5 Ways Your Technology Is Destroying You (and What to Do About It)
You don’t need to break up with your phone, but you probably need to set some boundaries…
I am a big fan of technology. The devices that have connected us bring countless benefits, including my ability to deliver this message to you today.
But, being pro-technology doesn’t mean that I have to pretend there is no danger.
Most people are unaware of the ways their technology is holding them back. The good news is that once you become aware, it’s not too difficult to start getting things back on track. It’s possible use technology while keeping yourself protected from its detrimental effects.
You need to be both grateful for the benefits of technology, and aware of the drawbacks.
I have five particular areas that I want to look at where technology has the power to harm instead of help. Then we’ll look at the ways you can flip the script and master technology instead of having it master you.
Here are the five main ways that technology may be hurting you:
It’s Destroying Your Contentment
There are several ways that digital devices cause discontent. The first is something of a well-known cultural phenomenon: FOMO, the fear of missing out.
Have you ever pulled out your phone to see what your friends were doing instead of enjoying where you were?
Or worse, you may have even spent a whole evening, hopping from place to place, party to party, only ever thinking about what else was going on out there.
Now that we can know what everyone else is doing, we want to know what everyone else is doing (and to make sure it isn’t any better than what we’re doing).
Technology also undermines our contentment by providing a constant highlight reel of friends, acquaintances, and celebrities.
Oh, look at that, Bill got a promotion. Susan bought a new house. Shane lost 30 pounds. Jane had another baby. James and Pamela got engaged. The Rock started a new business venture that will make him millions of dollars. And I’m eating ice cream out of the tub and watching Netflix while scrolling through my news feed.
Social media is set up to show the highlights. There is no “dislike” button on Facebook. They encourage you to share the good stuff.
While some people do share some of their struggles, everyone is struggling a lot more than their profile indicates.
Technology also creates discontentment through advertising. Advertising isn’t new, it has been creating discontentment for decades before social media showed up. What is new is how targeted the ads have become.
Companies like Google and Facebook know what you do online, and will help advertisers find you. In her book Reclaiming Conversation: the Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Serry Turkle observes:
“It seems that by becoming a consumer, you gave up rights you may have wanted to hold onto as a citizen.”
In other words, by signing up for your online accounts, you gave them access to your data. One effect of this is that they sell your data to advertisers who are looking to sell to a certain demographic.
In the old days of television, you had to sit through commercials targeted at the masses, most of which were irrelevant to you. Now you see ads targeted at you directly. Ever notice how that thing you almost bought ends up in your news feed the next day? Marketers are going to tempt you with what they already know you want.
Having your phone with you creates the danger of slipping into discontentment.
It’s Creating Anxiety
Have you ever felt anxious as your phone’s battery life began approaching zero?
Or is it better described as outright panic?
If so, you have experienced ‘disconnection anxiety,’ a sign of your addiction to technology.
Most people today rarely experience true solitude because they are never truly alone. Whenever they are by themselves they are in the presence of a ‘managed crowd.’
They can connect to anyone in an instant using their phone, which is always on them. And the phone allows them to control how they interact with the people they connect with. They get to decide whether they want to message someone. They decide whether or not to reply to a message. They even get to decide whether to read the messages they receive.
Of course, this isn’t real control, but the illusion of control. Most can’t help but check their phone every time they hear that notification chime. You phone always gives you something to do, something to react to. If your phone dies and there is nothing to react to, you’re not sure what to do with yourself.
There was a study published in 2014 in which they put college students in a laboratory room for 6–15 minutes to be alone with their thoughts. In one variation of the experiment, they gave the participants a mild, but unpleasant electric shock beforehand. During the solitude portion of the experiment, the electric shock was made available to participants at the press of a button. Of the 42 people who initially said they would pay not to experience the shock again, 18 ended up shocking themselves. We’ve reached the point where people would rather do something unpleasant than do nothing at all. Try putting your phone away and see if you’d prefer an electric shock to using your imagination.
Most people have a compulsive need to keep checking their phone. On average people check their phones 76 times a day, with heavy mobile users averaging 132.
