By Amy Harris, MS, RN, CNM
Rather than improving our lives, technology is increasingly keeping us from enjoying what really matters in life. Human beings are relational, meaning that we seek love and connection with others. A recent study by Common Sense Media reported that parents spend an average of 9 hours and 22 minutes every day in front of screens (smartphones, tablets, computers and televisions). We can’t even use long work days as an excuse- a full 8 hours of that time is for personal use, not for work. The hours we spend staring at our screens are taking us away from what helps keep us healthy: building loving, interpersonal connections, being physically active, spending time in nature, getting enough quality sleep, and decreasing stress in our lives.
Virtual relationships are not real relationships and won’t sustain you or your emotional soul. While the internet can be a great place to meet new people, reconnect with old friends, or even start romantic relationships, online relationships are not substitutes for real-life interactions. We quickly lose perspective and forget that online relationships aren’t subject to the same demands or stresses as messy, real-world relationships- of course they are easier!
Parents, teachers, pediatricians, and child psychologists are all worried about the impact of lost communication skills for this generation of children growing up addicted to screens. How can technology teach them critical skills like empathy and emotional intelligence? What effect does constantly having to fight a screen for their parents’ attention have on children’s behavioral development?
A truly harmful addiction
If we consider the field of addiction medicine and apply it to our technology use, we can classify our addiction to our technology as a behavioral addiction. Biologically, smartphones and the powerful technology they unlock can trigger our brains to release the chemical dopamine, changing our mood for the better. Similar to addictive substances, you can also build up a tolerance to technology so that it take more and more time in front of screens to experience that same pleasurable sensation.
Addiction is not about seeking pleasure. Rather, it is about soothing psychological stress. We attempt to distract ourselves from the loneliness, frustration, anger, anxiety, pain or other distressing emotions we might be feeling. Unfortunately, by reaching for our phones as “security blankets” we may only make our social isolation worse by denying ourselves face-to-face contact with people or situations which can make us feel better. This leads to increasing social isolation, depression, and social anxiety.
Research has also shown that heavy phone usage can make life even harder for those people with attention deficit disorders, lower our ability to concentrate, and limit how creatively we are able to think. In the workplace, those workers who used their personal smartphone the most, reported more anxiety and were less-productive than those workers who turned to their phones less often during the workday.
After reading these concerns, I am now on a quest to try to limit both my own use of screens, as well as my family’s. I need all of the help I can get, so I tried to make a list of what has helped other people look up from their screens. I hope that these tips will also help you to step away from technology.
10 strategies to help unplug
1. Out of sight, out of mind
Put your phone or tablet somewhere out of reach. A more extreme measure would be to purposely hide your phone out of sight or in another room. As with other addictions, you want to reduce temptation by removing visual cues.
2. Change the alert sounds
Remove those auditory cues (all of those great dings, horns, and other sound effects technology has brought into our universe of sounds). Don’t let your technology’s constant sounds and notifications decide when you check them. Try disabling some of your phone’s push notifications to only the very necessary. Turn off or choose quieter sounds for ring tones, text notifications, and other push notifications.
3. Rise and shine (without your phone or email)
Check your phone and emails after you have completed your morning to-dos, like taking the dog for a walk, having breakfast with your kids, exercising, or meditating.
4. Say goodnight (without your phone or email)
You will find you sleep better if you leave your phone outside of your bedroom, and even downstairs. Many sleep specialists advise that the bedroom should be for sleep and intimacy only. Go back to using a traditional alarm clock and set up your charging station so that it is not in your bedroom.
5. Set a good example
Model healthy technology habits for your kids, friends, and coworkers. Don’t text and drive. Refrain from checking your phone during a meeting. If you have made a family agreement not to check phones at the dinner table, remember that applies to parents too! Click here for some more ideas.
6. Keep track
Track your smartphone habits by keeping a record for a week (or even for a day) of every time you pick up and put down your phone. Write down what you were doing and for how long. “Moment” is an app that automatically tracks how much you use your iPhone or iPad each day. You can set daily limits with the app and be notified when you go over. It even has the ability to manage your entire family’s screen time from your own phone. Other options include 'Quality Time', 'OFFTIME', 'AppDetox', and 'Lilspace'. If apps aren’t your thing, you can use a good old pencil and paper to add up your total screen time and then set a goal for cutting back the total amount of time spent on your phone.
7. Set a timer
Have you ever said you are just going to check Facebook for a minute, and when you next look up, 2 hours have gone by and you checked email, Facebook, Twitter, and Facebook multiple times? Just like you set a timer for your kids, set your phone’s countdown timer the next time you say you are just going to check for a “minute.”
8. Be mindful
Make time to be fully present with yourself and with others. Be mindful of how your body feels, your breathing, your environment. There is a reason why 'Mindfulness' is a current buzzword, sweeping across healthcare settings, self-help books, therapists’ offices, and in kids’ schools. Make it a priority to do things that make you feel good (without your phone), so that you will be less likely to turn to your phone for comfort or out of boredom. Reward yourself for your increasing amount of time spent away from your phone. A little positive reinforcement never hurt anyone, especially when trying to change behaviors! Learn more about the MaineHealth Learning Resource Center mindfulness program here.
9. Not it!
When you are out to dinner with friends or family, agree to put everyone’s phones in a pile in the middle of the table. The first person who reaches for their phone has to pay for everyone’s dinner or drinks.
10. Even better, take a break all together
Make a conscious decision to not check Facebook (or Instagram, or play Candy Crush) for a day, a week, or a month. Hide the application on your fourth screen, deep in a folder or delete it from your phone altogether. Even if you are tempted to check or to play a game, you will have to go through the process of adding them back to your phone, and this will make you think twice about doing so. Pay attention to what else you do instead of checking your phone and keep a list of these activities to turn to whenever you are tempted by technology.
The health educators at the MaineHealth Learning Resource Center are happy to help. They provide trusted & reliable health information and connect people to local resources in the community. Connect with a health educator today! Be well, be well informed.