Why putting down your phone could help you live longer
Having a smartphone can bring about a great dilemma – a lot has been said about the dangers of spending time on our devices, but putting them away is still easier said than done.
A look into hormones could explain why phones can be simultaneously stimulating for your mind and harmful for your health.
A growing body of evidence suggests that smartphones have detrimental effects on our sleep, memory, attention spans, mental health, problem-solving skills, and more. But if that’s not enough, the New York Times has reported that keeping our phones close may be increasing our stress levels and, consequently, shortening our lives.
Most studies on smartphone use have focused on the way phones and apps are designed to encourage the production of dopamine, a brain chemical that plays an important role in motivating behaviours, habits and addictions.
The release of dopamine from using phones and apps makes it more difficult for us to put our devices down. This has been acknowledged by Chamath Palihapitiya, a former executive at the world’s biggest social media site Facebook.
“I feel tremendous guilt,” said Palihapitiya in a 2017 talk. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”
But apart from dopamine, phones can also stimulate cortisol spikes. Known as the stress hormone, cortisol triggers physiological responses such as increase in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar.
While cortisol may help regulate the hormone balance in your body in response to perceived threats – for example, bear attacks – its continuous release from anticipating notifications on your device may not be as beneficial. Chronically elevated cortisol levels have been associated with various health problems, from weight gain, metabolic issues and fragile skin to depression, heart attack, dementia and stroke.
“Every chronic disease we know of is exacerbated by stress,” said Dr Robert Lustig, emeritus professor in paediatric 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.”
This was also supported by David Greenfield, PhD, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. “Smartphones put us in an ever-increasing state of hyper-vigilance, where we’re always feeling compelled to check our calls, texts, social media alerts, email, and more,” he told Men’s Health. “This keeps the adrenals constantly activated and cortisol levels elevated.”
So how could we reduce our phone use and recover our health? Keeping your gadget out of sight might be one of the options – according to a study published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, leaving your device in another room instead of on the desk could improve your focus and reduce distraction through the absence of stressor.
Turning off notifications will also make your phone less stressful, as will hiding or deleting apps.
Paying attention to physical reactions is also important, said Dr Judson Brewer, director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Centre at Brown University and author of The Craving Mind. He told the Times that stress and anxiety could manifest in the form of chest contraction. “If we’re not aware of our physical sensations, we’re not going to change our behaviours,” he said. Paying attention to the sensations you are feeling when using a particular app could help you identify ways to rebalance your body chemicals.