Is your smartphone addiction stressing you out?

Confession: I grew up before the Internet was invented

I remember being shown round a ‘computer cluster’ (room with lots of computers in) at University by my housemate. He introduced me to Netscape Navigator. He showed me how to use email. My first ever email message was to him. He was sitting next to me. It read ‘Shall we go to the pub now?’

I didn’t really understand the point of email back then. Skip forward twenty years and the world is a very different place. One in three people on the planet have an email address. By 2018, it is projected that over a third of the world’s population will own a smartphone – that’s an estimated total of almost 2.53 billion smartphone users in the world.

We are constantly connected. Strangers stumble blindly into each other in the street, their eyes glued to their phones. Friends sit together in silence in bars, restaurants and coffee shops scrolling through their news feeds. Business meetings become ineffective as executives pay partial attention to the agenda discussion in an attempt to keep their email messages under control.

If aliens landed they might think our smartphones were a physical part of us. For many people they are. Have you experienced that gut wrenching panic when for a split second you don’t know where your phone is? Is that healthy?

Our smartphones rule us. They buzz and chime when we receive a text, a WhatsApp, an email, a Facebook update or when we are mentioned on Twitter. And the list goes on. Sometimes people even call us, but actually speaking to someone doesn’t happen as often anymore.

When we hear a buzz or a chime we jump to attention and respond instantly. We are constantly connected yet always distracted. I don’t believe that this can be any good for our mental or physical health

I was at a workshop on ‘Resilience: holding onto your sanity in an increasingly crazy world’ with the excellent Sarah Pryce, The Critical Friend last month.

The group discussed the things that caused them the most stress and feelings of overwhelm. It wasn’t Brexit, or the impending General Election or even Donald Trump as president of the USA. The biggest stress trigger was email.

Can your email really be the biggest cause of stress?

The constant pressure of being contactable at all hours because your email is in your smartphone (whether the sender expected a reply or not) was massively stressful for many people. Then on top of the email stress add the alerts and reminders from other apps and most people felt that they were in a state of perpetual overwhelm.

Smartphones have changed our behaviour. I believe many of us are addicted. We are addicted to the gratification of the buzz and chime. We restlessly check for responses to emails or if we have been ‘liked’. We seek the reward, the self-affirmation when someone likes or comments on our posts. We get upset if we are not ‘liked’ enough. We keep checking and checking and if we don’t get the response we need it becomes less about reward and more about anxiety.

Psychologists Kent C. Berridge and Terry E. Robinson would say that we are caught in a dopamine loop.

Dopamine is a chemical released in the brain during pleasurable situations. It also stimulates us to seek out the pleasurable activity. The dopamine system is especially sensitive to “cues” that a reward is coming. So if there is a small, specific cue that signifies that something is going to happen, like for example the sound of a text or email arriving we are flooded with dopamine and it feels good.

We are like Pavlov’s salivating dogs. We hear the smartphone chime and we pick it up to get our reward.

I believe that this reward and anxiety that smartphone use can trigger is bad for both our physical and mental health. So here are our tips to keep a healthier relationship with your smartphone.

  1. Turn off your email reminder. Check your emails first thing in the morning, midday and in the late afternoon. For the rest of the time get on with doing the day job. You might take the pressure off by setting an out of office telling people that you will only be checking email x3 a day.
  2. Stop idly checking Facebook /Twitter/Instagram etc, it sucks away the most precious commodity you have; time. Set yourself an allocated time each day to check these channels.
  3. Practice mindfulness – being more present in the moment. For tips on how to practice mindfulness go here. 
  4. Think before you post – why are you posting something? How does it add value to the people who will see it? If you’re only posting it for your own gratification and it doesn’t benefit the people who will see it – don’t post it.
  5. Be present. If you are spending time with friends and family, are in a meeting, or have a piece of work to do that requires concentration. Put your phone away. Get into the habit of not checking it every two minutes.

What if we stopped being constantly connected in favour of being more meaningfully connected? Might this help to tackle those feelings of stress and overwhelm.

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