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How your mobile phone is affecting the way you think and behave – 7 TED talks you need to see18 min read

The cell phone is the adult's teddy bear

Slowly but surely we have become addicted to our smartphones because they’ve become our lifeline to everything.

An Accel + Qualtrics study found that 91% of millennials feel that they have a healthy relationship with technology, but that 53% of them wake up once a night to check their phone.

Tech protection and support company Asurion Found that the average person struggles to go about 10 minutes without checking their phone – that’s about 80 times a day. One in ten checks every four minutes.

The survey also found out that phone separation anxiety is real. 31% of participants felt regular anxiety at any point when separated from their mobile and as much as 60% reported experiencing occasional stress when their phone was out of reach.

When asked what they would choose: lose their phone for a day or give up something else, 33% would rather give up sex for a week, 40% would rather lose their voice for a day and 62% would rather give up chocolate for a week.

This obsessive compulsion to read text messages, check Twitter statuses and the latest Instagram updates is creating zombies who can’t really participate in discussions or look you in the eye for more than a few seconds – let alone pay attention to traffic while driving.

Distracted by dopamine

We are programmed to respond to things immediately, so when a notification shows up, we have an urge to check it right away.

Our brains have something called a dopamine system that causes us to want, desire and seek things out.

From an evolutionary standpoint, this is a good thing because it keeps us motivated and eager to learn new things which improve our chances of survival.

Our brains also have an opioid system that makes us feel satisfied. These two systems are complementary and the wanting system (dopamine) pushes us to take action while the pleasure system (opioids) makes us satisfied when we do.

If this seeking isn’t paused, even for a little while, we begin to run in an endless loop where we seek new things, get rewarded for seeking and seek more. This way seeking becomes a compulsive habit.

With our constant connection through emails, social media and instant messaging, the possibility to fulfil our desire to seek gratification is endless.

Dopamine thrives on unpredictability, especially in small portions

As we seek out more and more information, it becomes progressively harder to stop.

We don’t know when a message or update will come or who it will be from – and because dopamine loves the unpredictability, the shorter the messages are, the better.

When you’re using your phone while driving you’re distracting yourself in three ways; by taking your eyes off the road, taking your hands off the wheel and taking your mind off of driving.

Taking your eyes off the road for about 5 seconds is long enough to cover the length of a football field when driving at 55 mph (88 kph).

Typically you end up looking at your phone for much longer than that and only glance up at the road. This means that you’re only looking at what’s directly ahead of you and completely missing what’s going on around you – and that’s how accidents happen.

We would be better off with more hands to hold than things to click

We’re connecting with everything all the time at the expense of real connections. Smartphones and social media are changing the way we behave and dousing entire generations in mental health issues.

Many apps are designed to be “sticky”, i.e. keep you sticking around for more. The longer an app can keep you engaged with it, the better for the people making money from it, from your attention.

We’ve even stopped daydreaming because we now spend every free moment checking notifications and updates. Boredom, a critical ingredient of creativity and problem solving, has been replaced by mindless scrolling of constantly updating feeds.

Constant interruptions are the destruction of the imagination.

– Joyce Carole Oats

Small bite-sized pieces of information continually flooding into our field of attention are turning us into mobile automatons who neither have the patience to read anything longer than 140 characters nor to think critically.

The social media hivemind

Right now, many of us are witnessing and participating in a social media hivemind that is influencing how we think, feel and behave.

Our lives are also engulfed in electronic screens, which can disrupt sleep patterns and cause poor sleep. A lack of good sleep can cause irritability, moodiness, decreased cognitive function and depressive moods.

We now know that social media platforms affect our brains and our behaviour. Social media can quickly turn active participants in society into passive observers.

Although, “passive” isn’t quite the right way to describe it

Those who are arguing on social platforms every day may outwardly appear to be calmly typing on their phone. On the inside, however, their amygdala is firing non-stop as they’re maintaining a continuous state of fight-or-flight.

The fight-or-flight response is also known as the acute stress response and is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event or attack that is threatening your survival.

When this state of hyperarousal is triggered the adrenal gland produces a cascade of hormones that are designed to prepare you to either fight for your life or run for your life.

The stress hormone cortisol is released into the body to increase blood pressure, blood sugar and to suppress the immune system in order to trigger a boost of energy. The body produces more glucose, fatty acids become available as energy sources and the muscles throughout the body prepare for a severe response:

The purpose of these physiological changes

The physiological changes that occur during an acute stress response activate in order to give the body increased strength and speed in anticipation of a life-threatening situation.