It’s Wrecking Your Capacity for Empathy
Modern communication has shifted our gaze from each other to screens.
This is a problem because face-to-face communication is critical for the development of empathy. Eye contact is a critical component here. It is through looking at someone’s eyes that we appreciate their personhood. It’s by looking at their eyes that we learn to read their emotions. That we force ourselves to imagine what they are thinking and feeling.
When you are looking at a screen, it becomes harder to treat the other person like a person. Their messages are nothing but another digital stimulus to respond to.
Have you ever noticed how anonymity leads to toxic conversations online? It’s hard to have empathy for an unnamed stranger that you’re not making eye contact with.
Any technology that has the potential to hinder face-to-face conversation warrants cautious use.
If you have ever spent time ignoring the person you’re with to text someone else, something in your life is broken.
For parents, the issue of empathy has critical implications for raising your children.
The novelist George Eliot coined the phrase ‘the meeting eyes of love’ to describe the intimate eye contact that a mother and her baby make. Psychologists have found that this connection is critical for a child’s emotional development. This eye contact creates a powerful sense of attachment and fondness that grows into a capacity for empathy. Children deprived of this intimate connection can struggle with their emotional stability. They are more likely to end up in dysfunctional relationships and to abuse substances later in life.
Parents focused on their phones display the harmful ‘still face’ of Dr. Edward Tronick’s famous experiments. A parent engrossed in what is happening on a screen is not engaged in the ‘meeting eyes of love’ that children need.
When you are on your phone, you might be present enough to meet your child’s need for protection, but you are not present enough to meet their need for attention and affection.
It’s Crushing Your Creativity
In their class Learning How to Learn, Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski mention an oddly similar habit shared by two great creative geniuses: Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali.
When they would get stuck, they would retreat to a favorite comfortable chair for a nap. Each would have an object dangling in their hands (Dali used a large ring of keys and Edison used ball bearings). As they sat, their mind began to wander until they fell asleep. The moment they fell asleep their hand would relax, causing them to drop what they were holding. The noise of the objects hitting the floor would wake them up and they would immediately get back to work.
This odd trick for promoting creativity comes from principles of neuroscience that are critical to learning, creativity, and memory. The idea is that your brain has two main modes of operation: focus mode and diffuse mode.
In focus mode, your mind narrows as it focuses on the task at hand and you start to ignore most other things. It’s kind of like a bowling lane with bumpers, your thoughts don’t have a lot of room to work with.
Diffuse mode is when your mind is free to wander. In this state, your neural pathway is something like a pinball machine. Your thoughts able to bounce from one object to another.
Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali each took their brain from focus mode to diffuse mode as they switched from working to sitting in their chair. In diffuse mode, your mind is free to wander and see things from a different angle.
This is how “eureka” moments happen. The first time you attempt an important task or a difficult problem you don’t seem to make progress. Then you leave and come back to it again. Still nothing. You leave again. Suddenly, you make an unexpected connection — the insight you were looking for seems to hit you out of nowhere.
This pattern of alternating between focus and diffuse mode is where breakthroughs are born.
Your phone comes with distractions that disrupt focus mode. Every little chime causes you to pick up your phone and react to whatever is happening. Every notification seems urgent.
Your phone also prevents you from experiencing the benefits of diffuse mode. When using your phone, your mind is not free to wander. Your attention becomes captured and divided.
Your phone keeps you in a permanent reaction mode that kills your focus and creativity.
As Sherry Turkle comments: “Our brains are most productive when there is no demand that they be reactive.”
Your brain is a restless creature that wants to find the most interesting thing it can to attend itself to. If you are always checking your phone, your brain will always respond to what is on the phone. It’s when the brain loses the ability to be reactive and starts getting bored that it turns inward to your imagination.
It’s Fragmenting Your Focus (diminishing your capacity for productivity and deep work)
One of the things that technology introduced us to is the myth of multitasking.
When I call multitasking a myth, I don’t mean it’s impossible to do two things at once. I mean that most attempts at multi-tasking actually make you less productive.
