Before you can get to the end of this sentence, you’ll probably look at, touch, or at least think about checking your phone. That is, if you’re not already reading this story on it to begin with.
You don’t need stats to know just about everyone is glued to the screens in their pockets these days, but here they are anyway: According to the Pew Research Center, 92% of American adults have a cell phone, and 90% of those cell phone owners say the gadget is frequently by their side. Almost a third say they never, ever turn their phones off.
Yes, technology is groundbreaking and revolutionary and has transformed many of our occupations and industries and lives. But in other ways it’s also made us seriously anxious, less productive, and endlessly distracted, even if we hate to admit it. The onslaught of our daily (over)exposure to tech has created a relatively new form of anxiety that’s all about the need to stay connected, says research psychologist Larry D. Rosen, PhD, professor emeritus and past chair of the psychology department at California State University, Dominguez Hills and author of the forthcoming book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. “Our phones beep, flash, vibrate—anything to get our attention,” he says. “You’re constantly waiting for the next notification.”
Slowly but surely, we’ve grown accustomed to those beeps and buzzes, Rosen says, much like Pavlov’s dogs. “With each ring, our brains let out a little cortisol or a little dopamine—an e-mail or a text makes us feel stressed or feel happy—and what this does is conspire to make us even more rapid responders,” he says. Long gone, he says, are the days when it was OK to leave your phone at home when you were just taking a quick trip to the grocery store. Today, if someone dares to delay her response to your text, you probably assume you said the wrong thing.
At least we’re not alone. All sorts of people feel this phone anxiety, Rosen says, not just those of us more likely to be anxious to begin with. Here are a few of the very specific ways in which your phone is seriously getting on your nerves, plus what to do about it.
Low Battery Anxiety
Ninety percent of us suffer from this very particular form of phone anxiety, according to a recent survey of 2,000 US smartphone users by the electronics manufacturer LG. The survey found that people with low battery anxiety said they felt panicked when their phone battery drops below 20% because of the impending threat of going off the grid. “It’s panic mode,” Rosen says. “You don’t think you’re going to have time to charge it, and you don’t know how you’ll stay connected if you don’t charge it.” The major symptom of LBA? Asking a stranger to borrow a charger. “When you look at people’s behaviors around this anxiety, they look quite obsessive,” Rosen says.
Phantom Vibration Syndrome
You feel the vibration in your pocket and whip out your phone to see who’s calling—only to find out that the vibration was simply a product of your imagination. “Ten years ago, if you felt a rustle in your pocket, you would have reached down and scratched it,” Rosen says. “Now, even if we know we’re not carrying our phone in our pocket, we don’t think it could be an itch.” Slowly but surely, he says, the phantom vibration phenomenon has taken over.
Recent research suggests that the more anxious you are about staying connected, the more likely you are to misinterpret that itch as a Snapchat notification or an incoming text. As such, this syndrome is also sometimes referred to as “ringxiety.”
You’re a nomophobe if you’re afraid of being without your phone. A 2015 study developed a nomophobia questionnaire to measure this fear and found that the more you agree with statements like “I would be annoyed if I could not use my smartphone and/or its capabilities when I wanted to do so” and “If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would feel anxious because I could not instantly communicate with my family and/or friends”—hey, we’ve all been there—the more nomophobic you are. Another 2015 study put this concept to the test by forcing a small group of iPhone users to complete word search puzzles while ignoring their ringing phones. They reported higher feelings of anxiety and their heart rates and blood pressure increased, while they also felt they performed worse on their puzzles.
Fear of missing out might be the original smartphone stressor. It’s triggered most often by social media posts that make us long to be a part of whatever the post flaunts, whether it’s a sold-out concert, an extravagant family dinner, or a grandbaby’s first steps. One of Rosen’s studies tracked smartphone use among college students for 8 weeks. On average, the students used their phone four times an hour, for just 4 minutes at a time. Why the short bursts? “We’re so afraid of missing out,” he says. We naturally compare ourselves to the picture-perfect versions of our friends’ and families’ lives in those ‘grams and Snaps, which can lead to feelings of jealousy and even depression. The next best thing to actually living that life is being the first to “Like” it or comment on it. (Here’s how your phone can tell if you’re depressed.)
So what can you do?
Constant connection means we never give our minds a chance to stumble upon creative thoughts. We’re depriving ourselves of quality bonding time with friends and family because we spend more time looking at what’s on our phone than what’s on their faces, Rosen says. We’re diminishing our in-person communication skills because we’re missing those emotional moments, and we’re totally destroying our sleep by leaving the ringer on while the phone sits on our bedside tables. You know all the horrors, but it doesn’t mean you’re eager to cut back.
Luckily, small changes can lead to big improvements. Start by setting a schedule for when you’re going to check your phone, Rosen says. It doesn’t have to feel daunting: Set your timer for just 15 minutes. After you silence your phone, turn it facedown so you can’t see any notifications. When the timer goes off, you get 2 minutes to look at whatever you want on your phone. Then repeat. “You’ll start to notice when you get good at this—and it might take a whole week to break the habit—that when the alarm goes off, you silence it and keep working,” Rosen says. That’s when it’s time to bump up your timer to 20, 25, or even 30 minutes.
When you’ve worked your way up to 30, “you’re doing damn well, given you just doubled your normal amount of time,” he says. You can then alert the people you communicate with most that you only check your phone every 30 minutes, and to expect to hear from you in those intervals only.
Once that starts to feel comfortable, apply the same principle to your free time. Some companies instate a “7 to 7” rule, Rosen explains. Employees can send e-mails at any time, but they should only expect their notes to be read between the hours of 7 AM and 7 PM. An hour before bed (you know what’s coming) power down your phone completely and leave it in another room. “I know it’s very difficult, but checking your phone in the middle of the night destroys your sleep,” Rosen says. And no, he adds, you don’t need to use it as your alarm. “You can get an alarm clock at the 99-cent store.”
June 17, 2016