“Mummy, you are on your phone WAY too much”. BOOM. These are words spoken to me just a few days ago by my 7-year-old daughter, and they hit me. Hard. You know what they say, “Children and fools always speak the truth” (Mark Twain). Indeed, you can often rely on a child to give it to you straight! My daughter’s words stung a little and they also got me thinking, although I thought I was being mindful of not using my electronic devices too much when in the presence of my children, I took a step back and reflected and realized that my little sweetie is probably right; I probably am using my phone too much in their presence (not to mention using it too much overall!). 

These days, people tend to be “on” pretty much all the time. Many of us use our electronic devices or cell phones not only as phones but also to text, email, surf the internet, do our banking, get directions and take pictures among other things. We also often use them to check the time and as alarm clocks (what happened to a good old alarm clock or a watch?!) so they are within reach most of the time; in our pocket or purse, on our desk or even on our night tables (so it’s likely that they are being used before we turn in for the night and first thing in the morning upon waking as well). Recent data confirms that Canadians rely heavily on their electronic devices; in fact, it has been reported that Canadians check their smartphones 6 times per hour on average and 82% of Canadians report that they use their phone at least once an hour (CIBC poll conducted by Harris/Decima, 2014). These data suggest that the tendency in North America is to rely heavily on our electronic devices most likely because of the convenience they offer not to mention the dopamine rush we get when we do something that feels good, which increases the likelihood that we will repeat the behaviour. The pleasure you get from hearing the beep of your phone when receiving a text from a friend or several likes on a photo you have posted on Instagram makes it more likely you will check your phone, or make new posts, etc.). “Our brains lay down a memory so it will remember to do it again” explains psychiatrist Judson Brewer specializing in addiction (Brewer, 2014).

It’s hard to argue with the fact that there are many advantages associated with the technology and with using our electronic devices or cell phones. Among these include being able to connect with people all over the world with the push of a button, easily sharing information with others, having access to an abundance of information at our fingertips, a source of amusement and entertainment, and one cannot argue that they are practical (how cool is it that you can shop online pretty much anywhere for pretty much anything at any time of day? I admit to having gotten a real kick out of placing an order for groceries while heading back to the city from a weekend away to have them delivered upon my arrival, or purchasing a book to read when vacationing in a remote area without access to a bookstore). That being said, there are many disadvantages to using these devices carelessly and there can be too much of a good thing.

Many of us (I am guilty of this myself!) carry our cell phones with us most of the time (almost all the time?!), which doesn’t allow us to have time “off” where we truly disconnect. By carrying our electronic devices around with us, we are making ourselves available by phone and through our email and other social media accounts pretty much ALL. THE. TIME. The result is that we are depriving ourselves of the opportunity to disconnect and enjoy much needed empty space. I will be the first to admit as well that I tend to check my phone when “waiting”; when in line at the grocery store or when picking up a coffee in the morning at my local coffee shop, during a commute using public transportation or as a passenger in the car, waiting for an appointment at the doctor or dentist, during commercials when watching TV, or even in between clients when I’m working (that little window of just a few minutes could be much better spent getting up and walking or stretching, getting a glass of water to stay hydrated, or even getting outside for a short walk or breath of fresh air!). Many of us have developed a habit of checking in with our phones during a moment where, in the past, we would more likely have checked in with ourselves; taken some deep breaths and allowed our mind to wander- naturally as it should!

Being “on” like this all the time can be quite tiring and draining and doesn’t allow us to truly disconnect. It can also have a negative impact on our mood, our performance, our health and our relationships and it eats up a lot of precious time we could be using more mindfully on an activity we are likely to get more out of (ex. spending time in nature, reading a book, listening to a podcast, etc.).

Recent studies have reported on the potentially negative impacts of the use of electronic devices such as reduced quality of relationships, a decrease in productivity, disturbed sleep, and negative impact on mood.

“Technology is a blessing and a curse. Like anything, moderation is the key. Work to keep it positive and make the technology work for you, not the other way around.” Tim Elmore

Interference with relationships

It has been found that electronic devices can have a negative impact on the quality of our relationships. The mere presence of a cell phone (without even actually using it!) was found to have an impact on perceived closeness, connection and perceived empathy, particularly when discussing something meaningful (Przybylski & Weinstein, 2013).

Use of cell phones can interfere with relationships, because they can interfere with our ability to focus and to be present and truly connected with our loved ones. On a couple of occasions, I have had young clients (around the age of 10 years old) that when asked what their 3 wishes would be if they could have absolutely anything respond by saying they want their parents to spend less time on their electronic devices. Indeed, when we are with our loved ones, if we are looking at our phones to check emails or Facebook for example, or even answer texts or phone calls, we are distracted, our attention is not focused on the person in front of us.

Decreased productivity

Multitasking seems to be something we encourage and even glorify, thinking it makes us more productive because we are doing more than one thing at once (we must be getting ahead faster, right?!), yet what the research has shown, is that in fact, this is not the case. Our brains are not meant to multitask (more than two tasks simultaneously). More specifically it has been found that multitasking can lead to increasing the likelihood of making more errors (Charron & Koechlin, 2010). It has also been suggested that the use of cell phones and electronic devices can have a negative impact on our ability to concentrate. In fact, it has been found that the mere presence of a cell phone can be distracting and interfere with one’s ability to concentrate contributing to decreased performance and even productivity at work or at school (Thorton et al. 2014).

