In Defence Of Turning Off All Your Notifications

Photographed by Anna Jay.
I’ve been in a situationship with my phone for a while now. I know that it isn't healthy but I can't get out of it. As a member of Gen Z who's on the cusp of being a millennial, I’ve grown up on my phone. I got my first one aged 11, by 14 I had a Blackberry and by 16 I had my first iPhone. But as I’ve got older, like most situationships, I realised that I was in too deep and it was more toxic than I thought. 
At the start of this year, my screen time was averaging eight hours a day. Spending 10 minutes without my phone was stressful yet while I was on my phone I often felt my anxiety heighten.  
I had long known that one of the main triggers for my anxiety was notifications. Seeing notifications on my phone made me feel overwhelmed. So I decided to turn them off. Twitter, WhatsApp and my Instagram notifications, all of them were gone. At first it felt really uncomfortable and in turn, actually ended up making me feel more anxious. 
A study on smartphone addiction in 2017 found that notifications can alter your brain chemistry, creating an imbalance in your brain  The study also showed a link between smartphone use and anxiety, depression and impulsivity. In addition, your notifications constantly being on can cause a pattern called 'switch cost'. This is when an interruption such as a notification distracts our attention from a task. 

Your notifications constantly being on can cause a pattern called 'switch cost'. This is when an interruption such as a notification distracts our attention from a task. 

Similarly, we are all hard-wired to experience the dopamine-seeking reward loop. Dopamine is a hormone which makes you feel enjoyment and propels you to action. As you start scrolling through your social media apps, the dopamine loop is engaged. Every time you open an app or read a headline, you’re feeding the loop – and it leaves you wanting more.
I now enjoy the lack of notifications constantly popping up on my screen but at first it felt a bit bizarre. Perhaps that’s because my brain and body had become so used to responding to them in the ways described above. "Notifications, such as someone liking your post, produce dopamine, which makes you feel good," explains environmental psychologist and wellbeing consultant Lee Chambers. "But you can almost become hooked on that feeling. And then suddenly when there are no notifications, you don't feel as good, which generates lots of anxiety. So even though notifications can be exciting, you can end up getting addicted to them to the point where when they suddenly don't come through, you start to feel anxious and start to wonder if you've said something wrong."
This paradoxical reaction made me analyse whether I was, in fact, addicted to my notifications. Lee explains that "we’ve been wired to respond to notifications. When we look back at the history of notifications, they’ve often been the call to battle and a call to action. That means that neurologically, we were stimulated by notifications either to go forward into battle or to go back to flee. Smartphones have been built and designed with human psychological hooks and behaviours in mind." 
This makes sense. It made me realise that one of the main reasons why I felt that notifications were making me nervous was my need to always be in the know. I have a huge fear of missing out (FOMO). When I see 24 WhatsApp notifications my mind automatically goes into panic mode: Have I missed out on anything in the group chat? Is everyone planning something without me? 
Especially as someone who has grown up with social media and having experienced some of my best moments online, I always fear missing out on pivotal social media moments. Lee adds: "So many of these apps and programs are built to really change our behaviour and exploit our behaviour or vulnerabilities. They play on our fear of missing out, need of curiosity and fear of nonconformity. They also play on our fear of missing out on important and urgent information, they really fuel our desire to be validated."
As a journalist, I feel the need to be constantly on social media so I can find more work or ideas to stimulate articles. When your livelihood is based on ideas, there’s an additional pressure to stay in the loop. One study, published in 2019, observed that 80% of workers developed a dependency on their smartphones for work-related issues. Another study in 2012 discovered that the increase in work hours has led to people using their smartphones more during leisure hours for work purposes. It also found that smartphone use has blurred the distinction between private and public life. 

When we look back at the history of notifications, they've often been the call to battle and a call to action. That means that neurologically, we were stimulated by notifications either to go forward into battle or to go back to flee.

lee chambers, wellbeing consultant
Being a natural extrovert means I have a strong desire to speak to people, including online. However because of my anxiety, when people ignore my message or take a long time to respond, my mind goes into overdrive. I forget that people have other things to do and my anxious thoughts make me believe that people hate me. When I see notifications my mind begins to panic and I often start to catastrophise: Have I done something to offend them? Am I annoying them? In turn, I often feel obliged to respond to a notification as soon as I see it.
"Notifications can quite often leave you wondering what it is, before you've even had the chance to look at your screen. This can flood your body with hormones like dopamine and cortisol before you even write a line of a text, making you ready to respond. Sometimes thinking about what to reply can give you anxiety," Lee explains. "Should I respond quickly? The wording of the response? What should I say? If I get the wording wrong is it gonna affect the reader? And quite often it can put you almost into that kind of black and white thinking about things and not see the shades of grey in between." 
During a time like this, when we are in the middle of a global pandemic, notifications can trigger anxious thoughts for all of us, and young women are particularly affected. Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has shown that coronavirus has affected young women’s mental health the most. 
Lee says that many people are experiencing digital burnout as we’ve been watching the news and spending more time on our phones. "Everyone now has an underlying level of anxiety because, for the first time in many generations in history, there's been something across the world that has the potential to end your life. And in a lot of ways, this is the first pandemic where social media and news are highly accessible and very much funnelled in your direction, and constant negativity sticks to your brain," he explains. "When we're exposed to that, we want to try and confirm that fear by investigating it more. This leads us down the social media rabbit hole, when you start to get a lot of different opinions about how dangerous [coronavirus] really is.”
If coronavirus wasn’t enough, for me, like all of my Black peers, the killing of George Floyd has sparked so many emotions. I chose not to watch the footage of his murder as it was too triggering for me and now I’m trying to be selective with the information I take in. 
Floyd’s story – his murder – was too close to home for Black people. It was another reminder of the ways in which we suffer at the hands of white supremacy – how can we not burn out when we are being exposed to this online and offline? "We're not designed to be bombarded by imagery, images of people like us being brutalised, being the subjects of violence, being killed. Psychologically what we’re seeing obviously brings back our own feelings and our own emotions," explains Lee when I ask him about this. 
So as much as I think that social media and texting friends is harmless, I realise now that it can slowly take over your life. I was definitely suffering from digital burnout. I’ve now come to a point where I want to establish a better relationship with my phone as notifications directly affect my mental health. Notifications aren’t inherently evil: they can remind us when we need to do something or alert us when something is wrong. It’s knowing which notifications you need to switch off from and why. 
Lee adds: "If you're at that point where every single notification on every app is up, it's really time to turn them off. Smartphones and technology form part of our everyday lives. So the real big kind of takeaway is firstly, just look at making your notifications as minimal as possible. Look at what you use, why you use it and how beneficial it is. The truth is, technology is created by humans. We are the masters of technology. And by taking a step back to understand why we use things, we can certainly make technology work for us. So we don't need to jump into every notification anymore."
Turning off my notifications has given me a sense of peace. I don't feel obliged to talk to people all the time. It’s allowed me to create boundaries for myself and to put myself first. Where previously I would respond quickly and uncritically to a message as soon as I had seen it, I now make a conscious effort to ask myself if I'm ready to engage in that discussion. This applies to Twitter and Instagram as much as it does to my friends and, honestly, it’s a game-changer.

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