Blood flow is diverted to the muscles from other parts of the body. Increases in blood pressure, heart rate and sugars supply the body with extra energy. To prevent blood loss, in case of an injury, the body speeds up its blood clotting function and increases muscle tension to provide extra speed and strength.

Emotional perception during hyperarousal tends to be largely negative and can be characterised by things like giving attention to negative stimuli, perceiving ambiguous situations as negative and focusing on the negative.

One of the most important cognitive factors associated with the fight or flight response seems to be the attribution of hostility, particularly in ambiguous situations, because of its inclination towards aggression.

Nature designed this as a temporary solution to a life-threatening problem and when maintained for long periods at a time will begin to have a detrimental effect on your health.

When you sustain a prolonged state of the fight or flight response, you are preventing your parasympathetic nervous system from activating your rest-and-digest response which is designed to return your body to equilibrium after an alert.

How connected are we?

We’ve created technology that first connects us with an endless supply of social and political rivals and then makes it nearly impossible for us to communicate with them.

We are limited by the number of characters we can use in our messages and what we say is often in public. It encourages improper and obscene behaviour as it is too easy to hide behind the anonymity of a made-up online identity that is not in keeping with who we are in real life.

Too often, the characters presented in the bio are self-imposed caricatures that are, at their worst, frivolous and made up, designed to mislead and confuse people about who we really are.

This kind of interaction causes social decay because it disconnects us from truly engaging with other human beings and allows mobs to feel as though their ramblings are creating change and justice in the world.

Life is, really, better than ever

Since the mid-1990s, there has been a steady decline in both the worldwide poverty rate and the total number of extreme poor. In 1990, the percentage of the global population living in extreme poverty was 43%, but in 2011, that percentage had dropped down to 21%.

Wikipedia, USAID Getting to Zero discussion paper

Extreme poverty has steadily been declining since the 1980s. Literacy and education rates are as high as they’ve ever been, leisure time in developed countries is likewise at an all-time high.

The health of newborns, as well as child mortality rates, are at record lows, and child labour is decreasing as education becomes more accessible to even the poorest. Teen births and smoking is also declining.

So, why do we still feel like things are getting worse?

Among all these improvements, suicide is growing at an unprecedented rate – especially among the youngest of us. Studies show that we’re seeing record-high levels of anxiety and depression and this is coincident with smartphone adoption and social media use.

Since 2009, rates of depression among 14 to 17 year-olds has increased by 60%.

– Journal of Abnormal Psychology

Of course, there is no single cause for suffering that we can pinpoint and root out to solve the problem, but the media plays a big role in our mental health. Whether media is social or mainstream, it negatively skews our perception of reality, and it does so both purposefully and inadvertently.

Many of us today get all of our information about the world through smartphones and apps. This has caused many to state that mainstream media outlets are dying.

But this isn’t entirely true. Much of mainstream media has transitioned online and managed to maintain relevancy and influence by partnering with big tech to ensure that their content shows up first in search results and others discussing the same topics are demoted.

Mainstream media isn’t going anywhere, they’re simply adapting their strategy. They’re acutely aware of how much money can be made through this new way of consuming content and they have large sums of money to throw at it.

If it bleeds, it leads

What this means is that many of us are still influenced by a media machine that focuses on the negative.

Bad things can happen quickly, but good things aren’t built in a day, and as they unfold, they will be out of sync with the news cycle. The peace researcher John Galtung pointed out that if a newspaper came out once every 50 years, it would not report half a century of celebrity gossip and political scandals. It would report momentous global changes such as the increase in life expectancy.

– Steven Pinker, The media exaggerates negative news. This distortion has consequences, The Guardian

The consequences of negative news are in themselves negative. Instead of being better informed after watching the news, people who watch a lot of news can become miscalibrated.

They end up worrying about things getting worse when they’re actually getting better and can develop beliefs that are nothing short of delusional.

Consuming a lot of news is emotionally exhausting and can make you glum. It can also cause misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, desensitisation and even – in some cases – complete avoidance of the news.

And they [heavy news watchers] become fatalistic, saying things like “Why should I vote? It’s not gonna help,” or “I could donate money, but there’s just gonna be another kid who’s starving next week.”

Steven Pinker, The media exaggerates negative news. This distortion has consequences, The Guardian

The new currency: attention

We need to realise that the world we see inside our phones isn’t real. Those who use these apps every day throughout the day are living in a kind customised daydream that is constantly feeding information into their brains based on the demographics they belong to.

Big tech knows that they’ve created apps that decrease our attention span. The founders and employers of these technologies themselves use little to no social media at all.

