Screen Addiction is Slowly Killing Us and Our Relationships

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Do you even remember a time when your phone was principally a device to talk with someone?

In those days...say 10 years ago, we relied on our phones to connect us with others person-to-person and in real time. We used those exchanges to relay and receive information through the spoken word.

We had to listen carefully for the message being conveyed but we also had to rely on the accompanying body language and voice tone to understand the deeper meaning. Often the face or voice revealed what was not being said.

Today, most of that is lost or at least much harder to absorb. Through diminished instances of personal interaction whether through in-person exchanges or via voice in real time, we have arrived in an era of pure transactional dialogue. We rely on technology to necessitate strict information exchange which is often quick and superficial.

An emoji is now expected to say it all.

The Drawbacks of Relying on Technology to Communicate

There is obviously so much forsaken when we abandon this lost art form. (Can I call talking directly with other people a lost art form?!). But this societal change has come with steep costs. Least of which is the recurring risk of things getting lost in translation.

But a more pernicious side effect is the mental health fallout from the lack of meaningful human interaction. No one needs hard stats to prove that our youngest generations especially are grappling with much more loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

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According to Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, and the author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood in just the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who reported feeling classic symptoms of depression surged 33 percent in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts increased by 23 percent. But even more disturbing was the number of 13-to-18-year-olds who actually committed suicide jumped 31 percent.

What happened during this time that suddenly and strikingly shifted these numbers? Ms. Twenge reviewed the data and ruled out socioeconomic factors such as surging unemployment, acceleration of divorce rates, widening income inequality, or even more rigorous academic pressure. Instead, she saw a perfect correlation with the growing adoption and usage of the smartphone.

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Excessive Screen Use Affects Our Brains

Smartphone ownership is now ubiquitous and our attachment to them is constant. Like a fifth appendage, our smartphones are never far away—in our hands, in our back pocket, next to our beds at night (10 percent of people sleep with it under their pillows).

Screens are dominating our attention and our attachment to them is spurring on addictive tendencies. Obsessively checking email, texts, and social media updates are driven by our desire for a dopamine hit. Dopamine is the chemical in our brain that regulates motivation. We get a nice surge of it when we eat delicious food, have sex, exercise, and have positive social interactions. So we literally crave this social acceptance.

Technology Creators Conspire Against Us

The creators of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, et al. knowingly exploit this unconscious but very powerful drive. They have purposefully crafted an online experience to elicit a response similar to cocaine addiction.

“I feel tremendous guilt,” admitted Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook, to an audience of Stanford students. He was responding to a question about Facebook’s involvement in exploiting users’ behavior. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he admitted.

This perilous downside of technology is something even its earliest inventors were aware of. Shockingly (but maybe not) both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs raised their kids in a tech-free home. For Bill Gates, his imposed moratorium started way back in 2007 when he found his daughter had developed an unhealthy attachment to video games.

He didn’t even let them have cell phones until they were 14 (today, the average age of kids getting their first phone is 10). And even Steve Jobs stated in a 2011 interview that he wasn’t willing to let his own kids own an iPad. The iPad had just launched.

Social media companies have intentionally designed their products to promote all-consuming and endless activity complete with bottomless feeds. They learned their best practices from casinos which design their physical spaces to ensure you’re not cognizant of the world around you. Casinos have neither clocks nor windows.

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Further, social media companies prey on our longing for approval and acceptance. The ‘Like’ button is not there by accident. Users are encouraged to share so there is a constant stream of content that others will evaluate through social feedback. As unwitting victims, we craft the perfect messages to help ensure optimal engagement, widespread approval.

But when the likes, comments, and shares don’t come we can’t help but feel disappointed, invisible, or even shunned.

Our Screen Time Continues to Increase (By Years)

These devices are slowly killing us. So do we have a problem? Yeah, we do.

Data also indicates that there is a correlation between the increased amount of time spent online and increased feelings of social isolation which is a major risk factor for suicide.

And it might be shocking to realize just how much technology we use. Most people underestimate their usage by about half. As of 2017-2018, the average daily usage for technology (aside from work) was 4 hours for adults. For some, like teens, we know it is much much more. When you do the math, this could add up to 11-15 years of our lifetimes spent staring at screens.

So with the increasing usage of technology that can span years of our lives we are willfully predisposing ourselves to a more depressive state.

Technology is Harming Our Social Connections

To make matters worse, being online for too long can deliver a double blow to our sense of social connection. For one, it steals time away from the rewarding in-person exchanges that are fundamental to our human happiness and our sense of inclusion and acceptance.

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It’s a sad yet not uncommon sight to see couples on a date looking more at their screens than each other. You have preoccupied parents ignoring their kids. And then, in turn, you have kids ignoring their parents. Everyone is going to their separate corners with their digital cocaine.

A second drawback is that it sucks us into a world of make believe where avatars and Instagram posts present a false reality. Everyone’s happy and everyone’s perfect...except for us.

