Putting Down Your Phone May Help You Live Longer

By raising levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol, our phone time may also be threatening our long-term health. CreditRaúl Soria

ImageCreditCreditRaúl Soria

By Catherine Price

  • April 24, 2019
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If you’re like many people, you may have decided that you want to spend less time staring at your phone.

It’s a good idea: an increasing body of evidence suggests that the time we spend on our smartphones is interfering with our sleep, self-esteem, relationships, memory, attention spans, creativity, productivity and problem-solving and decision-making skills.

But there is another reason for us to rethink our relationships with our devices. By chronically raising levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, our phones may be threatening our health and shortening our lives.

Until now, most discussions of phones’ biochemical effects have focused on dopamine, a brain chemical that helps us form habits — and addictions. Like slot machines, smartphones and apps are explicitly designed to trigger dopamine’s release, with the goal of making our devices difficult to put down.

This manipulation of our dopamine systems is why many experts believe that we are developing behavioral addictions to our phones. But our phones’ effects on cortisol are potentially even more alarming.

Cortisol is our primary fight-or-flight hormone. Its release triggers physiological changes, such as spikes in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar, that help us react to and survive acute physical threats.

These effects can be lifesaving if you are actually in physical danger — like, say, you’re being charged by a bull. But our bodies also release cortisol in response to emotional stressors where an increased heart rate isn’t going to do much good, such as checking your phone to find an angry email from your boss.

If they happened only occasionally, phone-induced cortisol spikes might not matter. But the average American spends four hours a day staring at their smartphone and keeps it within arm’s reach nearly all the time, according to a tracking app called Moment. The result, as Google has noted in a report, is that “mobile devices loaded with social media, email and news apps” create “a constant sense of obligation, generating unintended personal stress.”

“Your cortisol levels are elevated when your phone is in sight or nearby, or when you hear it or even think you hear it,” says David Greenfield, professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. “It’s a stress response, and it feels unpleasant, and the body’s natural response is to want to check the phone to make the stress go away.”

But while doing so might soothe you for a second, it probably will make things worse in the long run. Any time you check your phone, you’re likely to find something else stressful waiting for you, leading to another spike in cortisol and another craving to check your phone to make your anxiety go away. This cycle, when continuously reinforced, leads to chronically elevated cortisol levels.

And chronically elevated cortisol levels have been tied to an increased risk of serious health problems, including depression, obesity, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, fertility issues, high blood pressure, heart attack, dementia and stroke.

“Every chronic disease we know of is exacerbated by stress,” says Dr. Robert Lustig, emeritus professor in pediatric endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “The Hacking of the American Mind.” “And our phones are absolutely contributing to this.”

In addition to its potential long-term health consequences, smartphone-induced stress affects us in more immediately life-threatening ways.

Elevated cortisol levels impair the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain critical for decision-making and rational thought. “The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s Jiminy Cricket,” says Dr. Lustig. “It keeps us from doing stupid things.”

Impairment of the prefrontal cortex decreases self-control. When coupled with a powerful desire to allay our anxiety, this can lead us to do things that may be stress-relieving in the moment but are potentially fatal, such as texting while driving.

The effects of stress can be amplified even further if we are constantly worrying that something bad is about to happen, whether it’s a physical attack or an infuriating comment on social media. (In the case of phones, this state of hypervigilance sometimes manifests as “phantom vibrations,” in which people feel their phone vibrating in their pocket when their phone isn’t even there.)

“Everything that we do, everything we experience, can influence our physiology and change circuits in our brain in ways that make us more or less reactive to stress,” says Bruce McEwen, head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at The Rockefeller University.

Dr. McEwen also notes that our baseline cortisol levels ebb and flow in a regular 24-hour cycle that is thrown out of whack if we get less than seven to eight hours of sleep a night, which is all too easy to do if you’re in the habit of checking your phone before bed. This in turn leaves our bodies less resilient to stress and increases our risk of all the stress-related health conditions mentioned above.

Put this all together, and the hours we spend compulsively checking our phones may add up to much more than a waste of time.

The good news is that if we break this anxiety-driven cycle, we can reduce our cortisol levels, which in turn may both improve our short-term judgment and lower our risks for long-term stress-related health problems. Over time, says Dr. McEwen, it’s even possible to retrain our brains so that our stress responses are no longer on such a hair-trigger to begin with.

To make your phone less stressful, start by turning off all notifications except for the ones you actually want to receive.

Next, pay attention to how individual apps make you feel when you use them. Which do you check out of anxiety? Which leave you feeling stressed? Hide these apps in a folder off your home screen. Or, better yet, delete them for a few days and see how it feels.

