I’m sitting in a hammock, with a beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean. My family, palm trees and swimming pools surround me on my blissful vacation. But the thing I notice most of all when surrounded by what many would consider paradise is the one thing that isn’t here…my phone.
My phone calls out to me night and day—in the bathroom, during dinner, at meetings. It buzzes when I’m giving a presentation, and beeps when I’m giving my younger daughter a bath. I can’t avoid it. The reality is, most of us can’t. Our dependence on smartphones is part of what Dr. Ned Hallowell, a psychiatrist who is an expert on technology addiction, calls “Screen Sucking”. We say to ourselves, “I’m just going to check my email” or look at “that one text” and then we find that we’ve spent three hours perusing Facebook.
What makes us to do this? Dr. Hallowell suggests that it is related to the “dopamine hit” caused by the constant reinforcement we get from messages, videos and social media. “It used to be that the mail came once a day and we ran to the mail box with great anticipation of what would arrive. Now, that positive reinforcement is available every few seconds.” Dr. Hallowell likens technology to food, which unlike other addictive things (alcohol, gambling, drugs, etc.) is impossible to avoid. Technology, like food, is everywhere. Today, we may even need it to survive. David Brooks comes to this realization in his article about the importance of technology in the future of our society. He warns readers, “If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch.” That said, most of us want a happy medium. Acknowledging that I need my phone and computer but also wanting to be more present in my life. If we want to avoid total reliance on technology, the question we must ask is how much is too much, and how can we change our relationships with these devices?
Dr. Kimberly Young a psychologist who directs the Center for Internet Addiction says that while a problematic relationship with technology or the internet can resemble that of alcohol dependence or abuse, it isn’t as black and white. “Even with drinking, it isn’t clear how much is too much. What we focus on instead is the effects and symptoms caused by a person’s relationship to the internet.” Dr. Young recommends evaluating the impact that your dependence on your phone and other devices has on your ability to be present in other areas of your life. She recommends asking yourself if you are able to control your use of technology and not allow it to control you. It is helpful to consider how your phone impacts your personal relationships, your time with your family, your efficiency at work and even your stress load. There is no easy solution for eliminating technology from our lives, or even for reducing our use. Dr. Young suggests focusing instead on developing healthy ways to incorporate technology into your life. Here are a few ideas for how you can modify your relationship to your screens in the upcoming year:
How to change your relationship to technology:
1. Acknowledge that technology has power – Accept that just like a third drink or an extra piece of pie your phone or computer has alluring power. Technology has the ability to prevent you from being present in other activities. Simply being aware of that fact can help you to take steps to change your interaction with those devices.
2. Set Boundaries – Identify and preserve “screen free” times in your routine. You can do this by setting up an away message or simply leaving your phone in another room.
3. Schedule some of your free time - If you know you will be idle, try to schedule in some non-screen activity like lunch with a friend, a call with a family member, or reading a good book.
4. Phone stacking – When you go out to dinner with friends, institute a rule that you will all pile up your phones on the table, and the first person to grab his or her phone pays for dinner.
5. Use your phone’s alerts creatively - Use the favorites, VIP ringtones, do not disturb, and other unique alert features to help you let go of your need to constantly check new notifications. Knowing when a call or message is important can help you distance yourself from your device.
6. Focus on being present – Try to engage in the moment, and with the people around you. Use “self-talk” to remind yourself, “I am talking to this person right now”. Staying active can also be helpful. Take time to go on walks, exercise, meditate, and breathe. All of these activities can help people to stay in the present moment.
7. Take a “Technology Holiday” – Take a day, a weekend or even a week off from your phone and email. Time away from screens can help you reset. You don’t need to be sitting on a lounge chair by the palm trees to put up an away message.
8. Use a real watch or clock – Sometimes we use our phone or computer to tell time. When we do this we may get sucked we may get sucked into another application or email. Having a regular timepiece may spare us those extra temptations.
9. Find a professional who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy – a licensed mental health professional with experience in practical strategies can help you to overcome challenges around your relationship with technology that you haven’t been able to solve using the other suggestions on this list.
My technology holiday begins now! Hopefully yours will too.
Dr. Jonathan Fader is psychologist who co-founded the Union Square Practice where he and his colleagues offer cognitive behavioral therapy and psychiatry in New York City.
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