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Professional website of Avi Soudack

Mental Note

Musings on therapy and psychological health by Avi Soudack, RP

On loving your phone too much

Aug 2023

What's the last thing you see before sleeping at night and the first thing you look for in the morning? If you answer "my phone" then this article is for you. Or, do you look at your phone while you push your child along in their stroller? Yes? Read on.

We have become reliant on digital media for just about all aspects of life—work, leisure, friendship, love. And that dependency comes with a cost—a cost counted in sleep, productivity, social life, and overall well being. Don't get me wrong, this is not a doom and gloom article. I love my phone. It's helpful, amusing, and helps me in my work and relationships. But when I realized that I take it with me from room to room in my house, I knew there was an issue. Same with Facebook and instagram. Great for seeing what people are up to, being reminded about people's birthdays, feeling connected. But when I found myself scrolling endlessly and comparing myself to people I don't really know and wondering what they thought of me, well, that gave me pause.

The key questions are: how much is too much? And what are the potential risks? But first, let's look at why these "cool" tools are so compelling.



How we get hooked

Psychologists have been concerned about the impact of media and technology use at least since the first days of radio and television. But with our current digital technologies we face an entirely new beast--one that is uniquely designed to tap into how our brains work. And that leaves us susceptible to falling into a loop of mindless use and overuse.

We feel compelled to repeatedly access the internet and our phones because they tap into two fundamental psychological truths: we seek pleasure and we need social approval. First, the pleasure part. As you scroll YouTube, every so often you see a cute cat video or enjoy a skit from SNL and you get a little jolt of pleasure. That pleasure is so rewarding that you keep scrolling in search of another, and another. And since the rewards come intermittently, checking your phone becomes addictive. You are hooked—each scroll leaves you wanting more.

Now, the social part: Let's face it, for most of us, it matters what others think of us and how we compare to them. And that's why you keep going back to check Instagram. Like, all the time. Both the pleasure-reward hook and our social needs keep us glued to our screens. This is not by accident. Software and phone designers use these behavioural patterns to ensure we "love" our phones and keep coming back to their websites.



How much is too much?

First of all, let's be clear that using your phone or computer doesn't necessarily result in negative psychological or physical effects. Researchers have studied phone and internet "addiction", but increasingly they use the concept of "problematic use". That means using these technologies in ways and at levels that have a negative effect on your daily functioning. So, if you use your phone a lot, but that's part of your job, or if you are messaging relatives a lot before a family event, that sort of use is not indicative of a problem.

Here are some signs that phone or internet use may have become problematic: if you have become dependent on it (e.g., can't leave the house without your phone, check email immediately on getting up in the morning); if you use them to deal with your moods (e.g., check phone for no reason when bored or feeling down); if your use is increasingly out of your control (e.g., you feel you spend too much time and more time than you "should"); if you find the idea of being without your phone or internet intolerable (e.g., getting upset and irritable when you can't get to your phone); if you do it even when it conflicts with other things you are doing (e.g., phone use while driving or socializing, or web surfing while studying); or, if you are scared even by the idea of cutting back.

Clearly, using your phone even when there are negative consequences is not a good sign. The tricky thing is that some of those consequences can be subtle.



The Impact of problematic use

Problematic use of mobile phones and the internet is associated with a host of issues.

Take productivity. Cal Newport, a computer scientist and expert on the impact of new technologies on study and work, has argued persuasively that as long as we are "online" we are not fully present in our work. The resulting impact on productivity and creativity is significant. Take a small example: one study showed that receiving notifications on their phone significantly undermined people's information processing capabilities. Their performance took a hit as big as if they had actually answered the call or read the text!

And then there is sleep. Using your phone before bed, having the phone in your bedroom, and notifications going off at night, all are related to later bedtimes, longer time to get to sleep, shorter sleep times, sleep problems, reduced sleep quality, and daytime tiredness.

And what about mental health? Many studies show a relationship between problematic internet or phone use and mental health issues like anxiety, depression, feelings of unease, and irritability. Some indicate that problematic use may be negatively related to life satisfaction, well-being, and mindfulness. (Volkmer and Lermer, 2019). Some of these relationships are disputed, and they are complex. For example, it may be how we use media, and not simply how much, that has an impact on mental health.

Is someone who is depressed more likely to loose themselves in doomscrolling or is that continuous wave of stressful words and images leading to their depression? In either case, we can see that the use is problematic. Then there are specific uses with their own problematic aspects. Too much online gaming may be bad for your sleep, your marks and your self esteem. Too much gambling may be ruinous.



What to do about it

There are two ways to look at address concerns about problematic internet and phone use: First, is it caused by, or is it causing, a problem for the person's mental health? In either case, working with a psychologist or psychotherapist to examine what is going on and why can help. Identifying patterns in your behaviour and attitudes will help figure out if your use is problematic. And, critically, it can help you identify underlying issues that the phone or internet use if feeding into. Why do you check your email first thing in the morning? What are you worried about? Why can't it wait until after breakfast? Understanding the problematic use may be a path to some real insight and a way to learn to use these wonderful devices within healthy limits.

Another, complementary approach, is to bring some mindfulness and discipline to your use. Instead of letting phone use seep into every activity—remember that parent checking their phone as they pushed their child in a swing?— be aware and present in what you are doing. Give it your full attention. Then, when it's time to go online, give that the attention it deserves.

Cal Newport advocates a change in philosophy—from our usual digital-all-the-time way of doing things to what he calls "Digital Minimalism". This is an approach to using phones and the internet which questions all their uses, and does not permit any insidious, apparently aimless use, precisely because it is, well, aimless. Instead, he counsels, know why you are using what you use, optimize for your personal situation, establish some clear boundaries, and stick to them. Keep it basic. Keep it focused.



Sources

Busch, P. A., & McCarthy, S. (2020). Antecedents and consequences of problematic smartphone use: A systematic literature review of an emerging research area. Computers in Human Behavior, 106414.

Newport, C. (2016). On Digital Minimalism. Study Hacks Block. December 2016. https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2016/12/18/on-digital-minimalism/

Newport, C. (2019). Digital minimalism: Choosing a focused life in a noisy world. Penguin.

Roberts, J. (2013). Who's the Boss: You or Your Cell Phone? Keller Center Research Report. September 2013, 7(3). :https://www.baylor.edu/business/kellercenter/news.php?action=story&story=145025

Stothart, C., Mitchum, A., & Yehnert, C. (2015). The attentional cost of receiving a cell phone notification. Journal of experimental psychology: human perception and performance,41(4), 893.

Thomée, S. (2018). Mobile phone use and mental health. A review of the research that takes a psychological perspective on exposure. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(12), 2692.

Tokunaga, R. S. (2017). A meta-analysis of the relationships between psychosocial problems and internet habits: Synthesizing internet addiction, problematic internet use, and deficient self-regulation research. Communication Monographs, 84(4), 423-446.