It’s not in your head: Our reliance on cellphones and an endless screen stream is taking a toll.
It’s 10 a.m. and you’re sitting at your desk. Your phone vibrates. You consider letting it go, but quickly pick it up, just to make sure it’s not important. Breaking news: Beyoncé just got a new haircut. You swing back to your laptop and remember you’re due for a cut. Do they take online appointments? You Google the salon name and an ad pops up for the luxe hair product you eyed the other day. Is it still on sale? You click on the image and realize it might be wise to check your bank account before an unnecessary expenditure. You open a Bank of America browser tab but can’t remember your passcode. After a handful of failed attempts, you close the browser in frustration. You attempt to put your phone in a drawer but just then it lights up with a gif of a dancing cat. LOL! You reply with a gif of Michael Cera falling on the floor and share a chuckle with yourself. OK, back to work.
What were you working on again?
“We’re starting to see people come up much more and they’ll say, ‘I’ve got ADHD,’” says Humaira Siddiqi, chief of psychiatry for the NoVA region of Kaiser Permanente’s Mid-Atlantic medical group. “And I always ask them, ‘How much time are you on your cell phone?’”
Regular cellphone use, Siddiqi says, can cause hyperstimulation, a condition that can make users feel intellectually sluggish because of the brain’s response. Excessive stimulation causes an uptick in gamma-Aminobutyric acid, or GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter meant to calm a frenzied nervous system.
“And when it slows the brain down, guess what? It actually results in poor attention, poor control, because the frontal cortex is where we filter things and we have better control,” Siddiqi says. “You really don’t want to have a problem in that part of your brain because then you don’t have focus and concentration.”
Yet in a culture that lauds busyness and immediate replies, it would seem that more is more: several tabs open on your laptop browser, a cellphone in one hand, an iPad within reach, an Alexa in earshot to answer any needling question.
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, discusses this climate of busyness in an episode of the National Public Radio podcast The Hidden Brain, positing, somewhat unsurprisingly, that people who do “knowledge work” benefit from sustained distraction-free periods—though many of us still fall prey to a quick glance at our phone or email. Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, has studied the work habits of people such as author J.K. Rowling and psychiatrist Carl Jung.
“Something [that] I noticed was very common to influential thinkers is that they all seemed to have this drive to, on a regular basis, cut themselves off from their lives of busyness and communication and distraction, and isolate themselves to think deeply,” Newport says on the podcast.
Even a brief check of the inbox by workers who are aiming to single-task, Newport says, can have a lasting effect on one’s ability to regain focus on a project. “It’s the switch itself that hurts, not how long you actually switch.”
And overstimulation isn’t just slowing us down—it’s also keeping us up at night.
“In the United States in particular, with psychiatry and primary care, we’re noticing that so many more people are having sleep issues and they’re requesting sleep drugs,” Siddiqi says.
Photo stimulation from our glut of screens makes it more difficult to doze off, a process that is vital for the brain to self-clean. During sleep, Siddiqi says, the cellular structure of the brain shrinks and its ventricles grow. The cerebral spinal fluid then flushes out the brain’s waste. Without enough natural sleep—rather than drug-induced sleep—the brain is slower to respond and may be more vulnerable to developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, Siddiqi says.
In some cases, excessive cellphone use also can become a clinically diagnosed addiction.
Nomophobia—short for NO-MObile-PHOne phobia—is an anxiety disorder characterized by the fear of separation from one’s phone. In the NMP-Q, a questionnaire developed in 2015 to diagnose nomophobia, subjects are asked to determine their agreement with statements such as: “If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would feel weird because I would not know what to do.”
Patients with nomophobia, Siddiqi says, can feel so isolated and disoriented that it spurs a “panic episode.” Though she acknowledges that people in older age brackets can develop cellphone addiction, Siddiqi points to millennials as a particularly vulnerable group.
“They stay connected through this device. But the issue is, they can’t tolerate not being connected. They can’t tolerate being quiet with themselves,” she says. “When they can’t tolerate that, they start to get panicked because for them it’s like being detached. It’s like they’ve got a pacifier.”
So what can you do to lead a healthy life in this distracting, debilitating digital age?
Unplugging remains a hot topic with writers informing us that technology makes it hard to be alone and recommending a regular weekly break to just … be. But getting started isn’t as easy as chucking your phone into the Potomac.
Siddiqi recommends attempting a cellphone detox at a time when you’re somewhat relaxed, such as on vacation. Lock your cellphone in a hotel safe for a few hours at a time, or give it to a family member so you know it’s around if you need it. Then take a walk or engage in another enjoyable activity.
You can also use your phone, ironically, to help sever your bond with it, installing apps such as Moment or Checky to track your phone usage or SPACE to remind you to breathe before hopping from app to app.
For better work efficiency, Newport recommends planning your deep-work blocks weeks in advance, speaking with your supervisor about your time needs, and developing a “shutdown mantra” (His is “schedule shutdown complete.”) to officially mark the end of your workday.
You should also limit your availability when away from the office, Siddiqi says. “You teach people how to treat you. So if you teach them that they can get access to you at all times, you’re actually not that valuable.”
The next time you sit down at your desk, consider keeping your cellphone tucked away someplace nearby and waiting a an hour or two before logging on to Twitter. You may be saving your time, brain and quality of life.