To do two things at once, you need to choose tasks that don’t compete for the same resources. So let’s say you want to start walking more to improve your health. You also want to start listening to audiobooks to improve your mind, but you don’t think you have enough time for both. This is a rare opportunity where multi-tasking will actually be useful. Walking requires no significant mental effort, but listening to an audiobook does. Listening to an audiobook doesn’t need the use of your vision, but walking does (to see where you are going). Walking doesn’t need the use of your ears but listening to an audiobook does.
Any combination of audio plus some sort of manual, routine task is going to be a good candidate for getting two things done at once.
Most so-called multi-tasking is nothing like what I just described. Instead, you switch back and forth between 30 tabs on your browser (or 30 apps on your phone). You try to simultaneously research, write, and edit a paper while at the same time responding to email, checking Facebook notifications, building a spreadsheet, and occasionally switching over to Spotify or Pandora to skip the current song.
I got exhausted just writing that sentence.
All these tasks are competing for the same resources. They need your eyes, your attention, the processing capabilities of your brain. You can’t do them all at once, you have to switch from one to the next. The cognitive load associated with switching brings your productivity to a screeching halt.
What makes multi-tasking dangerous is how deceptive it is. The less productive you get, the more you feel better about your time management skills and about how ‘busy’ you are.
The problem is that doing lots of things at the same time isn’t the same thing as getting lots of things done. Even getting lots of things done isn’t the same thing as getting important things done.
Not only does multi-tasking not work, you don’t get better at it with practice. As Sherry Turkle points out: “Multi-tasking trains your brain to expect more multi-tasking. People who multi-task don’t get better at it, they just want more of it.” In other words, multi-tasking is not a skill that you can improve, it’s an addictive behavior.
When it comes to doing important work, what you want to happen is a state called ‘flow.’ In flow you engage in a task that is not easy enough to do without concentrating, but it’s not so difficult that it is beyond you. Flow requires focused attention and it is where growth and learning can happen. After you come out of a state of flow you will likely feel energized and proud of what you accomplished. In order for flow to work, you need to devote uninterrupted attention. Switching tasks and responding to notifications or other interruptions will derail your efforts.
What to do About It
The situation is not hopeless. Even though technology exerts a powerful pull, you can still use it in a responsible manner. You can make things so it is working for you and not the other way around.
The most obvious way to break the control over technology is to spend time apart from phone. You should devote the first bit of time you re able to free up to practicing solitude.
To practice solitude, you need to remove as many distractions as possible. You want there to no stimuli in your environment that you feel an urgent need to respond to.
In solitude, you shouldn’t be ‘plugged in’ at all. There should be no TV or music on in the background. If you want to record your thoughts and take notes, you should do it in a physical journal, not a laptop.
Fair warning, your first several attempts at solitude could be brutal. You might experience something that has come close to extinction: boredom.
There’s no way around it, boredom can be unpleasant. But that doesn’t mean you need to avoid it. As Turkle explains: “Boredom can be recognized as your imagination calling you.”
Again, your mind wants to attend itself to the most interesting thing in its environment. If there is nothing interesting in its environment, it will turn inward to find something.
In general, the goal of solitude is get your mind to turn inward. This is where you can access your imagination and practice self-reflection.
If you are finding solitude difficult, one way to wade into it is to begin with ‘accompanied solitude.’ The idea here would be to bring a friend with you on a very long walk. You’ll talk to each other some, but you’ll also experience extended periods of silence. If you don’t, you either need to make the walk longer, or set up expectations for talking less.
Accompanied solitude gives you the security of friendship. It provides a safe place to turn inward to tap into your imagination.
If you are a parent, accompanied solitude is the best approach to teach your kids to enjoy their own company.
The next major key is to seek out real conversation. Give the important people in your life the gift of your undivided time and attention.
During this time, your phone needs to be completely out of sight. The mere visual presence of a phone alters the conversation for both parties. A phone on the landscape means an interruption is likely. Turn your phone off and keep it in your pocket or in another room.
Another key to conversation is practicing eye-contact. The way that we develop empathy is by looking into someone’s eyes. Their face and eyes are windows into their emotions.