Instead, they read books, meditate and practise mindfulness in order to increase their own attention span and improve their focus, deep thinking and strategic problem-solving.

If ever there was a trait to exploit for profit, it would be our attention. If we can’t pay attention, we can’t get out.

As long as our attention is held by the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops designed to keep us wanting more, we’re stuck in a daydream where our collective psyche poisons itself.

We feel ever more hopelessness and meaninglessness – and immerse ourselves further in order to escape reality.

We remain ignorant of the fact that, at any moment, we can discard that part of ourselves that believes the digital world to be real and free ourselves from these loops that are destroying how society works.

The price of convenience the smartphone offers is shallow thinking

Smartphone adoption has decreased our attention span to less than that of a goldfish.

Many people are addicted to their smartphones without realising it. Most people don’t even realise that smartphone addiction is a real thing because it just feels like convenience. Granted, this is exactly how addiction works.

I grew up before there were smartphones and even widespread cellphone adoption. When I used a phone it was to call someone to pick me up or text someone to let them know I was late.

My phone wasn’t the centre of my life. It served a purpose, like my wallet and my keys. Life was primarily with other people in the moment, not collectively staring at our individual screens.

Today when I see kids out together, they’re all bent over their own phones. Occasionally they’ll look up to check that their friends are still there or to take a selfie with someone to post on social media, but they don’t talk directly to each other as much as I remember doing with my friends.

What does smartphone addiction look like?

Excessive phone use causes conflicts and confrontations with your family and friends – typically because you’ve lost interest in shared activities.

This can be, in part, driven by a need to answer messages immediately. Because there is a possibility to respond to a text immediately, we’ve started expecting it and get furious (and even offended) when we don’t get immediate replies.

This can lead to compulsively checking your phone and irritability or a feeling of restlessness when you can’t use it. Chronic impulsiveness to check your phone can lead to you consciously using the phone in dangerous and prohibited situations, like when driving.

If your phone use is increasing in order to get a feeling of satisfaction or relaxation, you know that it’s triggering that short-cycle dopamine hit. When you notice that you’re constantly checking your phone – even waking up at night to do so – your phone use is causing insomnia and sleep disturbances.

And even when you know that continuing to use the phone is affecting you negatively and causing you noticeable physical, mental, social, work and family disturbances – like eye strain, withdrawal symptoms, stress and separation anxiety – but still continue, you’re addicted to it.

Some common symptoms of smartphone addiction:

  • Loss of impulse control
  • Insomnia/poor sleep
  • Inability to focus
  • Stress and restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Eye-strain
  • Neck pain
  • Inability to complete a task
  • Dependence on digital validation (getting likes, comments, upvotes etc.)

You have the right to disconnect

Not using smartphones or other modern technology is not the answer, though some have suggested it. More important than swearing off modern technology is to manage your digital diet.

Understanding how you get snared into these feedback loops that create dependency is important because then you can recognise it when it starts to happen to you or someone around you.

I made this list of TED talks that will give you further insight into how smartphones and social media are changing us and offer great advice on how to manage our digital diet.

And remember this: when it all gets too much you have the right to disconnect. When something starts getting you down, take a break, reset and recentre yourself before going back in.

7 TED talks you need to see

Bailey Parnell: Is Social Media Hurting Your Mental Health?

Duration: 15 mins

“The first day I was there, I was still experiencing phantom vibration syndrome. That’s where you think your phone went off and you check and it didn’t.”

Poppy Jamie: Addicted To Likes

Duration: 13 mins

“I’m pretty sure, if I do get married, Siri will be doing the speech at my wedding.”

Samantha Cohen: Social Media Isn’t Real

Duration: 9 mins

“Even if the picture I’ve posted looks nothing like me or isn’t real at all, when the likes and the comments start pouring in, that’s a high.”

Patrik Wincent: What you are missing while being a digital zombie

Duration: 18 mins

“There are studies showing that 3-4-year-olds that easily know how to control an iPad are having motorical difficultires grasping objects, such as blocks [or] pen and paper.

Lior Frenkel: Why we should rethink our relationship with the smartphone

Duration: 15 mins

“And in the UK, a different study shows that around the same percentage [57%] admitted they are checking their smartphones while having sex.”

Jeff Butler: How Smartphones Change The Way You Think

Duration: 12 mins

“It wasn’t seconds, minutes or hours, but days where I was trying to forget who I was as a person.”

Paul Miller: A year offline, what I have learned

Duration: 18 mins

“The question that I was asking [ . . . ] was how does the internet use me?”


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