We’re flooded by interruptions and notifications from our devices. Our tablets or phones buzz to wake us up, texts stream in, alerts bubble up on our screens, and “assistants” chime in with their soulless voices. Oh boy!
By Barbara Pierce
All day long, we’re flooded by interruptions and notifications from our devices. Our phones buzz to wake us up, texts stream in, alerts bubble up on our screens, and “assistants” chime in with their soulless voices.
This seems only right — we do need technology to help with our busy lives. There are plenty of benefits to the latest and greatest technologies. But many questions remain when it comes to the true cost of our digital distractions.
Scientists offer scary predictions about the consequences of smartphones and the other digital devices to which we’ve grown so attached. They aren’t sure exactly what technology is doing to our brains, but they’re pretty confident of several things.
First, it can lead to anxiety and depression.
We’re hardwired to be social creatures; there’s almost nothing more fascinating to us than social information, experts say. Social stimuli — laughing faces, positive recognition by our peers, messages from those we care about — activate the reward system of our brain, releasing dopamine. This reinforces whatever we did to cause the rush of dopamine.
Dopamine plays a starring role in motivating our behavior. It gets released when we take a bite of delicious food, when we have sex, after we exercise, and importantly, when we have successful social interactions. It rewards us for beneficial behaviors and motivates us to repeat them.
The strength of our social connections has a huge impact on our mental health and happiness. Being socially connected to others eases stress, anxiety, and depression, provides comfort and joy, prevents loneliness, even adds years to our life.
On the flip side, lacking strong social connections can pose a serious risk to our mental health.
We need face-to-face contact. Nothing reduces stress and boosts our mood better than in person contact with someone who cares about us. The more we prioritize social media interaction over in-person relationships, the more we’re at risk for developing mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Spending too much time engaging with social media can actually make you feel lonelier and more isolated, maybe even anxious and depressed. There’s clear evidence showing a link between social media use and depression.
Licensed therapist Luis Ramirez of Rising Potential Counseling in Frankfort, agrees.
“I like to back up my opinions with journal articles,” he said. He cited research done by Fordham University which states: “It was found that phone usage predicted depression and anxiety later in life. Phone usage was associated with fear of missing out, poor academic performance, poor sleep and poor interpersonal relationships.”
Another study of 1,513 Saudi University students concluded that smartphone use was linked with depression and anxiety, he reported.
Another way our technology is harmful to our brains: the constant alerts jolt our stress hormones into action, igniting our fight or flight response; our heartbeats quicken, our breathing tightens, our muscles contract.
Those automatic actions from our body and brain are intended to help us outrun danger, not answer a text.
As much as 86% of us say we check our devices “constantly” and find it really stressful. The notifications cause our brains to be in a near constant state of stress.
Being in a state of stress means that the part of our brains that normally deals with some of our highest-order cognitive functioning, goes completely haywire and basically shuts down.
High levels of the stress hormone not only wear down our brain’s ability to function properly, but can lead to significant health problems—heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and can weaken the immune system.
Another way our phones interfere with our brains: combine that sudden beep with the promise of new social information, and you have a near-perfect, not-ignorable stimulus that will pull your focus away from whatever task your brain is working on. And while you may think you can quickly check a text or email and pick up that task where you left off, you really can’t.
While this isn’t a big deal if you’re doing something simple and rote; it can be a big deal if your brain is trying to sort out a complex problem. It can take your brain 15-25 minutes to get back to where it was after stopping to check an email.
How do I break the cycle?
Smartphones and social media apps aren’t going anywhere. So it’s up to us to decide how much of our time we want to dedicate to them. Here is what experts recommend:
Use an app to track how much time you spend on social media each day, then set a goal for how much you want to reduce it. Disable your notifications for social media apps and keep your display in black and white to reduce your phone’s ability to grab your attention.
Set clear blocks of time without technology; turn off your phone at certain times of the day.
Leave devices in another room overnight to charge.