The chorus of concerns over our increasing dependence on digital technology has reached a crescendo. As our digital lives continue to dilute real life connectivity and stymie our ability to be present, we’re all scrambling to figure how to avoid becoming the “tools of our [our] tool,” as 19th-century transcendental philosopher Henry David Thoreau once said.
The smartphone, which feels like a vital fifth limb to many of us, and the increasing digitization of our social interactions have created a persistent, all pervasive, and profoundly stressful false urgency — imagine if you disconnected, a few days to respond to a friend’s text, or your boss’s email or ignored a new notification? — and an inability to be fully engaged and focused in our material reality. (There’s even a newish term for people who prioritize the digital over the analog: Phubbing, "the act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention.”)
Despite the countless ways technology helps us, it can hurt us, too.
A growing number of studies show the adverse effects on our health and wellness with too much screen time and online sociality. It’s correlated with depression, anxiety, lower self-esteem and loneliness. Some experts and researchers, including Jean Twenge, Ph.D., the author of “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us,” make a direct link between the year the iPhone hit market saturation in 2012 and the staggering uptick in depression and anxiety among millennials and Gen Z.
While the wholesale abandonment of our devices is not on the horizon (nor should it be), shifting our mindsets and rethinking our relationship with technology has the potential to improve all areas of our lives.
We can start by adopting a philosophy put forth by Thrive Global, the behavior change tech company founded and spearheaded by Arianna Huffington, that proposes taking “microsteps,” defined as, “small, incremental, science-backed actions we can take that will have both immediate and long-lasting behavioral, and emotional benefits to the way we live our lives.” With that in mind, try incorporating some iteration of these small, but impactful changes into your life now. It’s about disconnecting to connect.
Don’t bring your phone to dinner
Phubbing is akin to letting your eyes aggressively scope out the scene at a party while someone is trying to talk to you. It’s rude and diminishing. It strains (and stains) our connections. Last year, research out of the University of Kent in the U.K. found that phubbing erodes relationship satisfaction and our sense of well-being and belonging. Studies have also suggested that our excess dependence on screens for pleasure and sociality have corroded our capacity for empathy, which depends on our ability to read one another’s facial expressions: Constantly fixing our eyes on screens undermines and challenges the process through which we become empathic humans. Eye to eye contact not only creates the condition for healthy, happy social interactions, it can also make us feel closer and more similar to each other. An easy way to resist the temptation to avert your gaze from your dining partner (and reap the rewards of a deeper connection) is to keep your smartphone off the table and out of sight.
Take a walk through a rural sanctuary or urban oasis — and skip the selfies
The inclination to record every moment of our lives, especially when we’re capturing an image that makes us look incomparably successful and happy, feels almost as automatic as breathing these days. But new research shows we’re less likely to remember experiences we’ve photographed, maybe because the act of snapping pics takes us out of the present moment. One way to restore our connection to the present and nurture our health and well-being is to visit a natural landscape, whether a tree-lined city park or lush countryside, two hours per week, a new study finds. The sustained integration of greenery into our lives, starting from childhood to adulthood, has been shown to help inoculate us from mental health problems later in life. Walking, too, provides advantages: It not only fires up our imagination, it boosts immune function and reduces our cancer risk.
Abstain from looking at your phone right when you wake up
Springing your mind, body and spirit to wakefulness with a shock of artificial light, a barrage of text messages, missed phone calls and innumerable notifications is not a great way to start your day. Arianna Huffington urges us to be mindful and avoid this fate by relying on an old-fashioned alarm clock: “If only someone would invent an alarm clock that’s not a phone and a gateway to the internet. Oh, wait, they have!” she joked to New York Magazine last April. The sleep evangelist and author of “The Sleep Revolution,” Huffington often proposes starting your day with gratitude, which science shows has a whole host of benefits, including increased happiness, improved sleep, greater resilience, less depression and an overall sense of well-being.
Skip the all-absorbing digital scroll in the wee hours of the morning and start your day with thanks (and positive affirmations, which science shows effectively help build confidence and self-worth) and you’ll set yourself up for a more successful day.