When most people, myself included, discuss the negative effects of staying glued to our smartphones, computers, tablets, and social networking sites at all times, they often focus on everything we miss out on: meaningful interpersonal interactions, quality time spent with our significant others, a beautiful sunset/rise, good books, quality sleep, a great hike, the felt presence of immediate experience, that car barreling down the street toward us as we head into the crosswalk focused on who liked our Facebook post. And those are all important reasons to limit your screen time, but recent research is revealing a series of physiological, physical, and psychological ramifications to being hyperconnected all the time.
According to a recent survey of people in 65 countries, 73.4% of people own a smartphone. Those with smartphones check them an average of 110 times per day, which amounts to every five or six minutes spread out over a twelve hour period. Another study found a slightly higher frequency - 150 times per day. That’s a lot of people with instant, constant access to email, social networking, and text messaging. Not all of them will suffer all or most of these negative effects, but the draw of checking your phone “just one more time real quick” is obviously difficult to resist. Heck, most people don’t even try to resist it, because staying connected and apprised of everything everywhere can only be a good thing, right?
Let’s take a look at some of the possible consequences:
I first heard about this from Kelly Starrett. When most people text or use a smartphone, they jut their heads forward and bend their necks. It seems harmless and natural, but it places a huge amount of stress on your vertebrae (human heads are really, really big and heavy!) that compounds over time.
Pardon the incredibly dated reference to an obsolete gaming device (Gameboys were around, what, fifteen years ago?) and focus on the issue at hand: kids (and adults) who frequently game on smartphones and other handheld devices are placing their thoracic spines in flexion for extended periods of time. It’s similar to text neck, only instead of firing off a quick text, you’re playing a game for minutes or even hours at a time. This can cause the thoracic spine to follow the head and round, perhaps even leading to kyphosis. Growing kids whose skeletal systems are still developing are most vulnerable.
Human hands are incredible. They allow us to manipulate and create thousands of complex tools, tell stories through sign language or the written word, play instruments, lift 500 pounds off the ground, caress loved ones, and cradle a delicate egg or rip a phone book in half. They do a lot of different things, in other words, so when we send texts a hundred times a day and write entire emails using our thumbs, we put our hands through the same contortions over and over again and run the risk of overuse injuries to the tendons in our hands. Unfortunately, text claw isn’t the useful, fearsome bird-of-prey kind of claw. It’s the kind of claw that curtails our everyday abilities and causes immense physical pain. Text claw. Weird, I know. But apparently some people are suffering from it.
No, not drunk dialing; sleep texting. It’s a real thing. People are rousing themselves, still half-asleep, in the middle of the night to answer incoming text messages with garbled responses that they don’t remember sending upon waking. In and of itself, sleep texting is bad because it’s disrupting our sleep (even if we don’t remember waking up, we’re still waking up and we can’t just resume where we left off in the sleep cycle). It also suggests a deep and disturbing attachment to our phones.
Phantom Phone Vibration
This is the sensation of feeling your phone vibrating in your pocket even though it is not. Dangerous? No, but it’s a bit alarming to have your mind playing tricks on you like that, isn’t it? One researcher even thinks these phantom vibrations might be “increasing the flow of neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, dopamine, epinephrine and cortoctropin-releasing hormone and decreasing the flow of serotonin, and gamma-aminobutyric acid.” To me, it sounds like the phantom limb phenomenon, only more sinister: in our minds, our smartphones have become as appendages.
Once derided by researchers, Internet Addiction Disorder is now mentioned in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and the subject of reams of new research. Plus, even if “Internet Addiction” never receives official validation, people are displaying the classic symptoms of addiction, receiving Facebook “Likes” gives a hit of dopamine to your reward system, and people with IAD show similar neurobiological abnormalities with other established addictive disorders. Teens with IAD, for example, have elevated sympathetic nervous system activation with lower heart rate variability. The first IAD inpatient program has even popped up at a Pennsylvania hospital (it won’t be the last, I’d wager).
On the surface, one would think that checking our Facebook, sending texts, reading emails, and sharing Instagram photos should us feel like we’re establishing and maintaining meaningful connections with other humans, but the reality is that these pursuits taken to an extreme only make us feel more isolated from and less connected with real people. In fact, the more frequently you use social media or check your phone the more likely you are to report feeling sad, depressed, and lonely. A recent study in young adults showed that Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well-being, while “direct” contact with people does not. Some clinicians even have a name for it: Facebook depression.
On top of all those physical and psychological consequences, we’re also missing out on the other stuff I mentioned at the start – the conversations, the smiles, the laughs, the everyday bits and pieces of life occurring right in front of our perpetually averted eyes.
All that said, I’m no Luddite. I own a smartphone which I use daily, have a computer and a Facebook account because these are immensely powerful, useful tools that if harnessed correctly can improve the quality of our lives and our work. Plus, we don’t have to suffer from these maladies. Just knowing that they’re a possibility helps us avoid or mitigate them:
Text neck or Gameboy back? Bring the device closer to eye level, close enough that you can see what you’re doing without moving your head, neck, or flexing your thoracic spine.
Text claw? Don’t use a single thumb for everything. Use your index finger to type on your phone.
Sleep texting? If you’re not already doing it, I wouldn’t worry too much. If you are, stick your phone in another room, well out of arm’s reach, at night. And when you do wake up in the middle of the night, try not to make the conscious, waking decision to check your phone. It can wait. Really.
Internet-enabled or -enhanced depression and Internet addiction are bigger, gnarlier issues without easy answers. It’s not as simple as “just stopping” or “cutting back,” just as it’s not realistic to tell most alcoholics to “just quit drinking” or “switch to beer.” I’ve outlined some helpful strategies for reducing your time spent connected before, but I’ve also got a few additional tips:
Delete the Facebook app (or any app you need a break from) from your phone. You can always re-download the thing when you really have (want) to log on, but that’s a high enough hurdle to keep you from constantly, mindlessly checking it.
Call, don’t text. Instead of sending twenty consecutive text messages, consider placing a call and hearing another person’s actual voice.
Use on a schedule. Check your phone/email/Facebook/etc every, say, hour instead of as often as your compulsivity compels you.
Set boundaries. Only use Twitter for ten minutes a day, Facebook for five, Instagram for two, and so on.
Seek purpose. This is the biggie, folks. The main reason we get so caught up in screen time. Why do we cruise Facebook late at night looking at what everyone else is (supposedly) doing? Why do we whip out our phones at the slightest hint of a lull in activity? Because something is missing, and we know it. We don’t always know what’s missing. We just know – often subconsciously – that something isn’t right and we aren’t comfortable with our situation. It could be that girl we haven’t called yet, that story we’ve been putting off writing, that bill we need to pay, that friend we need to call and catch up with, that dog we need to walk, that CV we need to update, that paper we need to start, that barbell we need to lift, that spouse we need to wine and dine like old times. It might be something entirely mundane, idealistic or unknown. Seek a purpose, higher, lower, humdrum, whatever. Be the person with stuff to post (but refrain from posting about it!).
Well, I hope I both alarmed and inspired you. This hyperconnectedness issue is serious business. These technologies aren’t going anywhere so we need to develop better relationships with them. Let’s hope that, together, we can do it.
(Please note that the recommendations to limit screen time do not apply to your consumption of Mark’s Daily Apple and Primal Blueprint-related electronic media. Compulsive, frequent, feverish checking-in is encouraged.)
What about you guys? How do you handle smartphone, Internet, and social networking usage in your lives?
Thanks for reading and Grok on!