Using Your Phone Can Trigger Stress Hormones & Have Long-Term Health Impacts, Research Suggests

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While smartphones have made our lives easier, a growing body of evidence is revealing the cost of this convenience. Research has shown that smartphones can affect our ability to socialize, interfere with productivity, and interrupt regular sleeping patterns, among a host of other preliminary findings. Still, a recent survey suggests that one in two millennial smartphone users experience anxiety when they don’t have their device on hand. And people aren’t exactly unaware of these potential side effects; it feels like each day there’s a new op-ed advocating for less screen time. If that wasn’t enough, a recent New York Times piece identified yet another reason why people should manage their device usage: smartphones may have long-term physical health consequences due to chronically raising the level of stress hormones in our body.

Cortisol is a hormone that plays a key role in the body’s response to stress, according to the Society for Endocrinology. It helps initiate changes to physical markers like our blood pressure and heart rate to help us react in stressful fight-or-flight situations (like if you were being chased by a bear). Emotional stressors, like being freaked out by a project deadline, can also trigger this cortisol response, though the physical markers are not so helpful in these cases. It turns out that smartphone use may also be affecting our stress hormone levels.

“Your cortisol levels are elevated when your phone is in sight or nearby, or when you hear it or even think you hear it,” David Greenfield, professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, told The New York Times. “It’s a stress response, and it feels unpleasant, and the body’s natural response is to want to check the phone to make the stress go away.”

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The cycle of constantly checking your phone to quell this initial stress, only to be met by other stressors once you’re on the device, can lead to chronically elevated levels of cortisol. Chronic stress has been linked to higher risks for a host of issues, from depression to high blood pressure. “Every chronic disease we know of is exacerbated by stress and our phones are absolutely contributing to this,” Dr. Robert Lustig, author of The Hacking of the American Mind, told The New York Times.

Luckily, the movement towards less screen time is highlighting more ways of reflecting on and curbing our phone-obsessed behaviors. Artist and writer Jenny Odell’s new book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy suggests that readers, as GQ describes, “withdraw your attention from social media and reroute it into more meditative pursuits that allow us to deepen our capacity for focus, connection, and curiosity.” Basically, making space in your day for IRL encounters and activities to refocus your connection on real life, versus spending hours getting lost on your smartphone and the Internet. In another recent piece on the book for The New Yorker, writer Jia Tolentino reflected on the importance of being conscious of how she uses technology, while ultimately still allowing herself not to cut herself off from it completely after experimenting with a digital detox.

Ultimately, there’s no shortage of research indicating all the ways in which smartphones are negatively affecting peoples' lives. There's also no shortage of apps, tips, and tricks to help limit your smartphone usage. But perhaps the key takeaway from the literature is to just generally focus on becoming more conscious of your habits and intentional with how use your time, both online and offline. All of the research, both scientific and anecdotal, seems to indicate that spending less time on your phone will likely only improve your long-term health.