Our addiction to smartphones and social media as a cause of anxiety and depression is definitely not news. Even though having access to our friends, family and acquaintances in the palm of our hands 24 hours a day may seem like it connects us to others, but in reality, it does the opposite. Now, a new study isn't just confirming it — it's offering steps to help you overcome your digital addiction.
Published in the journal NeuroRegulation, the research found that our overuse of smartphones has a similar effect on our brains as other types of substance misuse.
“The behavioral addiction of smartphone use begins forming neurological connections in the brain in ways similar to how opioid addiction is experienced by people taking Oxycontin for pain relief — gradually,” Dr. Erik Peper, a professor of health education at San Francisco State University and coauthor of the study explained in a statement.
In addition to making people feel more isolated — despite having access to the world at their fingertips — Peper and his coauthor, San Francisco State University associate professor of health education Richard Harvey, found that the students who took part in their study were also constantly multitasking, using their phones while they studied, attended class or ate. In reality, they said it's more "semi-tasking" than multitasking because the students were doing multiple activities, but only about half as well as they would if they had focused on one at a time. On top of that, Peper said this constant activity allows little time for bodies and minds to relax and regenerate — something important not just for students, but for the rest of us too.
But Peper and Harvey don't think we should be so hard on ourselves, because our digital addiction is the product of the tech industry's efforts to maximize corporate profit. “More eyeballs, more clicks, more money,” Peper said in a statement. “But now we are hijacked by those same mechanisms that once protected us and allowed us to survive — for the most trivial pieces of information.”
So, is there anything we can do about it? Peper and Harvey said there is: Just like we can train ourselves to consume less sugar, we can do the same for our addiction to smartphones, computers and other devices.
According to Peper, the first step is to recognize that tech companies take advantage of and manipulate our biological responses to danger. In other words, when we hear that ping of our phone, we shift into high-alert (and sometimes anxiety) mode, preparing ourselves for what we might find when we check the message — whether it's a text, email or social media notification. To combat this, Peper suggests turning off push notifications completely to cut that anxiety off at the source.
But couldn't that make a person more anxious — not knowing whether they were needed or if something bad happened? Maybe, but Peper recommends scheduling specific times throughout the day dedicated to responding to email and social media. This way, you can focus on important tasks during the rest of the day without being distracted by messages and feeling compelled to respond to them immediately.
The study also mentioned some more obvious ways of dealing with digital addiction, like closing (or stepping away from) social media accounts or having a group place their smartphones in the center of the table while dining together, with the first person to took at their device required to buy the meal.
Will these tips completely solve the problem and work for everyone? Probably not, but at least it's a first step. Now, put down your phone and interact with another human.
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