Are smartphones making us feel bad? New research has found that compared with university students who used their phones the least, students who used their phones the most reported higher levels of isolation, loneliness, depression, and anxiety.
The Link Between Digital Habits, Loneliness, and Other Mental Health Symptoms
In a survey published online last week in the journal NeuroRegulation, Erik Peper, PhD, and Richard Harvey, PhD, researchers at San Francisco State University's Institute for Holistic Healing Studies, presented results of several surveys they have conducted with their students on how they use technology. More research is needed; this was a small study, with just of 135 students who self-reported, but Dr. Peper says the results concern him greatly.
Symptoms of digital addiction such as increased loneliness (also known as “phoneliness”), anxiety, and depression were observed in a sample of university undergraduates who completed a survey about smartphone use during and outside of class.
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Concerns About Student Use of Smartphones and Social Habits
As a professor at San Francisco State, Peper has noticed a sweeping change in his students’ behavior over the last few years. “Students used to come into class and talk to one another,” Peper says. “Now, when you walk into a lecture hall, students are on their cell phones. During their breaks, they are on their cell phones. And when they leave, they are on their cell phones.”
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This Is Your Brain on Screens
“My training is in biology from an evolutionary perspective,” Peper says. “And one of the biggest questions I have is why do we get connected to these technologies so easily? When I fly, I may sit next to someone who will open their computer screen. And I have to take a peek at their screen. Why would you do that? Your mother told you that’s not correct. It’s because it’s a biological survival habit," Peper explains. “If there’s a screen, we have to look at it, we have no choice.”
Ever Wonder Why It's So Hard to Put Down Your Phone?
Our inability to self-modulate this behavior led to one of Peper’s most surprising discoveries in his research. “Overall, to our surprise, the students who use social media the most when they are in social settings are the loneliest,” Peper says. “We’ll ask kids, ‘How many of you will use your cell phone during dinner?’ Many hands will go up. Then we will ask, ‘How do you feel when you are talking to someone and they turn away to text someone?’ It makes them feel slighted. They feel in that moment that they are not important. If you ask them, they are fully aware of their behavior, but they are doing it anyway.”
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Questioning the Consequences of Push Notifications
According to Peper, the barrage of push notifications that we receive from our cell phones, be they for texts, social media, games, or other apps on our phones, trigger an immediate response. “It’s like being in a casino and hearing the slot machines ringing. There’s a goodie there. When you hear the notification or feel the buzz of your phone, there’s a goodie waiting for you. We are wired as human beings to update our gossip for the survival of the species. We needed to know what was going on to survive. These notifications are an evolutionary trap. They take the signal that we previously used to survive, and now they’ve amplified it.”
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Are People Capable of Resisting the Pull of Technology?
“We are asking a person to have self-control, when we may not have the mechanisms for it,” Peper says. To explain, he uses another very familiar analogy.
“You know that eating massive amounts of sugar is not healthy, yet most of us do. Part of the reason why sugar is so easily reinforced is because we are wired though evolution for it. We are raised on mother’s milk, which is sweet, and things that have a lot of calories are generally sweet. You are going to eat as many calories as possible for your own survival. Historically, we didn’t know when or where our calories were coming from, because there were few calories available, so [too many calories] was never an issue," Peper says.
“Now we come to a world of plenty, and it’s almost like we don’t have a choice. We do have a choice, but it’s not easy. You have to create environmental constraints for yourself. If I go to the kitchen, and there’s a piece of pie, I will eat it. But if it’s not there, I won’t eat it. So I have to keep the pie out of the kitchen. You’re asking yourself to go against a natural biological survival mechanism. We have to use will power to stop ourselves from something that we previously relied upon to survive.”
8 Ways to Ease Your Use of Digital Devices
To help combat our increasing addiction to our digital devices, Peper and Harvey outline a few strategies in their paper.
- Create a time log. Use it to help you be aware of how much time you spend looking at your devices and how many times a day you look.
- Be aware of how you feel when you are talking to another person who answers her phone during your conversation. We underestimate the emotional power of this feeling. See how you emotionally react.
- Recognize how conditioned you are to check for updates. Is the Facebook, What’s App, Instagram, or other update you are receiving really giving you news? Ask yourself: Do I get much more insight into the news following every one of President Trump’s statements, or can I learn the same things by reading about it once a week?
- Consider your multitasking habits. Observe yourself multitasking between a task and your device. Notice how you get distracted from your task. Each time you get distracted, how much time does it take for you to get back into the task? Are you as effective?
- Force yourself to focus. Explore for yourself how much more work you can get done if you are unavailable by phone, email, or text between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Notice how much more productive you are. Save checking your email for when you are tired and irritable and need a break from your task.
- Unplug for one day. Try an experiment with your family where you go an entire day without any digital devices. How lost do you feel without them? Turn your phone off.
- Give yourself unstructured time. “I’m always intrigued by people hiking in the Berkeley Hills near where I live,” notes Peper. “Some people are enjoying nature and their surroundings, while others are on their cell phone unaware of anything.”
- Do not allow digital devices to become babysitters. Too often parents want to go out to dinner and so they hand their phone to their 4-year-old to keep him occupied. Kids who spend more time with digital devices have higher levels of attention deficit disorder.
Peper explains the risks of impersonal digital interactions: If you and I speak in person, we have simultaneous communication. I listen to your voice; I recognize your facial expressions. I learn to modulate. But, he says, through our devices, we have asynchronous communication. We don’t have to deal with emotions, so we don't develop emotional control. “If this pattern continues in kids,” he says, “it will become a major concern in the future.”