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Can you remember a time before mobile phones? A simpler and more innocent time. My first phone I believe, was when I was 18. I used it only for phone calls and text messages, and then of course the glorious game that was Snake, mainly because that’s all you could use it for. Then slowly but surely over time, our phones became more than that. They became an embodiment of our entire personality; one small device where our entire lives are stored and now without them, where would we be?

I feel fortunate that I grew up without a mobile phone. I was allowed my childhood, I played outside, and let my imagination run free. There is an entire generation who have grown up only knowing what life is like with a mobile phone. They have no concept of a time when it did not exist. Despite the fact that I’m well aware of life without a mobile phone, I often find myself clinging to it, almost like a security blanket. So for those who have only ever known what it’s like to have one, I always wonder how they would feel to go without one.

I have tried to implement rules on how I should use my phone, banning the use of it at the dinner table, no social media after 8 pm, and taking a detox from it on a Sunday. It works for a certain amount of time, but you always come running back to it. You feel slightly fidgety and on edge without it as if you were trying to kick a drug habit. In many ways it has become a drug of sorts; If you can’t get a WI-FI signal or if your battery is low, you often feel an unnatural level of frustration which in the scheme of things really isn’t merited.

To understand more about the importance of harnessing a healthier relationship with our phones, The Atlantic Dispatch spoke with Paul Levy, Senior Lecturer and Researcher in Innovation and Digital Leadership, at the University of Brighton. Paul is also the author of Digital Inferno, a practical book about Digital Mastery. 

Why is it so important that we have a healthier relationship with our phones?

Levy: Because there is a lot of evidence that prolonged use of smartphones is unhealthy for us in a number of ways. Several studies show the damaging impact that overusing our phones and other digital devices is having on us physically, and mentally. It can negatively affect our physical and emotional well-being. Cyberbullying, feeling excluded, and the addictive need to be constantly connected are just a few examples. Back problems, neck problems (called “tech neck”), painful joints and fingers, stress and disturbed sleep, and depression are just some of the medically verified symptoms of the negative effects of smartphone use.

Yet there are things we can do about this. From the basics of sitting upright on a chair or not staring at a blue screen light for too long. From being much more mindful and in control of our digital time, switching them off before we go to sleep and not taking them to bed with us are just a few examples.

There is also a lot of evidence that the kind of content we expose ourselves to can have all kinds of effects on us. Perhaps the most shocking is what exposure to pornography has done to the mental health of many children. But as adults we can also become quite depressed and the constant drip feeding of bad news from the media can fuel depression.  We have to allow time to recover from it, balance it with other kinds of content, and sometimes just have a break from it and get back into the physical world.

In an article for The Conversation you wrote about the importance of having a healthier relationship with your phone, and make the interesting point that we often retreat into the digital world to escape the stresses of the physical world, but what we end up doing is simply collecting other kinds of digital and physical stress along the way.’  Firstly, why do you think we retreat into this digital world and how do we combat collecting other kinds of digital and physical stress?

Levy: This is not a new phenomenon. People initially looked for an escape from the stresses and strains of day-to-day living in books, the theatre, live music, and then in film and television and radio when that comes along. More recently the digital realm has become a place for escape. Escapism can be a healthy thing. It can nurture the imagination, entertain, inspire, engage, excite and relax. Unfortunately, when we switch on our smartphones these days the first thing we often get are alerts about what is negative in our world. You can do an experiment at any time and choose the first 10 news stories you are exposed to and you’ll probably find at least nine of them are bad news. That does not mean that news is not important or that we should not know about it, but the constant exposure to it can have an ongoing depressing effect.

We can read our texts and emails and find there are demands on our time – someone is asking us to do something for them, we need to renew a subscription, or somebody has sent us a text that clearly shows they are in some way irritated with us. Adverts tell us we are missing out on this or that. All these micro messages can build up and add up to more stress than the stress we were trying to get away from when trying to escape into the digital world.

Even escaping into games can create stress where what was meant to be a bit of fun or relaxation comes becomes pressure to get the highest score or win the bigger prize or beat the other person. Many are designed to be addictive. Even seemingly harmless games, like little puzzles (for example, Wordle), can create stress as we subconsciously realise we are spending too long on them and are getting a bit addicted. Fun becomes bothersome, worrisome and less wholesome!

For our digital devices to be helpfully escapist we really need to curate what we look at, manage our news feeds skillfully, and decide what it is we are exactly doing and be absolutely sure that that activity genuinely is stress-reducing and healthily escapist. Binge-watching can be enjoyable; it can also become self-defeating as we start to live on the sofa, reducing physical exercise, and harming our fitness and health.

Do you think our relationship with technology such as our phones has gradually become more worrying? Is there a concern that we have a generation of people who don’t know a world without them and could or have become addicted to them?

