I have a confession to make. I’m addicted. Yes, you read that right.
Let me explain.
I don’t smoke, do drugs, or drink alcohol. Neither do I use opioids or painkillers. My addiction isn’t to any kind of substance that I ingest. My addiction is to a little three-inch by six-inch oblong-shaped box made of metal, glass, and plastic that seems to dominate my life. It’s with me everywhere I go. I panic when I can’t find it. Hardly five minutes goes by when I’m not either looking at it or it’s trying to get my attention with catchy sounds or flashing images. It contains just about everything that’s important to me: my to-do list, contacts, reminders, checkbook, grocery list, coupons, recipes, favorite books—even my Bible.
You’ve guessed it. I’m addicted to that handy little device that, according to the Pew Research Center, 81 percent of us in America carry with us all the time: a smartphone.
The first clue that I might be addicted was a notification that popped up on my phone one day, which said: “Your screen time was up ____ percent last week for a total of ____ hours ____ minutes.” (I’m too embarrassed to reveal the actual numbers!) Somewhat alarmed, I did a bit of research, and found an article entitled “20 Signs You’re Addicted to Your Smartphone.” Thankfully, not all 20 of the signs characterized me, but far too many of them did. For example, these statements described my phone habits all too well: “You can’t stand still without checking your phone,” “You can’t leave home without it,” and “You never eat alone (because you keep an eye on your phone).”
This was a wake-up call that, perhaps, something needed to change. As I learned more about the phenomenon of technology addiction, I realized that not only was my smartphone consuming my time, but it also was potentially having negative consequences on almost every aspect of my life.
There’s no question that technology has impacted our lives—for the most part in a positive way. I can’t imagine living without smartphones, computers, cars, washing machines, and all the other devices that simplify life and increase productivity. But the advent of digital technology, including smartphones, the internet, and social media, has created some challenges, which, if we aren’t careful, can affect our physical health, our emotional health, our brains, and even our relationships.
How digital devices affect your body
According to the Mayo Clinic, excessive use of computers and digital devices can cause what is known as digital eyestrain. There are a number of reasons for this condition: we blink less while using devices, we view the screens at a less-than-ideal distance, we are affected by the glare that comes from the device, and the text we are looking at is poorly contrasted against its background. Digital eyestrain can lead to itchy, watery, and burning eyes. And if we overdo it, this can even cause blurry or double vision.
Additionally, prolonged smartphone use has been shown to affect posture and respiratory function. Poor posture reduces lung capacity and expiration (one’s ability to breathe out air). Other scientific evidence indicates that excessive smartphone usage can lead to pain and musculoskeletal disorders. That’s why heavy smartphone users often complain of neck and back pain.
We’ve all heard about the importance of adequate sleep and its relationship to many aspects of our health—including mental and emotional health, immunity, weight control, and our susceptibility to chronic conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. When it comes to getting adequate sleep, digital devices aren’t helping. Rather, that blue light shining into our eyes at bedtime is keeping us from getting the sleep we need to stay healthy. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “the more electronic devices that a person uses in the evening, the harder it is to fall asleep or stay asleep.”
How digital devices affect your brain
According to researchers at the University of California, the average person spends 12 hours a day looking at computer screens and other digital devices. This causes us to do a lot of multitasking—or at least trying to multitask—which the brain isn’t really designed to do. For example, you might simultaneously send emails from your laptop while sitting in a meeting, taking notes, following along with a presenter, and keeping an eye on your cell phone for text messages or calls that you don’t want to miss.
Too often we pat ourselves on the back for accomplishing so much and being so “productive.” But according to Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology, physiology, and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, “Your performance level drops if you stop one activity to pick up another.”
Studies done at the University of Oregon agree: heavy media multitaskers actually perform worse on tests that require them to switch tasks. Current evidence also indicates that multitasking not only makes us less efficient, it negatively impacts our memory and other cognitive functions as well.
How digital devices affect your emotions
According to scientific evidence, excessive use of digital media interferes with your ability to show empathy for others. Studies conducted at UCLA found that sixth graders who went to camp improved their ability to read emotions from nonverbal cues after just five days, as opposed to a comparison group that continued their usual practice of their usual amount of media exposure. Researchers attribute the improvement in the experimental group to the kids being away from their digital devices (computers, smartphones, and television were forbidden while at camp).
Other experts, such as Maia Szalavitz and Bruce Perry, MD, PhD, authors of Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential—and Endangered, also attribute the loss of empathy in our society to digital technology, among other factors.
How digital devices affect your relationships
We’ve all seen people sitting in a room together, everyone glued to their devices and completely disconnected and unengaged. If you’re not one who has done this, you probably know people who—while sitting in the same room or in the same building—text one another instead of talking to each other.
Despite being called social media, studies have shown that the use of social media among young adults is actually linked to social isolation. A study of more than 1,700 young adults found that two or more hours of social media exposure doubled their odds of experiencing social isolation. Similar results were found in a group of middle-aged and older adults.
Digital device use can also impact relationships within a family. A Kaspersky Lab study found that 55 percent of couples had argued about using digital devices excessively, and 51 percent had argued about using phones during a meal or face-to-face conversation. These findings only scratch the surface of the myriad ways that technology is impacting our lives, health, and relationships.
Researching the negative impact of too much time on a smartphone inspired health enthusiast Pat Humphrey to make changes of her own. The week after writing this article, Pat Humphrey’s screen time was down 89 percent.