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While technology helps us feel more connected to family and friends that live far away (as well as millions of strangers across the globe) the increased connectivity may not always be positive.

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November 12, 2018

Did you know? According to a recent study, three quarters of Americans readily admit they log on to the internet daily, and a quarter of participants describe their online usage as “almost constant.”That’s not always a good thing.

It’s no secret that it’s becoming harder and harder to find a break from technology. Since 2000, the number of Americans who are online has increased by almost 70 percent.2 Smartphones, digital watches, voice-activated speakers, and internet-connected cars are now always around us. We wake up to them, use them all day long for work or leisure – looking up everything from directions to recipes to photos of that beach trip you took in 2009. And if we're being honest with ourselves, a brightly-lit screen may be the last thing many of us see before we close our eyes every night.

The Good, The Bad, and The Possible Side Effects of Electronic Device Use

a woman sitting on a couch looking at her phone with a laptop sitting beside her

We tend to view the technology that defines our lives as a good thing. In fact, 90 percent of people rate the internet as having a positive influence in their daily lives.3 This contrasts heavily with experts and scholars that study technology. Thirty-two percent of experts predict that our individual wellbeing is at risk of being negatively impacted by increasing technology use in the next decade.

So there’s an argument to be made – and evidence to support it – that for all the convenience and comfort the digital era has afforded us, excessive technology use may also be negative. And while we’re not literally slaves to technology, a la Terminator, many of us may be more emotionally dependent on our devices than we’d like to admit, or even more than we realize.

Take smartphones for example. Americans are known to spend upwards of five hours a day glued to their mobile devices4, mainly on the big four social media apps: Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat. The use of a smartphone, or any advanced device, is heavily engrained in daily life for millions of people and has begun to show adverse effects on overall health and wellbeing. There are plenty of physical and cognitive health problems associated with the high amount of smartphone usage, and chances are you’ve experienced one or more of these:

  • Text Neck. Yes, it’s a real medical condition, according to research published in the National Library of Medicine. It’s caused by sustained downward strain on your neck, back joints, and muscles – the kind that happens by looking to check your Facebook feed on your phone. Text neck can lead to severe spinal problems, especially in children.5 For every inch the base of your neck bends down toward your chest, the pressure on the spine doubles. That amounts to thousands of hours of unnatural spinal stress a year.
  • Eye Problems. Staring at a smartphone, smart watch, or tablet too long means you blink less, making your eyes strain and work harder. This leaves you with blurry vision and dry, irritated, fuzzy eyes.6
  • Sleepless Nights. Our bodies, while not wifi-capable, are finely-tuned machines that operate on rhythms. This includes our sleep cycle. An analysis on sleep studies found that having close access to portable screened devices resulted in inadequate and poor sleep and excessive tiredness during the daytime.7 The light emitted from smartphones, smart watches, laptops, and tablets also disrupts melatonin production, which can impact learning capabilities, impair memory, and disrupt your appetite. There’s even a connection between this kind of disrupted sleep and an increased risk of prostate and breast cancers.6
  • Out of Focus. Unsurprisingly, research shows that having your smartphone nearby reduces cognitive capacity and the ability to focus on simple tasks.6 So remember, checking your fantasy team and looking at all of your sister-in-law’s wedding photos one by one is only making your to-do list longer!

Sadly, the amount of technology in our everyday routines has also cut deeper, affecting our mood, behavior, and even our mental health. We’ve become self-conditioned to immediately respond to the slightest vibration or synthetic wind chime sound and can even get anxious when we can’t access the internet or our devices. We even sometimes base our routines and moods on social media consumption. Here’s how:

  • Phantom Vibration/Ringing Syndrome. If you’ve ever thought you felt your phone vibrating or heard it ringing when it’s doing nothing of the sort or isn’t even around, then you’ve suffered from this syndrome. This symptom of phone use is actually a hallucination that shows the ties we have to our devices are stronger and deeper than we might like.8 This symptom occurs in people across all gender, age, profession, and phone use categories, not just among those of us more suctioned to screens than others.9
  • Nomophobia. Truly a phobia for the digital age, Nomophobia is the “fear of being without a mobile phone."10 Being separated from smartphones has a wide range of side effects, including panic attacks, anxiety, and increased blood pressure, heart rate, and general unhappiness.11, 12, 13 Our brains are wired to release a nice little dose of dopamine – a hormone that controls the brain’s pleasure centers – whenever we discover something new or exciting. And since there’s always something new and exciting on the internet, we’re all too prone to developing an attachment to our devices. This is something that is present in every age group, not just millenials.14

Doing a Digital Detox

a woman lying in bed while looking at her phone

If reading this so far has you convinced that you might be just a little too into your phone, it may be time for a digital detox! There are plenty of ways to counteract the negative aspects of living in the digital age without feeling like you have to go off the grid and move to a cabin in the woods.

