We cannot do away with gadgets entirely, but we can lessen the anxiety it creates by adopting a few measures
A smartphone today is more than just a status symbol. In the past decade or so, it has become an indispensable part of our everyday existence. We use it to connect with the world via texts, emails, apps and social media. It should come as no surprise then that a 2018 report by an analytics company, showed that on average an Indian spends close to three hours on apps and thus by extension, on the phone daily. It is the first thing we reach out for when we wake up and the last thing we see before we sleep. If you spend more time on your smartphone than interacting with people or find yourself constantly reaching for it for updates, you may have a problem. Your phone is causing what experts now refer to as ‘smartphone stress’.
Now you might think of this as some millennial slang, but smartphone stress is real. It interferes with our sleep, productivity, mental and physical health, and impulse control. It manifests in the form of physical symptoms such as blurred vision, sleep disorders, and back pain. “Smartphone stress largely depends on the number of hours a child or an adult has used the phone,” says paediatrician and neonatologist, Mubashshir Muzammil Khan.
But the time spent on the phone isn’t the only factor. We crave constant validation in the form of likes, retweets and shares. It also exposes us to cyberbullying, conflict and negative feelings of social comparison and FOMO (fear of missing out). So much so that a 2019 American study found that 90 per cent of millennials confess to being ‘toilet-texters’, as they use their phone when on the toilet, while 96 per cent under 23 prefer not going to the bathroom without their phones.
Work pressures compound the problem. Akash Sinha, a marketing executive, claims that his stress levels have risen exponentially since he got a smartphone.
“I am always connected. I get emails from clients at odd hours and I feel the need to respond immediately. And if I see a message from my boss as soon as I wake up, I get worked up before even getting out of bed. The pressure is always on and I feel stressed all the time,” he says.
Sinha is on to something. Typically, a natural spike in cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, occurs around 30 minutes after waking to get us ready to deal with the day. But a 2018 study published in the scholarly journal Computers in Human Behaviour suggests that smartphone use is associated with a greater rise in the cortisol awakening response. And elevated cortisol levels can reportedly lead to health problems such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and depression. The long-term risks for disease, heart attack, stroke and dementia are also increased, which could result in premature death.
Incidentally, adolescents aged between 14 to 18 are most prone to smartphone stress because it is a period when brain development is most vulnerable to addiction. “Hormones like cortisol hormones remain elevated in children when they are continuously using smartphones. These hormones make a child anxious about how many likes they get in their pictures, how many are appreciating their posts on social media, etc. They aggravate the stress level in adolescents nowadays. And in cases where parents limited their children’s screen time, we found restlessness or anger in the child,” says Khan.
Yes, withdrawal symptoms are a real concern when dealing with smartphone stress. Naturally then, the number of people reporting digital stress or information overload is only increasing.
The solution may lie somewhere in between. Instead of a digital detox, health experts are nowadays recommending something known as digital nutrition. This means knowing the stressors and dealing with them before they cause any harm. It also means being mindful of how we interact with the device and consume digital content.
Psychiatrist Yusuf Matcheswalla says: “A digital deto
x, although helpful, is not totally practical in today’s world. A digital nutrition is a more realistic option as the limited hours that we actively stay away from our devices can help us immensely. We can’t just say no to all the important communication but we can focus on limiting the time spent on a smartphone.”