And while you’re at it, start paying attention to how individual apps affect you physically, too. “If we’re not aware of our physical sensations, we’re not going to change our behaviors,” says Dr. Judson Brewer, director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University and author of “The Craving Mind.” According to Dr. Brewer, stress and anxiety often manifest as a feeling of contraction in the chest.

Regular breaks can also be an effective way to rebalance your body’s chemistry and regain your sense of control. A 24-hour “digital Sabbath” can be surprisingly soothing (once the initial twitchiness subsides), but even just leaving your phone behind when you get lunch is a step in the right direction.

Also, try to notice what anxiety-induced phone cravings feel like in your brain and body — without immediately giving in to them. “If you practice noticing what is happening inside yourself, you will realize that you can choose how to respond,” says Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist teacher at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. “We don’t have to be at the mercy of algorithms that are promoting the fear of missing out.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to create healthy boundaries with devices that are deliberately designed to discourage them. But by reducing our stress levels, doing so won’t just make us feel better day-to-day. It might actually lengthen our lives.

Catherine Price (@catherine_price) is the author of “How to Break Up With Your Phone” and creator of Screen/Life Balance.

A New Kind of Social Anxiety in the Classroom

The Atlantic

Kids who constantly use phones and computers tend to be more nervous in face-to-face conversations. What can teachers do to help?

Giuseppe Milo/Flickr

Stress about a meeting that is still a week away, handwringing before talking to the cashier in the grocery line, worrying about seeing an acquaintance on the street—for people with social anxiety disorder, even the simplest task can prove challenging. The symptoms of social anxiety often set in around adolescence, when people place a new emphasis on social interactions and their place in their peer groups. But some academics fear that greater access to technology could exacerbate social anxiety among teens, particularly as smartphones, tablets, and computers become omnipresent in and out of the classroom. And even though teachers are increasingly exploiting the devices as learning tools, they also play an integral role in stemming the tide of social anxiety.

“If we are glued to technology 24/7, it’s going to have an effect on social skills—it’s just natural,” said Tamyra Pierce, a journalism professor at California State University, Fresno. The clear link between technology and social behavior makes it all the more important that teachers who embrace these devices need to keep students’ social skills in mind.

An estimated 15 million Americans have social anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and symptoms usually start around age 13. More than just shyness, social anxiety causes people to fear the judgment and scrutiny of those around them. People with social anxiety often have concurrent disorders like depression. The disorder can affect every aspect of a person’s life, from academic performance to self esteem; in severe cases, social anxiety can be debilitating, keeping sufferers in bed and out of public places to avoid confrontation. But almost everyone suffers from at least a little social anxiety, says Thomas Rodebaugh, a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “We’d be worried about someone who never experiences any social anxiety,” he said.

Social anxiety differs between individuals, so it makes sense that the relationship between technology and social anxiety is murky and is often varies case to case. For some sufferers, technology can increase social interaction. One 2012 studyfound that people with low self-esteem who may be reluctant to talk about themselves with peers face-to-face feel more comfortable sharing personal information on Facebook. Researchers who conducted another 2006 studyconcluded that social media can “strengthen community engagement and attachment” in some people. Pierce recalls teens with disabilities that, in spite of their apprehension about talking with the opposite sex, were able to approach their crushes through technology. “Once they felt like they were doing okay [online], then they could continue the conversation face-to-face in a more comfortable state,” Pierce said. “The anxiety was lessened by using technology, but that’s more the exception than the rule.”

Pierce says it’s the exception because she has personally seen an increase in social anxiety among her plugged-in students over the years she has been teaching. “Now young people can’t look you in the eye, they get antsy talking to you in person,” she said.

So, in 2009, Pierce conducted a study to test the relationship between technology and social anxiety. She asked teenagers how often they use “socially interactive technologies,” like instant messages and texts, and then assessed how comfortable they felt talking to people face-to-face. Pierce found that the more the students spent using online communication methods, the more likely they were to show symptoms of anxiety about communicating face-to-face. What’s more, teenage girls showed much more anxiety than did their male peers.

These conclusions left Pierce with a chicken-and-egg problem: “Was it the use of technology that has created a heightened sense of anxiety about talking to someone face to face, or did it start with social anxiety that led to increased use of social media?” Either way, though, she hypothesizes that teens are using social media as a crutch, a replacement for the in-person interactions that help them develop socially. “It’s going to take a lot more research because, as I’ve seen in my other research about social media, due to excessive use of cell phones, teens and young people alike are not talking face to face. It’s hampering their social skills,” she said.

But Rodebaugh, the psychologist, is skeptical that technology is to blame for social anxiety among teens. “What we’ve seen from some of my students’ studies is, if you’re the sort of person who is going on Facebook to interact with people you expect to see sometime in the future, you’re going to interact with them in the real world,” he said. There’s no evidence that using technology that way has a negative effect, he added. But he agrees that adolescence is a pivotal time in a person’s social development and, as future studies probe the relationship between social anxiety and technology, “[adolescence] is a good place to look for it.”