Sleep disturbances

The use of electronic devices has also been found to interfere with the quality of our sleep. Young adults (between the ages of 20-24) who were self-reported heavy internet users were found to be at greater risk of disturbed sleep as well as of mental health problems (Thomee et al., 2012). Other studies have highlighted the fact that the use of light-emitting devices, such as e-readers before bed, can interfere with sleep (Chang et al., 2015).

Changes in mood

The use of electronic devices might also have an impact on our mood or perceived levels of stress. One research study examined the impact of work email in a population of engineers and found that time spent emailing for work can result in feeling overloaded, and induce feelings of stress, regardless of the work created by the emails received (Barley et al. 2011). Frequent mobile use has also been found to be associated with stress and sleep disturbance in young adult men (Thomee et al., 2011). Another study conducted by the International Center for Media and Public Agenda with a sample of 200 students from the University of Maryland found that when asked to abstain from using all media for 24 hours and share their experience, participants reported feeling very isolated, lonely, bored, uncomfortable and anxious. This suggests that we have become so dependent on our devices that when we are without them we feel uncomfortable because we are no longer used to having “empty time” and sitting with our thoughts, and the skills/habits to interact with our environment have become less habitual to us.

Overall, these research findings explored above consistently suggest that the use of electronic devices can have a negative impact on our relationships, our productivity, quality of sleep and even our mental health.

OK, so what can we do? 
**Note that I will be trying these techniques out myself as of today; who’s with me?!

Use our electronic devices with intention

Use our devices mindfully! For example, if you decide that you want to see what’s new with your friends on Facebook, try and plan beforehand how much time you want to devote to this activity and limit yourself. It’s easy to get caught up and lose track of time and find yourself spending longer than have expected or intended to online. There are also several apps that can help; for example: Self Control (allows you to program that your computer be offline for pre-set time intervals), RescueTime or Break Free (tracks your online activity to help create awareness about your use and then allows you to set goals to reduce online activity with the help of alarms, automatic messages, scheduled offline time, etc.). Simply turning off notifications or removing certain apps from your phone can help as well as it can reduce the temptation to check (we all have a limited source of willpower, right?!).

Find an alternative: do you need to use your phone for that?

Use a watch or an alarm instead of your phone to check the time (just picking up our phone makes it more likely that we will start checking other things mindlessly and get sucked into a dark hole!) Try using a camera to take pictures. If attending a social function or spending time in nature, rather than bring our phone along to take pictures, why not bring an actual camera?

Plan to unplug

Choose a regular time to unplug and disconnect from your phone. Perhaps you will choose to put your phone away when you get home from work until after the children are in bed and put your phone away an hour before your bedtime. Another option could be to try spending a weekend afternoon without access to your phone so you can be fully present during your activities. Apps such as Self Control or Digital Detox might help with this!

Remember, “Almost everything will work better if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you” (Anne Lammott). 


Andrea Martin is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

Barley, S.R., Meyerson, D., E., Grodal, S. (2011). E-mail as a source and symbol of stress. Organization Science. Vol. 22(4): 887–906.

Brewer, Judson. (2014). Beware the Habit-Forming Brain. How to tame your constant cravings by getting to know your brain better. Mindful Magazine. December, 2014.

Chang, A.M., Aeschbach, D., Duffy, J.F., Czeisler, C.A. (2015).  Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness. Proceedings of the National Institute of Science of the United States of America. Vol 112(4): 1232-7.

Charron, S., Koechlin, E. (2010). Divided Representation of Concurrent Goals in the Human Frontal Lobes. Science. Vol 328 (5976): 360-363.

CIBC Poll: Checked your smartphone recently? Canadian smartphone owners say they check their mobile device every 10 minutes on average. NewsWire. TORONTO, Feb. 4, 2014. See http://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/cibc-poll-checked-your-smartphone-recently-canadian-smartphone-owners-say-they-check-their-mobile-device-every-10-minutes-on-average-513665311.html

Elmore, Tim. (2012). The Unintended Consequences of Technology. https://growingleaders.com/blog/the-unintended-consequences-of-technology/

Przybylski, A.K., Weinstein, N. (2013). Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality 2013 Journal of Social and Personal Relationships Vol 30(3): 237-245.

Thorton, B., Faires, A., Robbins, M., Rollins, E. (2014). The mere presence of a cell phone may be distracting: Implications for attention and task performance. Social Psychology, Vol 45(6): 479-488.

Thomee, S., Harenstam, Hagberg, M. (2011). Mobile phone use and stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression among young adults - a prospective cohort study. BMC Public Health, Vol 11: 66.

Thomee, S., Harenstam, A., Hagberg, M. (2012). Computer use and stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression among young adults--a prospective cohort study. BMC Psychiatry. Vol 12: 176.

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