You’re stranded on a desert island and were able to smuggle one item of contraband. Did you take your favorite jams? Bubbly and caviar? Your PYT? Nope. If you’re being honest, most of us will have brought an internet-connected mobile device.
Seem harsh? Our attachment to our gadgets is stronger than we realize. On average, mobile users check their cell phone every six and a half minutes, according to findings from Nokia. Research also shows that a vast majority of us experience phantom vibration syndrome: a below-the-belt buzzing sensation we think we feel when there’s nary a cell phone (nor sex toy) on our person.
We post meal pictures to Instagram while real-life companions sit, ignored. On planes, we desperately fondle our phones in anticipation checking messages the moment we hit the ground. This compulsive, anxious behavior is affecting the grand majority of us, whether we realize it or not.
“Our heads are in a state of perpetual nerve transmitter bombardment," says Dr. Larry Rosen, research psychologist and professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills and the author of iDisorder. "And, the bombardment is saying, ‘You’d better check in with your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit — because if you don’t, you might miss out on something important.’"
But, interestingly, we're not only constantly checking our devices to get the latest intel or feel like we’re not missing the party, he says. We’re doing it to feel less irritable. “It’s become what I would call a compulsion or obsession,” he continues. “What you see isn’t a desire to feel pleasure from what you might find, but a desire to feel less anxious.”
Dr. Nicole Radziwill, a science and technology professor at James Madison University, and author of Disconnected, a book in which she shares how she overcame her own tech OCD, relates. “A few years ago, my family members noticed that I was constantly tethered to my Droid. They also noticed that I wasn’t really interacting with them. I was emailing, Facebooking, social media-ing, you name it,” she says. “Of course, I didn’t think I had a problem.”
But, when the self-proclaimed data science junkie logged her Internet and phone use, she found that she was checking her devices every eight minutes — even during her sleep. “I would have these dreams where I was following people on Twitter, and then I’d see them in real life and start talking to them about whatever they had tweeted," Radziwill says. “This really confused people because, one, I was totally imagining all this, and two, some of them didn’t even have Twitter accounts.”
So, how do we know whether our tech tendencies have become a nasty habit? Rosen suggests taking inventory. “Monitor that usage," he says. "Ask yourself when you’re checking your device, ‘Why am I checking? Do I feel like I have to? Am I feeling like if I don’t check, I’m going to miss out on something, feel nervous, or go bonkers?”
If so, it might be time to untether from your device. “We know this stuff over-activates your brain," Rosen says. "We need take time periodically to under-activate, or reset your brain.”
Rosen suggests taking five minutes away from screens every 90 minutes — by taking a short walk, for example — to calm the brain. Once we know that we can survive without our devices for a few minutes every hour and a half, we’re primed for the next step: relearning how to focus.
Rosen suggests training your brain to focus by designating a few minutes to check social media sites every 15 minutes. After that becomes comfortable, stretch the intervals to 20, 25, and 30 minutes. “Eventually you can go 30 minutes and see that nothing disastrous happens. You didn’t miss out on anything on your social media sites, and you taught yourself how to focus,” Rosen says. You’ll not only quell the compulsion to connect and cut the anxiety that accompanies it, but you’ll likely produce better work.
For Radziwill, who had, in her words, “gotten into the mode of waiting for stuff to happen,” cutting her frantic quest for digital connectivity allowed her to sleep more deeply, become less jittery and improve her real-life relationships.
To stifle anxiety, she suggests observing a digital sabbath, in which you go offline one day a week. For better rest, try changing settings on your phone so it doesn’t blink with every incoming text, call, email, Facebook update, and tweet; you won’t know what you’re missing if you’re not reminded that it’s there. She also suggests turning your phone or ringer off or leaving it in another room when you sleep. Finally, she recommends getting picky about which social media services you want to engage in, and focus on using three or four of them alone.
Rosen also reminds us to bolster our personal relationships by actively putting the screen second. “People are being compelled to ignore what’s in front of them in order to get at what’s behind the screen," he says. "It’s such a powerful draw, and it’s affecting family relationships, husband-wife relationships, working relationships, and more. We have to learn to focus on what’s around us as much as possible.”
When wrestling your tech habit into submission, Rosen suggests getting your loved ones, co-workers, and friends on board with your efforts by communicating your need to check in every so often. If hanging with your best friend, for example, ask if she would mind if you check in on your phone in 20 minutes or so. Not only will this stop you from impulsively ignoring what’s in front of you, it will also make your friend feel more valued. Plus, you'll be free to focus on the conversation at hand, not what may or may not be happening online.
And, after some practice, these tech-taming and relationship-rebuilding practices may even be enough to wish those VIPs in your life, not your iPhone, onto that desert island with you.