But for many, actually unplugging can be easier said than done. While scaling back might seem hard or stoke the fear of missing out (good old FOMO!), there are many easy ways to reduce or limit technology use without feeling out of the loop. You may find that the benefits outweigh the risk of missing the latest viral cat videos. 

Here are seven strategies to scale back your everyday use of technology:

  • Start slow. The best way to break or reshape a habit is to do so slowly. Start by limiting binge-watching of your favorite show to one hour a night or turn your phone’s notifications off before you go to bed.
  • Relax in other ways. TV and scrolling through social media are convenient, but better ways to relax are out there! Try reading, meditation, physical exercise, or anything else you love to do but often overlook when your phone is in hand.
  • Be reasonable with your expectations. Again, starting slowly is the best way to go through any major change to habits you’ve adopted. You don’t have to go cold turkey! Set allowances for how much free time you spend on your phone, computer, etc. and don’t be surprised if you’re still obsessively checking your phone. Old habits die hard.
  • Unplug after work! The workday ends at five for a reason after all. Using your time off, whenever that is, to focus on everything but work can only help you in the long run. Limit after-hour work emails, voicemail messages, and digital work tasks. This will help monumentally recharge and leave you feeling fresh and prepared for the following work day.
  • Turn your phone off at night. It’ll help you sleep better. Nearly three-quarters of Americans sleep with their smartphones nearby, whether on a nightstand or in their bed. And 3 percent of people even sleep with their phones in their hands.15 Constant late-night notifications and that notorious blue light can ruin hormone production and disrupt natural sleep cycles. 
  • Disconnecting from technology can even make you a better communicator. Since we live in a world full of texts, emails, and chat messages, communicating with other people around the world has never been quicker or easier. But as we grow accustomed to talking through a screen or over the phone, sometimes face-to-face interactions become more of a chore. Going with good old-fashioned talking, instead of texting or calling, can make you more aware of how you communicate, and in turn make you a better, more efficient, more confident speaker.
  • Your focus will improve. Constant scrolling and checking your phone for notifications takes a toll on productivity. By avoiding the Kardashians’ Instagram accounts and your college roommates’ Snapchat stories, you’ll be able to focus on the chores, assignments, and tasks you’ve been cleverly using your phone to avoid.

All in all, if your smartphone, laptop, and other devices keep bringing you down, there are ways to reverse that trend and break free of your virtual shackles. A digital detox might just be for you.


References:

1 Pew Research Center: About a Quarter of U.S. Adults Say They Are 'Almost Constantly' Online. Last updated March 14, 2016. Accessed August 15, 2018.

2 Pew Research Center: The Evolution of Technology Adoption and Usage. Last updated January 11, 2017. Accessed August 14, 2018.

3 Pew Reaseach Center: The Web at 25 in the U.S. Last updated February 27, 2014. Accessed August 10, 2018.

4 Flurry: U.S. Consumers Time-Spent on Mobile Crosses 5 Hours a Day. Last updated March 2, 2017. Accessed August 14, 2018.

5 Washington Post: 'Text neck' is becoming an 'epidemic' and could wreck your spine. Last updated November 20, 2014. Accessed August 15, 2018.

6 Business Insider: How Smartphone Light Affects Your Brain and Body. Last updated July 11, 2017. Accessed August 16, 2018.

7 American Medical Association: Association Between Portable Screen-Based Media Device Access or Use and Sleep Outcomes. Last updated November 16, 2016. Accessed August 15, 2018.

8 California State University San Marcos: Problematic Phone Use and Phantom Notifications: An Examination of Normative Hallucinations. Last updated May 5, 2017. Accessed August 16, 2018.

9 IJORL: Phantom Ringing Syndrome: an Indian Perspective. Last updated November 24, 2017. Accessed August 16, 2018.

10 ScienceDirect: Temperament and characteristics related to nomophobia. Last updated February 22, 2018. Accessed August 17, 2018.

11 IJRMS: Rising Concern of Nomophobia Amongst Indian Medical Students. Last updated January 20, 2015. Accessed August 17, 2018.

12 Public Health Reports: Dependency on Smartphone Use and Its Association with Anxiety in Korea. Last updated May 1, 2016. Accessed August 27, 2018. 

13 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication: The Extended iSelf: The Impact of iPhone Separation on Cognition, Emotion, and Physiology. Last updated January 8, 2015. Accessed September 10, 2018.

14 How Stuff Works: Seniors May Be as Hooked to Smartphones as Kids. Last updated March 28, 2017. Accessed September 12, 2018.

15 Fortune: Here's How Many Americans Sleep With Their Smartphones. Last updated June 29, 2015. Accessed September 12, 2018.

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