Is Portable Computer Technology Distorting Your Life?

Excessive screen media involvement can be mitigated by mindfulness—part 2 of 2.

Posted Mar 20, 2018

CC0 Creative Commons
Source: CC0 Creative Commons

According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, roughly nine in ten American adults own a cell phone and nearly two-thirds own a smartphone.[1] These percentages have certainly increased (perhaps significantly) since then. Cell phones and smartphones can be a source of both instantaneous connection and continuous distraction. It’s advantageous to be able to fill time during periods of waiting—at school to pick up your kids, at the doctor’s office, at the DMV—but smartphone use has begun to change the nature of basic human interactions, affecting family and social gatherings and altering the character of public spaces.

The Pew study also showed that 89 percent of Americans used a cell phone during their most recent social gathering, and 83 percent of smartphone owners say they rarely or never turn off their phones. Moreover, 82 percent of all adults (not just cell phone owners) say that when people use their cell phones at social gatherings, it at least occasionally interferes with conversation and the atmosphere of the gathering, with 37 percent saying it “frequently” diminishes the gathering.[2]

As a person in long-term recovery, I’m concerned about and at times taken aback by the number of people in twelve-step meetings who routinely focus on their phones, in some cases seemingly paying more attention to texting or social media scrolling than to the meeting process and members’ sharing. This sometimes includes dear friends whom I love and otherwise have great respect for.

These digital stimuli sing a Siren’s song, calling to us softly and sweetly, with tantalizing attention-snatching tidbits that promise enthralling if momentary distractions. We look forward to and are drawn to them. We develop a classically conditioned Pavlovian response wherein when they call we’re driven to answer without even thinking. There is something incredibly seductive about text message notifications, Facebook “likes” and comments, 1-click shopping on Amazon, and accumulating Facebook friends and Twitter and Instagram followers. There are so many pictures to see, videos to watch, and online games to play. There are statuses to update and comments to post, as well as emails, sports scores, and stock prices to check.

As more and more technology company insiders are disclosing (often with some degree of ambivalence, if not guilt) social media is specifically engineered to be addictive. The result is a pernicious deviation-amplifying dynamic wherein the more persistently you use social media and various other apps, the more your brain is progressively conditioned to crave an instant and always available hit of digital stimulation.

In fact, recent research indicates that the mere presence of our smartphones can consume substantial pieces of our attention, thereby leaving less of it available for other pursuits. This detracts from our present-moment awareness and the ability to be skillful in the here and now. In two experiments, even when people were successful in avoiding the temptation to check their phones, the mere presence of the devices reduced their available cognitive capacity—their ability to think about and pay attention to other things.[3]

Another aspect of the dynamics of addiction is the avoidance of discomfort—in any form. This is characterized by attempts to evade distressing thoughts, feelings, memories, physical sensations, and other internal experiences through the use of substances and/or activities. Many people unconsciously reach for their smartphones and dive into email or social media in reaction to stress, anxiety, restlessness, depression, boredom, or loneliness. As the American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön explains, we become so “habituated to reaching for something to ease the edginess of the moment,” that we’re increasingly incapable of tolerating and being present with even the most transitory discomfort.[4]

Avoidance strategies may succeed for a short time, but they inevitably fail, and when they do, the discomfort we sought to escape—whether mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, or a combination of the above—is intensified and extended. Mindfulness practices that help us consciously observe, sit with, wade into, accept, and coexist with uncomfortable, often painful, internal and external experiences provide the path to successfully get through them.

Conscious awareness is power, and you can begin to expand and strengthen yours by paying attention with intention to how often you’re looking at your phone, how long you’re spending in front of a screen during the course of a day, what sites you visit, and the extent to which this serves a helpful and healthy purpose . . . or doesn’t.

Copyright 2018 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain and Roots and Wings: Mindful Parenting in Recovery (coming July, 2018)

References

[1] Lee Rainie and Kathryn Zickuhr, “Chapter 1: Always on Connectivity,” Pew Research Center (August 26, 2015), http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/08/26/chapter-1-always-on-connectivity/.

[2] Rainie and Zickuhr, “Chapter 1.”

[3] Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos, “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity,” Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 2, no. 2 (2017): 140–154.

[4] Pema Chodron, Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion, Boston: Shambhala Publications (2002).