In the years since Pierce’s study, digital communication has become even more common. Between 2011 and 2013, the percentage of teens who had smartphonesincreased from 23 percent to 37 percent. In 2012, 81 percent of teens used some form of social media.

Anecdotally, both Pierce and Rodebaugh have seen more laptops and cell phones in the classroom. Constant pings of texts and Facebook notifications can sometimes distract students, pulling them away from their face-to-face interactions and into the virtual world of digital communication. One 2013 studyfound that the average person unlocked his or her cell phone more than 100 times per day. “It’s much easier to look at a phone than to look someone in the eye,” said parenting blogger Vanessa Van Petten in a 2013 Washington Postarticle.

Technology is increasingly a primary means for socializing among teens. But it’s not clear whether this has had an effect on the number of people with social anxiety. “We don’t have data that is that intensive [about social anxiety] over the past five years,” Rodebaugh said. Even though social anxiety is one of the most common anxiety disorders (about12 percent of adults will have it at some point in their lives), researchers aren’t yet able to determine how its prevalence has changed over time; there’s still little consensus on the causes of the disorder. So there’s no proof that an increased use of technology over the past five years has led to a greater prevalence of social anxiety. Pierce plans to conduct an updated version of her 2009 study in the near future, which may shed some light on the issue.

Regardless, even if the link between technology and social anxiety were clearer, banning it in the classroom seems increasingly unlikely. Teachers from kindergarten onward are embracing laptops, iPads, and video games as educational tools, using them to help students visualize complex topics in a whole new way, despite the distraction caused by texts and social media. “Unless there were some sort of attempt to ban technology from the classroom, [that technology] will be there when most people want it to,” Rodebaugh said. “I haven’t yet made a particular policy [restricting the use of technology in the classroom]. But I’ve considered it, and I assume at some point I’ll have to.”

Pierce doesn’t think that’s the solution, though. “It’s not a matter of use or no use, it’s what kind of use,” she said. “When we take away all face-to-face communication and our young people stay in their rooms and stare at their screens, we do them a disservice.” A good comparison, she says, is how people view tests—some prefer multiple-choice while others want only open-ended questions. Using technology in the right way means giving students a balance and options with their devices, both academically and socially. “We can’t lose the social skills, we can’t lose the technology—we have to have both. We have to go back to that balance,” Pierce said.

For teens that feel socially anxious, Pierce suggests that they use technology less at home (especially for those who let it disrupt their sleep). Rodebaugh added that there are a number of treatments for social anxiety, which involve medication or therapy. “People don’t have to continue to suffer if they don’t want to,” he said.

Millennials Would Rather Ditch Car Than Smartphone Or Computer

The Huffington Post  |  By  Posted: 03/01/2013

Millennials Car Ownership

Millennials would rather give up driving than their smartphone or laptop, a surveycommissioned by the car rental company Zipcar finds.

Every other age group in the survey said losing their car would have the greatest negative impact on their life, except millennials. Thirty percent of people ages 18 to 34 said giving up their mobile phone would have the greatest negative impact on their life — two to nearly three times higher than any other age group in the survey. A plurality of young adults, 35 percent, identified their computer as the piece of technology they couldn’t live without.

More than any other age group, millennials said they make a conscious attempt to reduce the amount of time they drive by carpooling, taking public transportation, riding a bike or walking, according to the study. Millennials were more likely to communicate with friends online than to see them in person, and more likely to order online than to drive somewhere to buy something.

Zipcar surveyed 1,015 adults in December 2012, 303 of them between the ages of 18 and 34. Sure, Zipcar has a stake in promoting the sharing of cars over car ownership, but plenty of statistics support their survey’s findings.

There’s been a significant drop in teens even bothering to get a driver’s license [PDF]since 1980, according to the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute.

In 1985, 38 percent of all new cars were purchased by people age 21 to 34, but that fell to 27 percent in 2010, the Atlantic reported. Four out of five millennials said in the Zipcar survey that the high cost of gas, parking and maintenance has discouraged them from owning a car.

“What I have heard a lot is that the cost of getting licensed, purchasing, insuring, maintaining and fueling a car has become an impediment to use of a car. Prices have increased a fair bit since the mid 1980s for all facets of car ownership and operation,” UMTRI research professor Ray Bingham said in a 2011 publication of Research Review. “Cost pushes people to seek out transportation alternatives.”

Surveys of millennials by Ypulse found that young adults still like to drive, and still value the “freedom of the open road,” but that they are willing to give up owning a car because it “represents a huge responsibility.”

This may help explain why American car makers have turned to MTV for strategic advice on how to get more Generation Y customers, though so far their efforts have largely proven unsuccessful.