Have you ever caught yourself mindlessly scrolling through your phone? Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Tinder, Email. You might be meeting an old friend you haven’t seen in ages. Maybe you’re sat up in bed with your partner next to you or you’re sat at the gym waiting to do your next set. There you are, a blue glow reflected in your eyes, scrolling through endless filters of information, not really taking any of it in, just, *sigh* scrolling.
It’s a tale as old as social media, which is to say, not very old at all. As the average Brit now spends nearly two and a half hours glued to their smartphone screen a day, can you imagine a time when people called up their mates to arrange a time and a place for their midnight DMCs or dialled into the internet for 15 minutes at a time, enduring the ear melting screeching along the way?
We are the first generation that communicates in this way, through social media and rampant late night emails, through emojis and corny memes, when the internet and everyone and everything on it is available at the press of a four-number passcode. And while it might look like we’re dealing with this form of open communication with typical millennial ease, perhaps we’re not.
Is ‘Connection’ A Con?
One in six young people will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives while identified rates of anxiety and depression in young people have increased by 70 per cent over the past 25 years. Alongside this, 2015 research from the University of Ottawa found that those that spent two or more hours a day on social networking sites were more likely to report poor mental health as a report last year from The Royal Society for Public Health found four of the five most used social media platforms made the anxiety levels of those surveyed worse (Instagram was the worst while YouTube was the only one found not too).
The same report found that seven in 10 young people have experienced cyberbullying, with its more obvious consequences for mental health. There’s also the very real physical consequences to our overuse of mobile phones and social media – repetitive strain injuries in our shoulders as we hunch over to send another late night message or carpal tunnel syndrome, the crushing of nerves in our wrists that can numb our whole arm.
An addiction to your mobile phone might also affect you while driving, every bleep and buzz driving your attention away from the road, with a survey from last year showing that 88 per cent of drivers had been on their smartphone at the wheel. And what’s more the way social media taps into the pathways in our brain linked to addiction make it harder to escape. Researchers at UCLA using an MRI scanner to image the brains of 32 teenagers when on a social media app, found that certain regions became activated by “likes” in much the same way as if they were winning money.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. The same report found that nearly seven in 10 teens going through tough or challenging times were able to receive that support through social media. “With its almost universal reach and unprecedented ability to connect people from all walks of life, social media holds great potential to support good mental health and wellbeing,” says Niamh McDade, senior policy & communications executive for the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health who has started a campaign to encourage the public to go scroll free for the month of September.
“Social media now forms an integral part of everyday life, yet as with any good relationship, one’s relationship with social media should be one which is balanced.”
Why Do We Do It To Ourselves?
So what is this negative relationship we have formed? Well, firstly social media has a way of making us feel rubbish about ourselves. It allows people to show off details of their life while hiding other less desirable parts to create a removed-from-reality portrait for those that look up to them (not to mention the consequential body image issues) along with a need for validation to make us feel better about these insecurities – one that if left unfulfilled can leave you fragile.
“I feel an expectation to always be doing or engaging with something,” says Rhys Thomas, 21, a freelance journalist. “And to live up to the expectations of the people I admire on social media, which can become a 24-hour preoccupation and almost never possible to achieve.”
Natasha Nanner, who works for the social media agency Truffle Social, finds that photo-centric social media sites like Instagram or Facebook have left her hooked to her phone to see the responses to her posts. “I often will post a selfie and then check back non-stop throughout the day to see the ‘likes’. I have also sometimes stared at the image so much that I just end up deleting it because I have convinced myself I don’t like it any more. It bothers me less if a quote or a landscape picture doesn’t accumulate many likes.”
This need for validation is not a new phenomenon in human behaviour, but social media and the internet now put your image and identity out there to a previously unimaginable scale. You’re not just showing your holiday pictures to your mum here, you’re showing them off to millions of people with everyone comparing and squaring them up against each other. You’re not the wittiest, or the most beautiful and boy doesn’t social media like to tell you so.
“There are people using social media positively so they can give a point of view out to the world, to give some inspiration without needing the validation back,” mentions Michael James Wong, a modern mindfulness coach and author of Sit Down Be Quiet. “Take, for example, a mother posting pictures of her kids saying how much they love them. They don’t need you to tell them their baby is amazing. They’re just doing it out of love”
But then there are people using social media to receive. ‘I need to put out this picture of me in a fun place or doing a fun thing or hanging out with cool people so I can receive the validation of this being time well spent.’ And when you’re just receiving, social media can create a reactiveness within you that restricts your freedom of control. We’re shackled by it so that when our phone rings, we jump. It’s exhausting and makes it hard to switch off.”
While this cycle of insecurity, constantly posing for photos, and validation is certainly a guilty culprit when it comes to burning out, it is not the only one. The checking of work emails during out-of-work hours can also create a similarly jaded feeling. When we’re constantly switched on, it becomes ever harder to switch off.
“A lot of jobs these days require you to be plugged in,” says Joshua Drew, 28, a public sector PR, “going offline can mean relinquishing all responsibility of work and I think that thought scares a lot of people. I will look at my phone right up until I fall asleep which is entirely counterintuitive as I’ll usually struggle to fall asleep after being on it. I use an app on my phone to help me relax before bed, which is ironic in the sense that it still requires me to be around my phone.”