What this leaves us with is an inadequate sense of belonging to our societal group. Whether that’s our own tribe of family, friends, colleagues, neighbors or the broader category of total humanity. With loneliness creeping in we ask ourselves directly or subconsciously: what do we really belong to?

Deciding to Manage the Technology in Our Lives

But acknowledging that there is a problem is an important first step. Let the scales fall from our eyes and see all of this for what it is. Like money, technology is a wonderful resource but can be destructive if misused.

We will not abandon technology nor should we but we should reexamine its role in our lives. How much power should we give it? Can it be better managed to extract the good while shielding us from the bad?

Following are some simple suggestions to take back control of our digital lives. Let your screen be the servant, not the master.

Be Mindful of Obsessive Technology Use

It’s important to recognize the powerful pull technology has on us. 75% of American adults are within reach of their phones 24 hours per day, often checking them several times per hour. 66% of UK smartphone owners in a study self-reported suffering from ‘nomophobia’, the fear of losing or being without their phones at any given time.

It needs to become a conscious decision to recognize the addictive effects technology has on our behavior. As a first step, just commit to recognizing the unconscious impulse (for yourself and others) to grab the device. A lot of times, the device is reached for as an immediate remedy to boredom. Watch people in restaurants, waiting for a bus or elevator, or filling in a lull in a conversation. Do you see how it’s constantly reached for and mindlessly checked?

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When I am on public transportation I sometimes watch others compulsively check their phones. It's a common ritual to very quickly cycle through all text messages, email, and social media accounts constantly refreshing looking for an update. If there is no update or anything new for them to post, they put their phone down. They look disappointed. Then in just a matter of seconds, they start the process all over again.

Physically Remove Technology From Your Personal Space

If you want your existence with technology to be something different, make a plan for it.

The social psychology concept of propinquity suggests that things that are in close physical proximity to your body have much more impact on your life. A mother of an infant usually keeps her baby very close.

You carry your wallet on your person for a reason. And probably also your smartphone. So by making a decision to physically distance yourself from your smartphone, you are telling your subconscious that it is of lesser importance in your life.

Create deliberate pauses in consumption through behavior architecture. Predetermine how you will interact with your phone. How would your habits change if you put the phone in a place farther from you like in a locked drawer for a period of time?

Crazy suggestion, I know.

Instead, commit to designated times to be technology free. Decide to not look at it first thing in the morning or last thing at night. Commit to no screens during mealtimes or when spending time with loved ones like your spouse or kids.

Instead use the time for something else like actually tasting your food, thinking/dreaming/planning for the future, asking loved ones about their lives. Or simply being bored. This is when creativity and inspiration surge.  

Meter Your Use of Technology

If this is too big a step, start by inviting a time proctor into your life. If you want to be ironic, you can use an app like Moment to monitor your online activity.

You can also go old school and predetermine your cue for start times and end times to quantify your usage. Decide on strict 30-minute time blocks of screen activity or only one episode of a Netflix show. This commitment then forces you to leave the experience and break the technology fixation.

Other common suggestions are to switch the phone to airplane mode regularly and opt out of news and social media notifications. Be bold and think about deleting apps altogether.

Find a Substitute for Screen Time

SLEEP! 47% of adults miss out on sleep due to internet usage. Don’t bring your phone into your bedtime routine. Stop looking at screens at least an hour prior to falling asleep. The light from screens disrupts your circadian rhythm effectively creating jet lag for your body. Do yourself (and your body) a favor and put your phone in another room or turn it off at bedtime.

If you feel anxious boredom creep up while you commit to this screen-free experiment, plan in advance other activities to engage in during the time.

  • Go outside and be in nature

  • Exercise

  • Meditate or pray

  • Do Sudoku

  • Cook

  • Paint or draw

  • Walk your dog

  • Play a board game

  • Engage in a low tech hobby

  • Read a book or magazine

  • Write in a journal

  • Have coffee with a friend

  • What else??

Obviously the possibilities are endless just be sure that the activity doesn’t require some screen interaction to complete.

Final Thoughts

Technology is ubiquitous. It provides a whole lot of good but the potential for a whole lot of bad. Instead of mindlessly surrendering it, we can wrestle back our autonomy and make choices of how to spend our time and attention.

We are the masters of our mind and have the power and obligation to protect it. The first step is to stop and acknowledge the game that is being played. Really recognize it. Then commit to an alternative reality. One where the fascination of the real world and its rewarding relationships are the most captivating things to harness your attention.

Take Action!

Designate a day to objectively observe how people use technology. Loved ones and strangers alike. Is their use conscious and intentional or mindless and habitual? And observe your own usage of technology too. Write down your observations and what you think about them.

If you wish to commit to a more technology balanced life, create a plan for metering your technology usage. Create a plan for when and how you will use technology. Document how you feel about this experiment and its effects.

When do you find technology to be a crutch in your daily routine?

Confess to us all in the comments below!