Being online non-stop is becoming the norm, so how do you strike the right balance? Niki Bezzant investigates.
Sometimes medical science can have trouble keeping up with the world. The iPhone, for example, was released just 11 years ago, so it’s not surprising we’re only now starting to see research into how this radical new technology has been affecting our health and lives.
The smartphone put a screen in everyone’s pocket — which means we now have access to the internet wherever we are. Over the past decade we’ve come to rely on these screens. Thirty-five per cent of us now check our phones within five minutes of waking in the morning, with 70 per cent using phones during mealtimes with family and friends.
They’ve become our constant source of information about weather, maps, time, directions, advice, music, camera, media and more — the friend that won’t shut up! By June 2015 there were 31 million active mobile phone accounts in Australia — that’s more phones than people!
There’s no doubt our phones are incredibly useful and most of us wouldn’t want to be without them, or other digital devices, for any length of time. But there are downsides to our constant connectedness.
Mobile phone syndrome
Overuse of digital devices can have some major effects on our physical health. Physiotherapists are now encountering neck and upper-back problems caused by overuse, with ‘text neck’ a problem even among school-age children.
Due to the position of our hands and arms during prolonged phone use, we’re experiencing hand and wrist problems too — in particular, inflammation of the tendons at the base of the thumb, a condition known as de Quervain’s disease.
Our eyes are feeling the pressure of mobile phone syndrome too. ‘Digital eye strain’ — a group of eye and vision-related problems caused by our over-use of digital devices — includes eye redness and dryness, blurry vision, eye strain and headaches. But perhaps the most serious effect of digital devices is on our sleep. Research has found they affect the amount and quality of our sleep, especially when we use them in the hours before bedtime. In teenage years, this is particularly worrying. A 2018 study found that access to social media — especially via mobiles in teenagers’ bedrooms — was associated with a reduction in sleep time during the school week, which in turn had negative effects on adolescents’ daily functioning and mood.
Researchers think the screen’s blue light suppresses melatonin, the hormone that’s responsible for making us sleepy. Blue light has also been shown to prevent body temperature from dropping during the night, a key element of the body’s progression into sleep.
Help! I can’t stop scrolling
Experts have pointed out that social media platforms are very deliberately designed to constantly load more content. As long as we keep scrolling, there’s something there for us to look at. Unlike a book, a magazine or even a traditional website, there’s no defined end point. This can make it much more difficult to disengage with social media. Half an hour can quickly disappear as we mindlessly scroll through Facebook or Instagram.
Scrolling for pleasure?
Last year 79 per cent of Australians were on social media. Fifteen million Aussies use Facebook every month, making it the most popular social media platform, while nine million tap into Instagram.
Incredibly, over a third of us check social media more than five times a day. Given our increasingly busy lives, where do we find the time! Well, the answer (and problem) is … it’s addictive.
Researchers know that engagement with social media and mobile phones releases a chemical called dopamine in the brain. It’s a pleasure chemical. We feel its effects when we eat delicious food or have sex. It’s why it feels good when you get an alert for a ‘like’ or a message. We’re wired to anticipate and seek this ‘reward’ — and that, in turn, can cause issues leading to overuse and addiction to social media.
Designers of social media platforms know humans are dopamine fiends. So, every part of the way that we interact with their platforms is carefully thought through to feed into this dopamine-seeking loop, from the placement of the ‘like’ button to the timing of alerts. The more pleasure we get from social media, the more we go back to the pleasure source.
Fear of missing out
Have you heard of FOMO, the fear of missing out? According to researchers, FOMO is ‘a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which we are absent’. Everyone else is having fun — and we’re missing out!
Higher levels of FOMO have been associated with lower general mood and wellbeing. Research also suggests FOMO can predict problematic social media use, and is linked to social media addiction. We feel we can’t disconnect in case we miss something. Impulsively or compulsively checking the phone, the research says, may develop over time into an addiction.
On the other hand, a world in which we remain constantly connected has become the norm. “There appears to be an inherent understanding or requirement in today’s technology-loving culture that one needs to engage in online social networking in order not to miss out, to stay up to date and to connect,” say the authors of a 2017 review.
This can create pressure — partly through the impression social media posts create that others’ lives are more interesting, adventurous or glamorous than our own. We forget social media is a way of presenting our ‘best selves’ — which is at best a highly selective version of our lives and reality.
Real-life case study
Why I QUIT Facebook
Sally* deleted her Facebook profile and opted out of Facebook a year ago. She had been a member or years and says that while she wasn’t addicted, she found the more she used it, the less satisfaction she felt.
“I decided to quit for a few reasons,” she says. “I just got sick of it in the end! The time it was taking away from my life, the advertising, all the suggestions, notifications, just got to me, when all I wanted was to be in contact with family and friends.”
She also started feeling increasingly uneasy about how much information Facebook held about her. “I also started feeling uncomfortable about having put photos of my son on there since he was a baby, without him having any say in the matter.”
Sally says getting off Facebook wasn’t all that easy. “Facebook doesn’t make it easy! In the end, I found a very good YouTube tutorial to walk me through how to permanently delete my profile.”
Sally doesn’t feel any FOMO from not being on Facebook. “I have not missed it for one second! I’d recommend [leaving] to everyone. I feel I have a much higher quality online experience now.”
Sally’s social media use now is ‘minimal’. “I follow family and friends on Instagram now, and it feels like a much friendlier environment than Facebook. Also, to keep in touch, we have a private WhatsApp group just for close family, which feels a much safer and more real way to do things.”
* Not her real name
Do you have nomophobia?
Nomophobia is an irrational fear of being without your phone. See if these sound familiar:
Do you go into a panic if you forget your phone or can’t be near it?
Does using your phone take up a lot of your time on a regular basis?
Do you have ‘ringxiety’? Are you constantly checking the phone for messages, or hearing phantom alerts and rings?
Do you strongly feel the need to be constantly available? Is the phone the first thing you look at in the morning and the last thing you check before sleep?
Do you find you prefer digital communication rather than face-to-face communication?
Has constant use of your phone ever caused you any financial problems?
5 tips to start (and stick to) digital detox
Going ‘cold turkey’ and giving up social media probably isn’t realistic for many. But there are some ways we can make it work for us.
Cleanse your digital diet
Watch where you wander! Be judicious about who you follow and what sites you visit. If you follow food or health influencers, make sure they are qualified to make the claims they do. If what they say or do makes you feel worse about yourself, it might be time to unfollow them.
Turn off notifications
All apps love to ‘push’ notifications at you, telling you when there’s a new comment, like or message.
Reacting to these gives us that dopamine rush we crave, but can be a huge distraction and time waster. You can turn off notifications for any app — so you’ll only see the activity when you decide to check in.
Let the tools help you
The iPhone will now report screen time back to you. Set limits for the time during which you want to use social media apps. Schedule ‘downtime’ — when only the apps you select will be available to you. Use ‘bedtime’, ‘night mode’ and ‘do not disturb’ to stop yourself constantly reacting to alerts.
To take a step further, uninstall certain apps from your phone. If Facebook is too tempting in your pocket, try using it only on your computer — and delete it from your phone.
Create ‘tech-free’ zones & times
Set aside times as a family when you don’t have phones around — and improve your quality of life.
Eating a meal around a table without screen distractions has been shown to help prevent overeating— plus it encourages better bonding around the table. Then, when you’re turning into sleep, put your phone in another room — so you’re not tempted to pick it up!
100 minutes is our average daily time on social media
Australians spend more time on the internet than watching tv
Social media makes us feel we can’t disconnect in case we miss something.
Australia now has more mobile phone accounts than people!