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How Your Smartphone is Changing Your Brain and What You Can Do About It

Photo cred: Yura Fresh @ Unsplash

It’s 1 A.M., and your bedroom is aglow with the bright LCD light right in front of your face as you scroll through your friends’ new puppies and houses and engagements, or through celebrities on private jets sipping champagne, or the latest viral memes. You know you should put the phone down and go to sleep, but five more minutes turns into another hour. Finally, you put the phone down and try to sleep only to find you can’t. And as you lie awake comparing yourself to the successes of others you just observed, you find yourself fighting the urge to pick the phone back up. After all, you can’t sleep anyway, right?

By now, most of us are aware of the dangers or at least the potential dangers of smartphones and social media. Yet all of that still seems to be outweighed by the fact we just love our little devices that keep us up past 1 A.M. And we’re slowly starting to begrudgingly admit that yes, we are in fact addicted to our smart phones. But like all addictions, the momentary escape we receive isn’t enough to make up for the harm it is inflicting on our lives.

Our phones have become a source of constant distraction; a distraction we welcome when trying to alleviate uncomfortable social situations or boredom (the average college student spends 8–10 hours a day killing time on their phone).The apps that take up the bulk of our attention are of course, social media: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. And it’s the social media that is the most harmful aspect of our phones.

These harmful aspects have created a dangerous generation for teens, with phone use and social media linked to an increase in depression, anxiety, and suicide among teenagers. Almost 50% of teens who spend a significant amount of time on their phones reported thinking about, planning, or attempting suicide compared with 28% who spent less time.

Of course suicide has always been a problem among teens, along with bullying, high school drama, and distorted body image. But in the past, teens had a reprieve from that aspect of their social life when they returned home from school to be with their families. Phones have taken away that balance and created a situation in which teens are given no break from their social life and are isolated from the care and reassurance they might have otherwise had from family members, thanks to the screen stealing all of their attention.

And it isn’t only teenagers that are affected by this growing problem. Researchers found in a study with adults that higher levels of social media engagement were associated with lower mood and feelings of dissatisfaction in life, thanks in part to social media’s evil spawn: FOMO, or fear of missing out.

Researchers have found that it is typically the FOMO aspect of social media that leads to higher cases of anxiety and depression, along with stress, sleep difficulties, and even psychosomatic symptoms. It’s also been found to be felt regardless of temperament and personality type and is unsurprisingly experienced most later in the day and at the end of the week, as everyone religiously compares their weekend plans with that of their peers.

We are in a state of perpetual “virtual crowd watching”; a 21st century gladiator ring, where everyone’s lives are put on display to be constantly applauded or critiqued. It also pressures people to document what they’re doing with a picture or a post rather than just enjoying the moment (pics or it didn’t happen!). Where once you could focus on your own life and the lives of those closest to you and deprive your own value and life satisfaction, now we must continuously compare ourselves to the lives of others we see online.

The inherent danger in this is that what we see on social media is misleading. People will typically only post the best aspects of themselves and their lives and the posts are heavily manicured. We see the glamorous vacation, but not the mishaps that happen on the vacation or the expensive price tag that came along with it. We see the happy couple, but not the fights and conflicts.

We never see the full picture. This all becomes that more apparent when people are surprised by the suicides of successful celebrities. We see the success and what we equate with happiness, but not the personal hardships, traumas, and mental turmoil.

Unfortunately, the easy solution to all this — to turn off and put away the phone — isn’t so easy. Phone addiction is real: a study looking at the brains of people addicted to phone use and social media found that the chemistry of the reward circuits of the brain had been altered. Our phones are literally restructuring our brains. And other studies have found that people can experience real physical and mental withdrawal symptoms when they try to kick the habit. But it isn’t too late and there are ways to make giving up, or at least reducing, our smartphone tendencies easier.

In the same study that examined the brains of phone addicted users, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was found to restructure the brain back to its normal, non-addicted state. And there are techniques used in CBT that you can try yourself, such as mental re-framing.

You can use mental re-framing by recording your negative thoughts when using social media in a journal, and then replacing those negative thoughts with more reasonable ones. Analyze the “frame” behind the negative cognition. Where does it come from? Is there a pattern? Recognizing why you have those negative thoughts when using social media can help you to get past them.

Another thing you can do is enlist your family and peers to engage in some digital detox with you. Set up certain times of day when everyone puts their phone away or refrains from looking at social media. Make a pact with your friends when going out that you will only use your phones to contact one another if separated, and not for anything else. When your friends and family are in it together with you, it may make giving it up easier.

Ironically, another method to kick your smartphone habit is to use another app to turn the phone against itself. There are several “blocking” apps on the market that you can use to literally block you from using apps like Facebook. You can set the amount of time or schedule times for certain apps to be blocked to prevent you from engaging with them at all. The great thing about these apps are that while they block ones giving you trouble, they don’t interfere with how your phone was originally intended to be used: as a phone.

When Apple released the first iPhone or when Zuckerberg first launched Facebook, no one really pondered the ramifications of either. The technology, and more importantly the way society responded to it, accelerated before anyone could even begin to ask what risks were carried with it.

We are long past the point of no return when it comes to smartphones. They have already woven themselves into the fabric of our society and modern world and reshaped it, for better or for worse. They aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean we have to let them run our lives. You are not powerless and, using every tool at your disposal, you can take your life back into your own hands.