Levy: There is a huge amount of evidence now stretching back over 30 years that digital addiction is a real phenomenon and that many of us are showing signs of it from all generations. Whatsapp became a digital miracle for connection for many housebound people during the lockdown. Now many people would trade some of those Zoom family calls for a few more face-to-face visits.

It is often about a generation becoming digitally addicted, seeing a world through the distorted lens of the digital content we are exposed to be selective algorithms. This has certain similarities with substance addiction as we develop a craving for it and can feel a sense of panic and come down when we are not engaged in it. There are now digital addiction clinics available in most countries.

Many of us simply do not acknowledge it and yet the reality is if you look at the statistics available on your own smartphone it was showing you have checked your phone four to five hundred times per day without mostly realising it and without getting any significant benefit from the content you have engaged with. If we are squinting at small screens under low light and not sitting properly, that can be accompanied by physical symptoms that we will regret later on in our lives. We may be creating a digital generation that will be rife with physical injury, like sports injuries in later life. 

You mention the word “gradually” in your question and that is a key aspect of this. How the use and overuse of our smartphones fill up gradually as does the accompanying addiction. Anyone reading this could always put themselves to the test and try to be without their phone for even half a day and notice the feeling of “pull back”.

A lot of people turn their phones off and have no awareness that they have turned them back on again almost immediately, always with some spurious reason to check something. Just like buying more booze, people on limited monthly payment plans will buy more gigabytes and we’ll even prioritise this overspending on other essentials like food.

This particularly happens in gaming and parents have been shocked to discover their children using mum or dad’s credit card illicitly to get more of a game fix or buy more stuff for the game.

How much do you think our phones have contributed to the severe rise in concerns over mental health and anxiety?

Levy: There used to be a lot of weaker anecdotal evidence but now we have better long-term studies and clearly, there is an evidenced impact of smartphone overuse on our mental health and how it can and does fuel stress and anxiety.

This anxiety can take different forms. For example, if we are engaged in quite an emotional texting conversation people often leave things hanging in the air as we wait for the next text and this can lead to people constantly checking their phones to see if a reply has come in.

Anxiety has been reported in people who are constantly looking to be liked on social media and how their sense of well-being and confidence can suddenly plummet if no one has commented, for example, on a film or a picture they have posted.

Typed messages can also create confusion and misunderstanding and quite a lot of our communication involves trying to clarify what it is people are actually trying to say. I would predict that as people start to use platforms such as chat GPT to write messages for them, there may well be a lot of subconscious anxiety around people not feeling the authenticity of what they are receiving.

We are entering an age in which AI is going to enable a lot of faking, deception, and simple accidental mistaking and misunderstanding and this is going to fuel anxiety and stress even further. There may even be a more generic sense of collective malaise as people get used to a lower standard of authenticity and are not sure what is real anymore. Some people will be able to easily cope with that but others are going to affect them in a more negative way.

There is evidence that we are becoming more polarised in our views as the media we are exposed to is over-simplified, biased or even faked. I always find it disturbing and ironic that one of the most used words or buttons online to get us to make a decision, such as buying something, is the word “submit”. Press submit! Submit means “surrender”.

How dangerous to our health can information overload be and digital detoxes help overcome this?

Levy: Digital overload is stressful for people who don’t like to juggle their day. Some people can deal with multiple sources of information more easily than others. Research suggests that a constant “feed” of words and images, demands and invitations, news and views, stresses many people out. Common sense says we need time to digest one thing before moving on to another. We are not biologically built to carry too much around in our heads at one time without being able to organise it in some useful way. 

The digital realm is often a place of new narratives are beginning before older ones have been completed. Chats are never quite over, and comment threads are never quite finished. The digital realm of “feeds” is a place of constant addition and updating. This can mean we are constantly being digitally overfed, which obviously leads to information indigestion. Skills need to be developed that many do not have not to develop. The ability to switch off, push back, curate, limit, organise and most of all, prioritise.

How important is it that we become digital deciders rather than digital casualties and how do we do this?

Levy: I talk in my work about digital “discernment”. The danger is that humans are the tool, not the phone! Corporations need us to click constantly so we are exposed to adverts. We are herded, nudged and even manipulated and “click baited”. We can be viewed as the means or the tool for profit maximization for big business. 

Stress reduces and satisfaction increases when we slow down a bit and become the curators of the digital conversations we choose to engage in. We shouldn’t be victims in the digital realm but have self-mastery within it. But this can be very inconvenient for the corporations who have created the platforms we are often addicted to. Looking away from the screen is not in the interests of people who need those screens to be covered in the adverts that we look at.

Examples of being a digital decider include deciding when we want to be notified, being in conscious control of our digital time, reducing or eliminating our addiction to it, and deciding what we see and do online.  Longer-term evidence suggests we gain more well-being, and satisfaction and become more productive as a result. Becoming a digital discerner and decider is our way out of becoming a digital addict.

Our many thanks to Paul Levy, Senior Lecturer and Researcher in Innovation and Digital Leadership, University of Brighton.

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