch.