As I gather the items I need to write this blog—my glasses, computer, glass of water— I watch myself grab for my phone. There is nothing that I need on that device right now. Other than the experiential example of what so many of us find all day and all night— that our phones have become an appendage, what co-author Russell Clayton of the University of Missouri describes as “The Extended Self.”
Of course, I’m not here to say we shouldn’t have phones. That would be ridiculous, given the tremendous benefits they provide and the reality of the species-level transformation that a life “plugged in” has created. At the same time, we shouldn’t just throw our hands up (or our faces down). We have reached a dangerous level of tolerance for our phone dependence, our egos normalizing by way of joking, avoiding, resigning.
I always like to write about what is real and true for me, and I know that my relationship with my phone often serves as a barometer for my relationship with myself, and my love for life. The truth is that when we cross over the line and our phone use becomes a problem, there are dangerous implications for our brains and our bodies, for our mental health and relationships, for our capacity to create true happiness and to enjoy the blessings we are meant to receive as a soul.
I have learned from the wisdom of Kabbalah that where our attention goes is exactly where we go, this is who we become. So how can we tell if we are placing too much of our attention in our phones? How can we tell if our phone use is a problem in our lives? I suggest 3 important steps:
Educate Yourself on the criteria for and side effects of excessive phone use.
Observe Yourself on how your phone use affects your energy and makes you feel.
Unplug Yourself to create a daily and weekly sabbatical.
Let’s start with the first step, educating yourself. According to the National Institute of Health, the criteria used for drug addiction can also be used for our mobile devices. More specifically, take a look at this list below of indicators for a phone problem. Check off how many of these are true for you:
Conscious use of phones in dangerous situations or in prohibited contexts (e.g while driving)
Excessive phone use that causes social and family conflicts and confrontations, as well as loss of interest in other shared activities
Continuing the behavior despite the negative effects and/or personal malaise it causes
Excessive phone use causing noticeable physical, mental, social, work, or family disturbances (e.g eye strain, symptoms of withdrawal, stress, and anxiety)
Chronic impulsiveness to check your device
Frequent and constant checking of phone in very brief periods of time causing insomnia and sleep disturbances
Increase in use to achieve satisfaction or relaxation or to counteract a dysphoric mood
Excessive use, urgency, need to be connected
Need to respond immediately to messages, preferring the cell phone to personal contact
Abstinence, dependence, craving
Anxiety, irritability if cell phone is not accessible, feelings of unease when unable to use it
3 KEY SIDE EFFECTS: Let’s go a little deeper with our understanding of side effects from phone dependency.
Pleasure vs Happiness. The semantic difference between pleasure and happiness is subtle but the implications are huge, on the brain and the soul. I love this chart from a recent Business Insider article which helps us to see in the brain how pleasure seeking activities, like excessive phone us, create short term highs (dopamine) while fulfillment seeking activities generate farther reaching and more lasting contentment (serotonin). Phone use taps into our already vulnerable tendency to seek short term, pleasure-seeking gratification.
Mindfulness. If we are having trouble keeping our attention fully in the present, taking in the world and people around us, then one culprit could be the time spent in the online world. Harvard researcher Matt Killingsworth found that happiness and being present in the moment are directly linked. We know this right? But the research is mounting that being mindful and in the present leads to greater self esteem and lower perceived anxiety and stress. When it comes to our phones and mindfulness, recent research has shown that smartphone involvement decreases our capacity for mindfulness.
Anxiety/Depression. Late night phone use in particular has been linked to increases in depression and declines in self esteem and coping ability. Phones OUT OF THE BEDROOM are becoming the new “buckle up for safety.” Also leaning on the depression side, a recent survey showed that those considered frequent social media users experienced 2.7 times higher rates of depression that those of less frequent users.
And here are some of the other the side effects: Insomnia, Inability to Focus / Complete a Task, Stress and Restlessness, Relationship Stress, Eye Strain, Neck Pain, Social Anxiety, Escapist Behavior, Dependence on Digital Validation (Newport Academy)
HEALTHY UNPLUGGING HABITS
How can we protect ourselves from the illusion that the online world is more compelling, beautiful and filled with endless routes for joy and awe than the real and messy world of nature, people, opportunities and those dreaded “pauses in between”?
Observe Yourself. As I mentioned above, self observation is a key step. And please be brave and give yourself permission to be honest with yourself. We have the answers within us and have everything to gain by putting in the effort it takes to nestle into our internal silence and listen. Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
Before you go for your phone, ask yourself, do I feel empty, bored, anxious, lonely, insecure, vulnerable, restless, unworthy? What might I be trying to escape?
While on your phone, try pausing, taking a deep breath and ask, Is this really where I want to be right now? Is this best for me?
When you get off your phone, check in again. How is my energy? Do I feel happier, more fulfilled and creative, more worthy or peaceful, I am more in love with my life? Or do I feel more empty, frustrated, disappointed in myself, tired, wired, restless?
Create Distance Between You and Your Phone (Physical and Emotional)
We need to create boundaries. Sometimes we need a definitive structure to combat our brains’ firing temptations. Here are some ideas:
Pick a specific bedtime for your phone, put it to bed and then LET GO.
Buy an actual alarm clock and put your phone to bed in another room
Create a weekly Sabbath for yourself - 24 hours with no phone. It’s a life saver.
Feed your soul with whatever helps you connect to something bigger in life.
Write down your offline passions like nature, crafts, people, animals, athletics, dance, music, poetry, writing a letter.
Partner with a friend to keep you accountable.
If you really need more help, you can try programs like Catherine Price’s 7 day challenge.