Do You Have ‘Nomophobia’?
A term first coined in a 2008 YouGov study, nomophobia is the fear of being out of contact with your mobile phone. The study found that nearly half of mobile phone users became anxious when their mobile phone was not readily available for use, an anxiety comparable in stress levels to a trip to the dentist or the jitters you might endure before walking up the aisle.
“This ‘over-connection syndrome’ occurs when mobile use reduces the amount of face-to-face interactions and then interferes greatly with an individual’s social and family interactions,” says Dr Kevin Curran, a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and a professor of computer science at the University of Ulster.
“Clinical characteristics of nomophobia are a growing preference for communication through technologies; keeping the device in reach when sleeping and never turned off; and looking at the phone screen frequently to not miss any message, phone call, or notification, also called ringxiety.”
To act against this some have proposed the right to disconnect as a basic human right. This posits the idea that employees should not answer emails during out-of-work hours at a time when mobile phone usage is dubbed ‘possibly the biggest non-drug addiction of the 21st century’. In France, a labour law was passed in 2016 that allowed for this right, with companies of more than 50 people obliged to set out hours when employees were not supposed to send or answer their emails.
Finding Calm Amid The Chaos
For ambitious, hungry millennials working in the city it might seem like switching off their phone or disconnecting after a certain time is counter-intuitive to their end goal of climbing up the career ladder. But does constantly skipping Monday night yoga or Friday drinks with old university pals for another late one at the office really make you better at your job?
“I’ve worked in that corporate structure and if you’re working hard then you’re working late and you are never fulfilled,” says Wong. “You’re struggling to go to sleep and you’re not putting your mind to rest, becoming less aware and switched on as you continue. But, if you notice when someone has a baby, their list of priorities shift in a very positive way. They get more efficient and maximise their time in the office. Then, when they’ve done their time they switch off because 8pm is time to bathe the baby.”
One of the simplest ways to maximise your time is through controlling your phone and gadget usage says Hilda Burke, an integrative psychotherapist and couples counsellor. “We use our phones when we’re waiting for the bus and justify it as dead time, but actually it’s eating into the time we could be using for other things. Have you ever thought if you had more time you could be exercising more, updating your CV or spending more time with your partner? You could have an extra two hours a day if you actually turn it off.”
Burke mentions that when we’re scrolling through our phones or browsers we largely become unconscious to the act. For example, a 2015 study found that those surveyed actually used their smartphones roughly twice as much as they thought they did. So while we might think that keeping tabs on our Instagram profile and late-arriving emails is keeping us plugged into what’s going on around us really we’ve become completely switched off.
How To Switch Off For September (Or Any Month)
“The first step is to look at the situation and see how much you are using it,” says Burke. “Loathe am I to recommend an app but they are really useful to use for monitoring your usage and they act as a wake-up tool. Use the app for a week, writing down how much you think you use your phone at the beginning and then compare it with the reality at the end.”
Apple and Android are reportedly building tools that help you do this. In the meantime, try Moment.
Replace The Time
Use the dead time you would usually spend on your phone or on your computer to do something positive. This will take your mind off of technology and help you reconnect with the real world and others around you.
“You have to start to implement non-negotiables, that have positive habituations in a way that can actually help us to switch off or calm down or relax,” says Wong. “For example, go to a gym class every day through September but one you know you can’t bring your mobile phone into the room for.”
Start building a life that doesn’t require you to live through the lens of your mobile phone.
Tell People What You’re Doing
By telling people you are switching off for the month of September you can kick-start what’s known as the Hawthorne effect, where an awareness of being watched can help you change your behaviour. Basically, just the idea of your friends having a go at you for green lighting on Facebook can be enough to make you not go there. It also might encourage others to join you so you can all spend more time together IRL. You might even make actual eye contact.
“Rallying a group to join you in taking part can help keep you motivated and make you feel less alone,” says McDade. “Why not run a competition with your peers to see who can stick to Scroll Free September the longest?”
Take A 10 Minute Break
“It comes down to what you’d call the smoke break,” says Wong. “We’re not condoning smoking, but that concept of a 10-minute step away from the hamster wheel is a great place to let yourself breathe quite ironically”.
With the average British attention span lasting just 14 minutes, this means that lulls in your workday might lead you to mindlessly scroll through social media or old emails when a complete break to reset your mind would be far more beneficial to your efficient.
Get Rid Of Temptation
“Why not try getting rid of temptation by deleting social media apps from your devices or turning off notifications?” says McDade. “To resist the temptation to scroll, you could also try using a ‘dumb’ phone which doesn’t support social media so you can remain in contact if needed.”
Just try and not get hooked on 8-bit snake – that game stole our childhood away from us.
Create A No-Go Zone
“Start creating no-go zones,” recommends Burke. “For me, the start was not taking my phone with me for my 45 minutes walking the dog at the beginning of the day. It could be the cinema or when eating. Start small so you don’t get disheartened. You don’t go straight to the big weights, you start small, build the technique and get a taste of what life without your phone is like.”