I have a confession to make. I’m addicted.
Yes, you read that right.
Let me explain.
I don’t smoke, do drugs, or drink alcohol. Neither do I use opioids or painkillers. My addiction isn’t to any kind of substance that I ingest. My addiction is to a little three-inch by six-inch oblong box made of metal, glass, and plastic, which seems to dominate my life. It’s with me everywhere I go. I panic when I can’t find it. Hardly five minutes go by when either I’m not looking at it or it’s not trying to get my attention with catchy sounds or flashing images. It contains just about everything that’s important to me: my to-do list, contacts, reminders, checkbook, grocery list, coupons, recipes, favorite books, and even my Bible.
You’ve guessed it. I’m addicted to that handy little device that, according to the Pew Research Center, 81 percent of us in America carry with us all the time—a smartphone. The first clue that I might be addicted was a notification that popped up on my phone one day, which said: “Your screen time was up x percent last week for a total of y hours, z minutes.” (I’m too embarrassed to reveal the actual numbers!) Somewhat alarmed, I did a bit of research and found an article titled “20 Signs You’re Addicted to Your Smartphone.” Thankfully, not all 20 of the signs characterized me, but far too many of them did. For example, these statements described my phone habits all too well: “You can’t stand still without checking your phone,” “You can’t leave home without it,” and “You never eat alone (because you keep an eye on your phone).”
This was a wake-up call that, perhaps, something needed to change. As I learned more about the phenomenon of technology addiction, I realized that my smartphone was not only consuming my time but also potentially having negative consequences on almost every aspect of my life.
There’s no question that technology has impacted our lives—for the most part, in a positive way. I can’t imagine living without smartphones, computers, cars, washing machines, and all the other devices that simplify life and increase productivity. But the advent of digital technology, including smartphones, the internet, and social media, has created some challenges that can affect our physical health, our emotional health, our brains, and even our relationships, if we aren’t careful.
how digital devices affect your body
According to the Mayo Clinic, excessive use of computers and digital devices can cause what is known as digital eyestrain. There are a number of reasons for this condition: we blink less while using devices, we view the screens at a less-than-ideal distance, we are affected by the glare that comes from the device, and the text we are looking at is poorly contrasted against its background. Digital eyestrain can lead to itchy, watery, and burning eyes. And if we overdo it, this can even cause blurry or double vision.
Additionally, prolonged smartphone use has been shown to affect posture and respiratory function. Poor posture reduces lung capacity and expiration (one’s ability to breathe out air). Other scientific evidence indicates that excessive smartphone usage can lead to pain and musculoskeletal disorders. That’s why people who use their smartphones a lot often complain of neck and back pain.
We’ve all heard about the importance of adequate sleep and its relationship to many aspects of our health—including mental and emotional health, immunity, weight control, and susceptibility to chronic conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. When it comes to getting adequate sleep, digital devices aren’t helping. Rather, that blue light shining into our eyes at bedtime is keeping us from getting the sleep we need to stay healthy. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “the more electronic devices that a person uses in the evening, the harder it is to fall asleep or stay asleep.”
how digital devices affect your brain
According to researchers at the University of California, on average, people spend 12 hours a day looking at computer screens and other digital devices. This causes us to do a lot of multitasking—or at least trying to multitask—which the brain isn’t really designed to do. For example, you might send emails from your laptop while sitting in a meeting, taking notes, following along with a presenter, and keeping an eye on your smartphone for text messages or calls that you don’t want to miss.
Too often, we pat ourselves on the back for accomplishing so much and being so “productive.” But according to Adam Gazzaley, a professor of neurology, physiology, and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco “Your performance level drops if you stop one activity to pick up another.”
Studies done at the University of Oregon agree that heavy media multitaskers actually perform worse on tests that require them to switch tasks. Current evidence also indicates that multitasking not only makes us less efficient but also negatively impacts our memory and other cognitive functions.
how digital devices affect your emotions
According to scientific evidence, excessive use of digital media interferes with your ability to show empathy for others. Studies conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that sixth-graders who went to a camp where computers, smartphones, and television were forbidden improved their ability to read emotions from nonverbal cues after just five days as opposed to a comparison group that continued their usual amount of media exposure. Researchers attribute the improvement in the experimental group to the kids being away from their digital devices.
Other experts, such as Maia Szalavitz and Bruce Perry, the authors of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered, also attribute the loss of empathy in our society to digital technology, among other factors.
how digital devices affect your relationships
We’ve all seen people sitting in a room together, everyone glued to their devices and completely disconnected and disengaged. If you’re not one who has done this, you probably know people who text one another instead of talking to each other while sitting in the same room or in the same building.
Despite being called social media, studies have shown that the use of social media among young adults is actually linked to social isolation. A study of more than 1,700 young adults found that two or more hours of social media exposure doubled their odds of experiencing social isolation. Similar results were found in a group of middle-aged and older adults.
Digital device use can also impact relationships within a family. A Kaspersky Lab study found that 55 percent of couples had argued about using digital devices excessively, and 51 percent had argued about using phones during a meal or face-to-face conversation. These findings only scratch the surface of the myriad ways that technology is impacting our lives, health, and relationships.
stop staring at your screen
The reality is that technology is here to stay. Fortunately, there are ways to cut back on your digital device use and live sensibly—and peacefully—with your digital devices and your loved ones. To get a fresh start, try a digital detox, where you intentionally cut back on your screen time. When you disrupt your normal tech-related behavior (constantly looking at your phone or screen), you give your brain a chance to break the addiction cycle so you can set up new, healthier limits. Here are a few tips to help you take control of your digital life.
- Assess your situation. First, it’s a good idea to take an honest look at your digital device habits. As was the case for me, you might find that tech is controlling your life more than you realize. Take a day or two off from using your devices. Leave your cell phone at home, don’t check your email, and stay off social media for 24–48 hours, then see how you feel. If you’re feeling anxious or having withdrawal symptoms, you know you need to make some changes.
- Define your limit. Set a certain time of the day to check email, return phone calls, browse the internet, and scroll through social media. Use an alarm or timer if necessary. It’s especially easy to spend hours on social media before you realize how much time has passed.
- Take up a hobby. Schedule regular times for activities that don’t involve technology, such as gardening, spending time in nature, or reading actual paper-and-ink books and magazines (not tablets or e-readers). Be sure to put away your phone while you do these activities.
- Turn off alerts. It’s hard to ignore your phone if it’s beeping or dinging every few minutes. If you really need to know what the latest deal is at your favorite store or find out the latest headlines, why not just visit the website (during the specific time you’ve set aside for browsing the internet)?
- Create phone-free zones. Your off-limits places for phones could be at the dinner table, in the bedroom, or during playtime with your kids—wherever and whenever your phone has the potential to disrupt activities like sleeping or spending time with loved ones. The goal is for you to be in control of your devices, not the other way around.
Editors’ Note: Researching the negative impact of too much time on a smartphone inspired health enthusiast Pat Humphrey to make changes of her own. The week after writing this article, her screen time was down 89 percent!
Pat Humphrey, MPH, MS, is a freelance writer and editor, health educator, and wellness coach. She writes from her country home in north-central Texas.