It’s Time to Fix Our Broken Relationship with Digital DevicesNone By Jose Ramos
Digital devices created a tectonic shift in society in the blink of an eye.
From 1984 to 2015, the percentage of households with computers rose from 8 percent to 79 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The first iPhone arrived in 2007. The iPad came into our lives in 2010. Today, digital devices are an intimate part of our lives.
It’s easy to see why. They add value and convenience to our lives. They entertain and educate us.
It’s not all benefits though. The ease of use, portability, and addictive features of digital devices have led to unhealthy habits that are taking a toll on our mental health.
This is a steep price to pay for the benefits these devices bring us. Our digital habits and the mental health repercussions point to a broken relationship with digital devices. It’s time to reconsider and reshape this relationship.
Unhealthy Habit #1: Constantly Staying Connected
We’re always connected to our digital devices. The only time we unplug is when we’re sleeping. Even then, our phones are often right next to us.
We pick up our phones a hundred times a day to respond to messages and see what’s going on in the digital world. When we’re not on our phones, we keep them within arm’s reach.
We don’t sit with our thoughts or let ourselves get bored. When we’re waiting at a traffic light or in line at a store, we automatically pull out our phones.
Why are we addicted to our digital devices? Because they provide a constant stream of rewards, and they’re packed with addictive features such as infinite scrolling, “like” buttons, and notifications. We can easily get our fix by unlocking our phones and checking for the latest updates on social media or news sites. We get a dopamine hit when a new podcast, email, or text message is delivered to our phones.
These rewards don’t arrive on a fixed schedule. We know they’re coming but we don’t know when the next stimuli will arrive.
The variable reward schedule multiplies the addictive power of digital devices. It keeps us hooked, repeatedly checking for the next dopamine hit.
Unhealthy Habit #2: Compulsively Consuming Digital Information
We’re spending a massive amount of time consuming content, processing incoming information, and sifting through and responding to requests from others.
Websites, podcasts, and social media platforms provide an endless stream of content that’s eating up our time. Adults in the U.S. spend over 9 hours a day consuming content on tv, phones, tablets, and video game consoles, according to Nielsen.
Thanks to digital devices, people and companies can find and reach us in more ways and with less friction. They can still call or stop by, but they can also communicate with us through text messages, emails, and social media. Our digital devices help get their messages across by sending us pings and notifications that tell us we need to check something out.
There are costly trade-offs to spending so much time taking in content, information, and requests. First, we have less bandwidth and energy to make and create things because we’re in a reactive state. Second, we’re letting others determine our priorities by allowing them to put things on our agendas and to-do lists.
Third, we’re being less intentional about how we spend our time. We’re not consciously choosing and prioritizing the things that add the most value to our lives.
Instead, we’re splintering our time between things that add some value to our lives. This leaves us feeling like we don’t have enough time for the things that matter most to us.
Unhealthy Habit #3: Splintering Our Attention
Digital distractions have become a normal part of modern life. We’re in two places at once: the physical and digital worlds.
People walk around with their heads buried in their phones, or use their phones while others are talking to them.
They scroll through social media on their phones while watching TV. Co-workers answer emails in the middle of meetings.
We’re all busy. We’re in a rush to respond to the latest question or request. We feel like we’re getting more done.
However, we’re confusing activity for progress. We’re majoring in minor things. What’s the result of living in this frenzied and distracted state?
Our focus is fragmented. The quality of our attention is lower. We’re less mindful of each thing we’re doing, and we’re more prone to multitasking. This is the new normal, and we’re paying a price for it. The brain is a powerful machine but it’s not designed to do two things at once or repeatedly switch back and forth between tasks. This article from the American Psychological Association shines a light on the costs of multitasking.
In short, you have to pay a toll every time you switch between tasks. You have to reorient yourself and remember where you left off on the task you’re switching back to.
In addition, your brain has to change tracks, from one type of task to another. It has to engage the settings and rules associated with the new task and disengage the settings for the previous task.
While multitasking lowers our productivity and effectiveness, our unhealthy digital habits lead to deeper costs.
How Is Our Digital Addiction Impacting Mental Health?
Technological advancements have changed the way we interact with the world and each other. Our lives have become increasingly wired but our wiring hasn’t changed. Our brains are equipped to deal with the threats and challenges of the physical world, not the digital world.
This reality leads to some important questions. How is the digital connection impacting our brains? What is it doing to our mental health? While we can’t answer these questions with certainty, we can get a better picture by looking at recent trends and studies:
The suicide rate in the U.S. increased by 30 percent from 2000 through 2016, according to the CDC.
The diagnosis of major depression increased by 33 percent from 2013 through 2016, according to Blue Cross Blue Shield. Diagnosis rates increased for all age groups, but the largest spikes took place in the under-35 age groups.
The percentage of college students seeking mental health treatment almost doubled from 2007 to 2017 (19 percent to 34 percent), according to a recent study.
In her book, iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy, Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, concludes that there’s a correlation between the use of digital devices and unhappiness, depression, and suicide.
A University of Illinois survey of 300 students came to a similar conclusion. The study found that students with addictive behaviors towards digital devices had higher levels of anxiety and depression.
These studies and figures paint an alarming picture, highlighting the correlation between the rise of digital devices and the current mental health crisis. Of course, correlation isn’t the same as causation. These results don’t prove that the increase in screen time has led to higher levels of anxiety and depression. The mental health crisis is likely being driven by multiple factors, but it’s possible, and maybe even likely, that our relationship with digital devices is one of these contributing factors.
Striving for a Healthier Relationship with Digital Devices
Digital devices and the accompanying software are shiny new objects that supercharged our lives. We played with them, welcomed them, and made them a central part of our day-to-day routines.
This happened at the speed of light. We didn’t have enough time or perspective to incorporate digital devices into our lives in an intentional way. Now, there’s mounting evidence urging us to take a step back and re-evaluate how we use them.
It’s time to replace unhealthy digital habits with better habits, like meaningful conversations without distractions, family dinners without phones, and screen-free morning and bedtime routines. It’s time to figure out how to get value from digital devices without damaging our mental health.
It’s time to start using digital tools instead of letting them use us.
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