Anything in excess has its downsides. I, like many of you, binge on technology.
As a blogger, it comes with the territory. On a typical day, I could spend up to 4 hours or more on my cell phone. Today I’ve picked it up 39 times and that’s despite trying to turn it off at work. And that doesn’t even count the time I spend on my desktop at work.
Admittedly, it hasn’t been my best day - I binged around 10:30, 11:30, after lunch and all through the afternoon. Similar to eating a few chocolate biscuits, after a period of being on my phone, I figure ‘What’s the point in resisting?’ and spend the early afternoon burried in my apps. This was disappointing for me personally because this year I am desperately trying to clean up my relationship with technology after a seriously stressful 2018. I’ve been going quite well. As long as I turn it off, I am much less tempted. But sometimes we fail. So why is it so hard to kick the phone habit?
What does tech do to your brain?
The impact of digital devices on our physical and mental health is currently being studied, but there are some things we’re starting to understand about how we behave when we use technology. Psychiatrists and health professionals the world over report that technology is increasingly being linked to anxiety, depression, body image disturbance and internet addiction is now a medical diagnosis.
I have certainly felt times when it felt compulsive to use my phone, particularly to check my emails or my Instagram account. I will start to feel tight in my chest and a bit lightheaded. At that moment, all I want to do is feel the rush of flipping up my phone and logging onto the app or looking at my email notification. It feels like a drug.
All together now: Dopamine!
You too? Ever wondered why we feel like that? Well, technology IS a drug in some ways. Every time we check our phones when we receive a notification, triggering the reward circuit, we get a tiny hit of dopamine, the feel good hormone. A burst of dopamine signals that something important is happening that needs to be remembered. This dopamine signal causes changes in neural connectivity that make it easier to repeat the activity again and again without thinking about it, leading to the formation of habits. This is the same hormone which is released when you eat chocolate or enjoy something in your daily life.
Just as drugs produce intense euphoria, they also produce much larger surges of dopamine, powerfully reinforcing the connection between consumption of the drug, the resulting pleasure, and all the external cues linked to the experience. Large surges of dopamine "teach" the brain to seek drugs (or here, technology) at the expense of other, healthier goals and activities…which is why you procrastinate on Instagram instead of selling your old shoes on Trade Me.
Rollercoaster: Meet the other hormones
Other hormones which get released when you use technology include serotonin (released when we are creative, connected or contributing), oxytocin (released when we have meaningful exchanges), adrenaline (for fight or flight, but also released by likes on social media) and cortisol (what you get when you’re stressed out and distracted). This explains why I feel so many confusing feelings like I am on an emotional rollercoaster throughout the day. I am literally consuming a cocktail of hormones which make me feel up and down during my experience with technology.
Yet while I associate technology as a mixture of excitement and stress, apparently not all tech is created equal. You can have ‘good technology’ that gives us that metabolism of brain boosting serotonin, endorphin or oxytocin, for instance when I use my meditation app, Headspace or draw on a photo using YouDoodle.
But dopamine can make apps addictive. The prime culprit? Yep, I’m looking at you Instagram.
Some aspects of this app can be helpful - in small doses. For instance, we all have that one enlightened friend who says they use Instagram for inspiration, and seeking out beautiful interiors, while the rest of us feel like basic trolls for stalking our old school crush at 3am. It’s because when consumed in large doses, our hormones start to control the show, and the stress hormone, cortisol, starts to rise.
At particular risk are people who have a family history of addiction, anxiety, or depression. We can find ourselves sucked into the vortex more quickly and find it harder to get out. At particular risk are teens who are more prone to getting into trouble online as they seek to have their identity confirmed and compare themselves to others.
Digital Detox or Digital Management
So what can be done? A digital detox can be a great idea. I highly recommend going somewhere with no reception or wifi for a day or two, just to help you get back to basics. Sometimes cold turkey is the only way.
But then how do you keep it up during the week in a world which expects you to be connected?
Personally, I’ve had to take active steps to make sure I stay on task, especially during work hours. I’ve installed free blockers on the websites which I am most attracted to visiting, deleted my Facebook app on my phone, and am turning my phone off during the daytime and putting it in a bag or in my draw. I let myself check my phone at lunchtime but notice that if I get to the end of the day and I haven’t checked it, I’ll feel more in control of myself and my life, and actually am making a better job at separating blog/home/work.
Not checking my phone all the time also means I manage my emails and notifications more efficiently when I DO check them. I like that I’ll have 10 emails, and can respond to them together, rather than feeling like I need to lunge at my phone whenever one pops in throughout the day. Really, I’m not as important as I think I am and the world will continue to fuction just fine if I don’t reply within 5 minutes. I also like the app ‘Moment’ for extra insights. Otherwise, just use your ‘screen time’ in iOS settings to inform you about your use.
It also helps remind me of the relationships which are most important to me: namely the people I love, work with and have long standing friendships with. My brain sometimes confuses priorities, so I’ll be with Matt doing Instagram stories instead of paying attention to how his day was. Anyone else guilty?
So now you know a bit more about why you’re struggling to stop using your phone, I hope you’ll be able to set more boundaries around how you use tech. Overall, I’ve found it has dramatically reduced my levels of stress, made me more focused, more productive and helped me actually come up with better and more creative ideas. Stop living life through a screen: let’s go out and make 2019 the year we made memories IRL.