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Technical difficulties: Living with the angst of a digital diet

| Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014, 5:08 p.m.
Mark Brewer | Trib Total Media
Sometimes, we all just need a digital detox.

We're tethered, enslaved, panic-stricken and obsessive-compulsive about it.

It gives us panic attacks, phobias, potentially stinting our psychological growth, and is most always never (ever!) out of reach — even when we're sleeping.

We feel vibrations and hear ringing when no one is calling and enjoy a shot of dopamine when someone really does.

Our little handheld wonders might be considered one of the 21st century's biggest game-changers, but the jury's still out on whether or not we're actually being smart when it comes to using our smartphones.

“If ‘smart' equals thinking about the potential ramifications of our cellphone use/dependency on human development, then no,” says Dr. Michelle Drouin, associate professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

“Life as we know it has changed so quickly that most of us haven't had the time to make smart decisions with regard to the use of this new technology,” she says. “However, now that the technology has permeated the fabric of our society, this is our charge.”

When considering the latest smattering of usage statistics, it's mind-boggling that we have time for anything other than staring longingly at our iPhones and Androids. According to Locket, an app that allows you to see content on your lock screen, we're swiping away to unlock our phones an average of 110 times per day.

Meanwhile, a report from Facebook and market-research firm International Data Corp., “Always Connected: How Smartphones and Social Keep Us Engaged,” found that 84 percent of each participant's time was spent on the phone texting, emailing or engaging on social media, while a measly 16 percent was actually spent chatting on it.

On a random afternoon, a simple hashtag search of the word “selfie” on Instagram turned up 162 million posts. A normal day on Twitter sees 500 million tweets and Snapchat usually tops 700 million photo messages. In June, 829 million of us were categorized as “a daily active user” on Facebook. It's common to see someone at the gym huffing and hashtagging, and texting while driving has become a matter of life or death.

“I won't call it an addiction, because I think, behaviorally, it's more like an obsession or a compulsion,” says Dr. Larry Rosen, whose books include “iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us,” and the forthcoming “The Distracted Mind.”

That manic activity, he says, is more about managing our stress and anxiety over the Fear of Missing Out (or #FOMO for you tweeters) than it is about experiencing any sort of genuine pleasure from “liking” what our cousin in Idaho had for lunch today.

“It's not that the cellphones are disruptive, it's people mis-using cellphones and not using them appropriately in the right places,” says etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore. In 2002, the increasing prevalence of cellphone usage in public spaces and decreasing demonstrations of basic courtesies by those using them led her to declare July as National Cellphone Courtesy Month.

“I have seen so many things that it just makes my skin crawl,” Whitmore says.

Weddings, funerals, church services — it seems that no event is sacred enough to extinguish the burning desire to look to our phones for something, anything, to keep us amused.

There's no question we've got a problem on our hands, Drouin says. “I think its hindering people's abilities to make the type of personal connections that I see as an integral part of the human experience. I think implementing rules in children about appropriate times to use cellphones will be a great step and not have such a detrimental effect.”

Equivalent to a panic attack

Having grown up with a cellphone practically sewn in their hand, it would be easy to assume the Millennials are the worst offenders. But that's not so, says Rosen, whose studies showed that younger generations are constantly checking their phones, but those older and wiser also are caving in to technological temptations.

“It's everybody. ... If you took my phone away, about 10 minutes in I'd start to feel very, very anxious about it,” Rosen says. “It's almost equivalent to having a panic attack. Literally, if you measured the visceral symptoms, I have an anxiety attack. And you can see people when they do this, when they set their phone down and then look all over the place for it. This is not just young people. I'm 64 going on 65.”

Panic attacks are just the tip of the iceberg. Not only are you likely to experience a meltdown when you think you've lost your phone or feel as though you're missing out on something, chances are good that your iPhone or Android is causing you to hallucinate.

Phantom vibrations were coined to describe the sensation of thinking your phone is going off, when it's really not. In her study, “Phantom vibrations in young adults: Prevalence and underlying psychological characteristics,” Drouin and her colleagues found that, out of 290 undergrads, 89 percent experienced a phantom vibration about once every two weeks.

“Few found them bothersome,” the article concluded. “Therefore, interventions aimed at this population may be unnecessary.”

A sad society

In fostering such a co-dependent relationship, it makes sense that some of our biggest fears have to do with the very notion of powering down. Not only are we FOMO-ing, now we're struggling with Nomophobia — “No mobile phone phobia” — which is categorized as the fear of being without a cellphone, running out of battery or having no reception.

For Rosen, the solution doesn't necessarily warrant a full-blown detox — after all, even if you can muster up enough willpower to go cell-free for, say, an entire weekend — what happens come Monday? It's more about managing the compulsive usage, he says, than going cold turkey.

“What I do is, I have people develop, slowly develop, their ability to focus,” Rosen says. “I might start them off by saying, ‘OK, check your smartphone for one minute, and then turn it off. Set an alarm for 15 minutes and do whatever you need to do for 15 minutes. Turn off all communications, and only focus on something you need to do for 15 minutes.

“When the alarm rings, give yourself a minute, 2 minutes — but that's the max — to check in. And then repeat the process over and over until you get comfortable, so when the alarm rings after 15 minutes you say, ‘Oh wow, I didn't realize 15 minutes was gone, because I was so absorbed in what I was doing.' And that's the point where you increase it to 20 minutes, and 25, and 30.

“I've seen people who've been able to do this — to go an hour without getting anxious. ... Really, what you're doing is you're re-training your neurotransmitters.”

By its very nature, that kind of training can begin chipping away at all of those bad habits we're guilty of, like tweeting about how much we're enjoying family night at our favorite Italian restaurant (#nomnomnom #TGIF #nowillpower #bonding #luvmycarbs) instead of actually participating in it.

“We're not saying to give up your cellphone, we're just saying, ‘OK, when you're having dinner with someone, turn it off for an hour.' Unless you're the president of the United States, you can probably get along pretty well for an hour without looking at it,” Whitmore says.

If begging and pleading fails, and you're left playing second fiddle to an iPhone, the Downside app offers a clever solution. “Live in the moment,” its website encourages. “Actually talk to your friends and family in the room, rather than staring at your phones. Twitter, Facebook and email can wait for you.”

Created on a lark by a group of technological software developers, the downloadable game requires all participants at the table to put their phones face down. The first one to crack can be punished in a variety of creative ways, including having to pick up the tab. All in good humor, it, nonetheless, leaves a lasting impression.

“We're a sad society,” founder Daniel Morrison says. “The funniest complaints about it have been, ‘Really? Someone had to build an app for this? Like, that's how bad we are?' Yep, yep we are.”

Kate Benz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media and can be reached at kbenz@tribweb.com, 412-380-8515 or via Twitter @KateBenzTRIB.

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