Relationship with our smartphones

You can’t live without them and its becoming difficult to live with them. And I am not talking about romantic partners – I’m referring to our smartphones. An NYTimes article last week spoke to the detriment of staying plugged in (disturbed sleep, inability to be present) which is being remedied with gadget free zones and digital curfews, especially in social settings. Essentially, adults are putting themselves and loved ones on a smartphone “time out” when in the company of one another. Why, you ask?

Much has been written about the dopamine release involved with the constant checking that smartphoners engage in and the addictive nature of technology overuse (e.g. see article). The plethora of apps (whatsapp, Skype, Facebook, groupme) allow individuals to stay connected to others worldwide so that one is never alone. When your partner, friends, or family members aren’t available, someone is — just swipe your finger.

The smartphone is like a partner (i.e. Samantha in the film “Her”). The phone accompanies us on walks, in yoga classes, in between previews at the movies, in the waiting room of our doctors… It sits on top of work desks, is in their hands under the table at dinner, in our hands during work meetings, and even bedside. Research using fMRIs show that people’s brains respond to iphone activities in the same way as when they are responding to a romantic partner or close family member. That is, the parts of the brain that are activated when one feels love or compassion are also activated when responding to their phone (see article)

Remaining plugged in allows people to never be alone. If frequent checking increases dopamine release which can lead to addictive patterns, what does constant virtual connection do to our ability to be alone, unstimulated, and still? What do smartphones do to our ability to be without control of information, calendars, and bank accounts? Delaying gratification in the digital age is a phenomenon of the predigital past. To be alone and in silence takes concerted effort.

The smartphone allows me to manage multiple email accounts, calendars, maintain international relationships, facetime with loved ones near and far, and even edit this very blog post. For all users, the phone is useful, helpful, and convenient. However, I would venture to guess that I am not alone when I say I have also been unnecessarily distracted by the phone, even when in company (shame, shame, I know). Admittedly, I have felt a flood of urgency when inundated by multiple pings and a sense of panic when I have misplaced my phone. When did losing my phone become more serious than losing my wallet or keys?

For many users, to live without a phone or even return to phones less “smart” is not plausible. But we can find smart ways to use our phones and not let our phones run our lives. For instance, it could be good practice to 1) turn off the phone more often and only use it when needed, 2) put the phone out of reach, especially when driving, 3) leave it at home when running errands and see how much more productive you feel, 4) trust that if you don’t respond immediately to X’s text/email/chat, X will be okay and will not be offended, 5) ask others to put theirs away when spending time in person, 6) give yourself a smartphone curfew so that it does not keep you up at night, 7) read actual books with actual pages and see how you feel or how much faster you finish what you’re reading, 8) buy an alarm clock so the first thing you look at is not the gleaming blue light of your phone, 9) stop downloading apps you don’t need, and lastly 10) reacquaint with the stillness of having less stimulation and distraction from your phone.

Perhaps you try these out and realize you don’t overuse your phone after all, or that you don’t have a problem with your usage. Great! It may also be the case that you realize your phone has lent itself to bad habits. In that case, examining your usage can lead to increased presence in the present, less urgency, less distraction, more time, and even reduce the discomfort of delayed gratification. Whatever relationship you decide to have with your phone, may it be helpful and not harmful.

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