Eye contact seems so basic that it doesn’t need practice. But the more screen time you’ve had, the rustier you might be.
It’s critical to devote time as well as attention to a conversation. This is harder than it sounds because most good conversations take a long time to get going. According to Sherry Turkle, it takes about seven minutes to see how a conversation is going to unfold. Seven minutes is an eternity when your phone is away. Approach conversations expecting to tread through slow starts.
Conversation becomes a great place to practice the art of asking questions.
Start with the classic active listening move of restating your understanding: “So, If I’m hearing you correctly, what your saying is…?”
You can advance to questions that invite them to self-reflection such as “how did that make you feel?”
As you get comfortable, you’ll be able to start asking deeper an more insightful questions. Deeper questions lead to deeper conversation.
Not every conversation is going to be a home run, but you still need to have them. In building a relationship, what you say in a conversation is often not as significant as the simple act of showing up for another conversation. Every conversation is an invitation to relationship. It is a mutual affirmation of the worth of the conversation partners.
Creating Technology-Free Spaces
There are three strategic times to create a technology-free zone:
- The morning (the first couple of hours after you wake up)
- The evening (the hour or so before you go to bed)
- The times during your day most conducive to conversation or solitude
“If you win the morning, you win the day” -Tim Ferriss
Most people sleep with their phones by their beds and immediately check it upon waking.
You can do better.
Checking notifications immediately upon waking usually puts you in a reactive state that you will stay in the whole day by default.
You want to be in a pro-active mode right from the get-go.
In a perfect world, you would have an alarm clock other than your phone. You’d keep your phone somewhere other than your bedroom. You wouldn’t even touch it until you have finished your morning routine.
A good morning routine is critical for a good day. If you win the morning, you win the day. Here are some of the elements of a good morning routine. You don’t need to have them all, so consider which ones make the most sense for your situation.
- Physical exercise
- A cold shower
- Creative work such as writing
- A healthy breakfast
Whatever you do in the mornings, keep your phone away. Two of the tasks mentioned put you into ‘focus mode’ (journaling, your creative work). The others let your mind to wander and enter ‘diffuse mode’ (exercise, shower, breakfast). Your phone can block both of these ideal states. Put your phone away. I wake up at 5:30 am and try not to check my phone until 8:00 am.
A good morning routine starts the night before. Keep the time that you go to bed consistent, and put your technology away at least an hour before bedtime.
This ‘Amish Hour’ keeps your eyes away from the blue light emitted from screens which keep you awake. It also gives your mind a chance to wind down after the events of the day. During this time it’s good to either engage in conversation, read a book (fiction works especially well here), or write in your journal.
One journaling trick is to write down any questions you are wrestling with right before going to bed. This accomplishes two important things. It makes it less likely that anxiety will keep you awake since you’ve taken your problems ‘off your mind.’ Also, it gives your subconscious mind a chance to work on them as your brain enters diffuse mode.
In the morning, take your best shot at answering the questions from the night before. As they say, you’ve had time to ‘sleep on it.’
If you put your devices away in the mornings and evenings, you can make significant steps toward a healthier, more productive life.
The Times Most Conducive to Solitude and Conversation
For most people the time most conducive to conversation is going to be meal time. Particularly dinner for those living with family or roommates. The trick is getting everyone else to get into the habit of putting their phone away beforehand. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
At meal times, eyes should find other eyes, not screens.
If you are a parent, mealtime is especially important. One of the best predictors of a child’s success later in life is the number of meals that they spend with their family. For me, the time most conducive to solitude is my commute. It takes be about 15 minutes to get to work. I keep the radio off and my phone in my pocket to give my mind a chance to wander.
Sometimes this is harder than others. Every now and then I get the urge to check my phone at a red light.
One thing that has helped me out is to say, out loud: “I’m not checking that because I’m secure being alone with my thoughts.”
It sounds crazy, but it makes you feel great about making a positive choice and winning a small victory.
Digital technology has made our lives better and continues to make our lives better. As helpful as it is, too much of a good thing is still too much.
You need to set the right boundaries in order to thrive.
I hope this article helped with that.