When the use of smartphones is extreme, it is easy to see the costs. For example, some readers may be worried about children or grandchildren who spend many hours daily on their devices and who seem incapable of being away from them.
However, even for typical adults (myself included), dependence on smartphones is increasing, leading to mounting mental health and societal costs, including frequent distraction and being dependent on high levels of unnatural stimulation.
First, the more “screen time” we use and the more apps we have, the more our minds are distracted. Over time, this distraction in and of itself can create anxiety. Our minds are not designed for the constant stimulation provided by modern technology. Our minds need space to wander, brainstorm, plan, prioritize and even to be bored.
To illustrate, I imagine many readers have had the experience of turning to their phone for a legitimate business or personal reason, perhaps to look up a piece of information or send an important message. You get out your phone, see three text messages waiting for you, and without thinking, begin to respond to one.
While you’re doing that, you get an alert from your news source announcing “breaking news.” You finish your message to your friend, check the news, check the weather, and then check the markets.
Now 12 minutes have passed and you may not have even completed the original task you picked up your phone to accomplish!
For many of us, this pattern happens repeatedly throughout the day. Contrast this with our world 20 years ago, when none of these distractions had even been invented. If you needed to call someone, you would have to make a mental note and either wait until the end of the day or take a break from your work (if it was important enough to do so). This required being intentional about where and how we spent our time.
Second, our brains are wired to seek novelty. This is an important historical survival mechanism, as something new or different was more likely to be dangerous (i.e., we should be cautious around a new plant or pay attention closely if we see something unusual out of the corner of our eye that could be a predator).
Unfortunately, when applied to modern technology, this brain feature creates problems that technology developers use to their advantage. All apps have built-in features that draw us in with new, important (they want us to think) information: the bolded new email, the constant refreshing in social media apps, the alerts for breaking news or changes in weather are specifically designed to override your focus on the present moment and to draw you into the social media application.
This is problematic not only because it is persistently distracting, but also because it allows our brains to become accustomed to much higher levels of novelty and stimulation than “real” life offers.
We have a natural reward system that leads us to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Food, drink, sleep, sex, positive interactions with loved ones, enjoying a sunset, setting and reaching goals and much more all activate this reward system and deposit small amounts of a brain chemical called dopamine into our bodies.
The dopamine feels good and leads us to repeat those behaviors in order to get more dopamine.
Unfortunately, just like alcohol, drugs, gambling and other addictions, the stimulation that technology offers is greater than that offered by our natural world. And our natural world includes hardship, boredom, frustration, sadness and more.
Perhaps you have had the experience of feeling bored or down — you turn to your phone and for a few minutes, you are distracted by whatever you find there. You forget whatever you were feeling in the moment.
But then it returns, and with it, a sense that you have wasted your time and energy, often leading to feeling worse than you did before.
Importantly, without your awareness, this simple process taught your brain that it can avoid negative feelings (in the short-term) by turning to the novelty and stimulation on your phone. Like any other addiction, this increases the likelihood you will repeat this decision in the future. In the short-term, it feels good and it is easily accessible!
Unfortunately, in the long-run, this screen time is not fulfilling and it often takes us away from the people and things that are truly important in life. If we become aware of the ways technology takes us away from what matters most in our own lives, we can become empowered to move away from it.
Here are a few tips for reducing reliance on social media and smartphones generally:
- Become aware of patterns in your personal use. How much time are you spending on your phone (many phones now have a tool that tracks your screen time for you). Does this feel excessive? Are there times of day where you are more likely to pick up your phone? What are you feeling in these times (bored, down, anxious, etc.)?
- Take breaks from your devices and social media apps. It can be informative to take short and/or longer-term breaks from devices to learn more about your personal relationship with them. What happens if you take a few hours in the evening away from your phone? How might your productivity increase (especially for bookwork!) if you turned off your phone while you worked?
- Turn off alerts and sounds (i.e., on apps, for new emails, etc.). Because our brains are wired for novelty, these are very difficult to ignore even if we try, and we can avoid both distraction and “addiction” to the small dopamine rush by reducing the number of alerts we receive.
- Take a moment to notice the small dopamine rush you can receive from social media. Consider your personal costs and benefits and consider more meaningful uses of your time.
Technology and social media offer many important benefits; my hope is that you will be intentional about when and how you use them to maximize your productivity and well-being.
Dr. Lauren Welter is a licensed psychologist. She lives on a livestock and crop farm near Monticello, Iowa, with her husband Dan and their children Isaac, Clara and Joshua. Contact her through her website, https://www.prairiehomewellness.com/. Her column will return in May.