I’ve written before that our collective smartphone addiction arose because we are like the proverbial frog in the boiling water: we did not notice or respond to how bad our addiction to screens was getting because it creeped up on us so slowly.
To shake it off, we need a shock to the system. The best way to do this is to take digital detox: a day or two to without technology. This is important to do because it has two keystone benefits that will power all future steps towards digital balance. First, when the digital layer is temporarily stripped off of our life, we begin to remember that pre-addiction self who is happier, healthier and more authentic. It is that memory of our screen-less self that will inspire us to continue to return to disconnection even after our detox is over.
Second, we can only fully see the effects of our digital delirium when we step away from it. It is like the joke about the fish asking the other fish what water is: when we are so immersed in technology, we forget that it is there and think that the disturbing symptoms of it are the incurable facts of life. But when we detox, we see just how reversible they, in fact, are.
We sometimes need a step before the detox: a kick in the pants to remind us why we need to take a detox in the first place. In service of that initial step, here are ten shocking facts about our technological frenzy that I hope can inspire you to try a digital detox out:
1. Your smartphone is spoiling key moments in your life: Half of us report that texting, “habit-checking,” and scanning social media on our phones has ruined a special time with a loved one. Almost nine in ten Americans say they took out their phone during their immediately previous conversation.
2. The mere presence of your smartphone is diminishing conversations: Researchers have shown that we are so aware that our phones can interrupt any special moment that when a phone is on the table during a meal — even if it is faced down! — we feel less connection with the people we are with: our talk becomes more trivial; our trust, less deep. It makes sense: why dive into the here and now when the far and later can pull you away at any moment?
3. Your phone is making you less good to people: A recent study showed that when people used cell phones, they were less likely to be good to people: less likely to volunteer, less likely to exert effort to help each other out. The connection between phones and negativity is so ingrained, in fact, that the pattern holds even when people do not even use cell phones: just thinking about cell phones or drawing pictures of phones has a similar effect.
4. Multitasking on your phone is making you bad at work: Multitasking creates what scientists call a “response selection bottleneck” in our brain. When our focus on a task is interrupted by the need to attend to another task at the same time, blood literally rushes to another part of the brain (for the curious, “Brodmann area 10”) to make a decision of what task to perform next, before rushing back to actually perform the task — a task which, of course, will be interrupted again shortly. So when we are doing emails while engaging in a meeting, we are actually doing three tasks poorly: doing emails, engaging in the meeting, and deciding whether we should be doing emails or engaging in the meeting. This is making your tired and unproductive at the office.
5. Filling breaks with social media feeds is hurting your memory: When scientists at the University of California, San Francisco made rats have new experiences, like standing on a new table, they could see new neurons being created in the rats’ brains. When the scientists then gave those rats downtime from any new experience, they could see the new neurons move to the hippocampus, the brain’s “gateway for memory.” Their conclusion: downtime from new experiences is when memory is stored. This is concerning, because constant digital distraction ensures that we never have downtime. We used to have tiny blocks of downtime all the time: in the grocery checkout line, on the subway, in the bathroom. But these “micro-moments” — moments when small memories could be formed — are now being filled by social media feeds and cell phone games. We may think we are taking a break while scrolling Instagram or playing 2048, but we might as well be the rats being forced to have some new experience rather than being freed to store an old experience. Perhaps it is not a surprise then that a recent poll showed that millennials — the most technologically connected generation — are forgetting their keys at a higher rate than boomers: indeed, we are having more senior moments than seniors, themselves.
6. Your smartphone is causing “screen apnea”: At Stanford’s Calming Technology Lab, researchers found that searching the web causes us to take shorter breaths — or even hold our breath entirely — and thus restrict oxygen to our brains. Linda Stone — the guru from before who coined the term “continuous partial attention” — calls this “screen apnea” and explains that it comes from the same “flight-or-fight response” that early humans experienced. We are literally processing overstuffed inboxes in the same way we would have processed warding off hungry tigers.
7. Your smartphone is hurting your sleep: When UCLA Chancellor Gene Block was asked to discuss the health impacts of technological overload, he said the most dramatic impact comes in the reduction in sleep caused by smartphone use. Indeed, a quarter of people surveyed in 2012 report that they do not sleep as well as they used to because they are constantly connected to technology. According to a recent study in Pediatrics, children who slept near a small screen and who had more screen time reported less sufficient sleep. Four out of five of teenagers who are reporting sleep and exhaustion problems are using electronic devices in bed. Much of this can be accounted for by the bright lights of nighttime cell phones reducing levels of melatonin, the brain chemical that regulates sleep. But it is not just the light though: according to sleep expert Nerina Ramlakhan, browsing the internet before sleep overloads the brain’s ‘working memory,’ leading to “noisy, thought-filled sleep.”
8. Your smartphone is stressing you out (and it’s having physical effects): University of Michigan Psychologist David Meyer’s research shows that multitasking contributes to the release of stress hormones and adrenaline. When the multitasking never stops, long-term risks arise from their release, including higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and depression. Social media specifically is driving us nuts: 42% of constant social media checkers report that online conversations about politics and culture are stressing them out. Even not being on our phone is hurting us: heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety spikes when our phones ring but we choose not to answer them.
9. Unchecked infomania is worse for productivity than smoking pot: The constant buzz of emails, texts, and Slack messages at the office is leading to what business guru Linda Stone calls “continuous partial attention.” CPA is metastasized multitasking: the tech-enabled and near-constant scanning for opportunities among “contacts, events, activities in an effort to miss nothing.” This “unchecked infomania” is awful for getting things done at a high level. In fact, British researchers, funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the University of London’s Institute of Psychiatry, found that the amount of IQ points dropped due to email and phone distractions at work is twice the amount dropped due smoking pot before work. Think about that: it is better for your productivity today to turn off your phone and light up a joint than to just keep your phone on.
10. You are going to literally crash into something: 22 percent of adults who have admitted to crashing into something while texting.
I hope one of these stuck with you — and you are now scheduling an upcoming digital detox.