When we talk about the increasing number of people who are addicted to technology, we picture smartphone zombies who can barely hold a conversation because they're so busy scanning their phone's push notifications, or that time your most selfie-centered friend nearly got hit by a car while trying to take the perfect curbside Instagram. But a brief scan of the facts reveals a shocking truth: the tech junkies are us. Most of us spend almost three hours a day on our smartphones and tablets. (And that's not counting all the time we're on the computer.)
A University of Chicago study found that our phones and social media exert a stronger pull on us that booze or cigarettes.One international study, conducted among 1000 students at 12 different colleges and universities around the globe, found that when when subjects spent 24 hours away offline, four out of five students reported feeling confused, isolated, and panicked without access to their phones.
Of course, just because something's popular, doesn't make it bad for us. But technology does have a dark side, one that makes "addiction" the right word for the relationship that many of us have with it. Our overuse of technology can have palpable real-world impact on our physical and mental health (and no, I am not just talking about "text neck"). Some folks have theorized that we need to unplug — from social media, and technology in general — in order to rebalance our lives. But often, their visions of unplugging are so severe that they scare us off the whole operation.
But we don't have to go 24 hours without our phone just to reclaim some of our health and well-being — there are small ways to unplug every day. So read on to find out five real-world ways that spending too much time with our phones and computers can negatively impact us — and how we can unplug from them.
1. It Keeps You From Relaxing After Work
Myth: The only way to retain a competitive advantage in today's modern workplace is to remain online every second you're awake, and be perpetually available to colleagues, clients, and randos who want to tweet weird stuff to you. Who needs to relax? Relaxing is for faaaaaaaailures!
Fact: Eighty-three percent of us check work email once we're out of the office for the day. While that sounds like par for the course in the world of modern business, it might actually be making us worse workers in the end.
Kansas State University researchers studying connectivity and the modern office found that disconnecting from work (including work-related email and social media accounts) at the end of the day helped workers recharge and recover from the demands of the workday — and thus be better rested and prepared for work the next day than their perma-connected coworkers. Researcher Young Ah Park noted that receiving a negative or anxiety-provoking message from a work account during off hours caused study subjects to "ruminate about work-related issues or worries," and not only left them less recharged for work the next day, but also cut into their ability to support spouses and family members.
How To Unplug: Set limits on when you're allowed to check or answer work emails — especially in the hours before bed, or when you're spending time with friends or family.
2. It Makes You Unfocused
Myth: There's so much stuff to get done these days that multi-tasking is the only way you could possibly come close to doing it all.
Fact: Students at the University of Maryland, College Park, participated in a day-long tech sabbatical, where they couldn't email, text, look at websites, or even use their iPods. The students found that they were able to focus on their classes much more clearly, and absorb information more effectively without the distraction of social media or idly communicating with friends. Other studies have found that every time we get distracted, it can take up to 45 minutes to refocus (with email being the primary culprit behind this distraction).
How To Unplug: If at all possible, keep only one tab open while working on a project at work, and request coworkers all get in touch with you using the same method (i.e. email, call, skywriting) to minimize the number of platforms that you can be contacted on.
3. It Lowers Your Overall Quality Of Life
Myth: The amount of time we spend online has nothing to do with the rest of our lives.
Fact: The above-mentioned University of Maryland students didn't just find that unplugging helped them study more effectively; they found that their experiment led them to engage in acts that improved their quality of life, from spending more time with loved ones, to exercising more often, to cooking a more nutritious breakfast than they would have while distracted by their phones.
How To Unplug: Those 24-hour digital detoxes are impractical for a lot of our lives — but picking an hour, in the morning or after work, where you get offline and devote yourself to a real-world activity (like working on a craft, or dinner with a friend) can help you reap a few of the stress-relieving, quality-of-life-improving benefits of getting offline.
4. It Can Make Depression Worse
Myth: Your moods have nothing to do with your phone or computer use (unless people are texting you mean stuff).
Fact: Heavy computer and Internet usage can stress us out and depress us — especially if we're young or already prone to mood problems. A University of Gothenburg study of the technology usage patterns of 4,100 people, aged 20 to 24, found that heavy tech usage correlated to depressive symptoms, especially for young women. Women were also found to be at greatest risk for stress and sleep problems if they frequently used the computer for long stretches of time without taking any breaks.
Similarly, a Missouri University of Science and Technology study found that for those who already had depressive symptoms, connecting online actually made them feel lonelier.
How To Unplug: We should all dedicate some time to being offline — but if you know you struggle with depression, stress, or anxiety, stick to your dedicated offline time schedule as strictly as you would your schedule for your meds, exercise, or whatever else you rely on to stabilize your moods.
5. It Makes It Harder For You To Sleep
Myth: Using your computer before bed can't be that bad.
Fact: The blue light from our computers and smart phones interfere with our bodies' circadian rhythms, which make it harder for us to fall and stay asleep; and 44 percent of us sleep with our phones by our sides so that we don't miss any messages while we sleep, which isn't doing anything great for our sleep patterns, either.
How To Unplug: Experts recommend staying off your phone and computers for two hours before bed, to keep the blue light from interfering with your sleep patterns. However, if that's not doable, try a "red light filter" app like f.lux or Twilight for your computer or phone — the filters supposedly keep the blue lights from the screen from messing with your sleep quite so badly. But really, just try to put the phone away, dude. All those urgent work emails/Snapchats of a dog in a hat will still be there tomorrow.