Digital Dilemma: When is it too much?

I picked up my phone and stared at my screen frivolously: no new messages.

Bored out of my mind, I did the rounds of all my social media. The usual: Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, and finally, my favourite binging app, Instagram. As I skimmed through my friends’ stories, a small feeling of guilt took over me. I should really be editing my thesis, I thought to myself. The feeling, however, went straight over my head as I continued to skim through my friends’ Insta stories. After all, it wouldn’t be long before I had to go back to staring at Microsoft Word for the next few hours. I deserved a little break.

It was then that I saw a post by one of my friends who happens to be a social media influencer. In the post, she lamented how many hours she spent on her phone a week. She said she checked her screen time analytics only to discover she was spending more than two thirds of her waking hours per week on her phone. I feigned surprise. She is both a Millennial and a social media influencer after all. With that in mind, I would expect nothing less. But looking at her stats, I couldn’t help but feel a little curious as to what my screen time was like.

So, I went into my settings and found the screen time app. The data my phone collected surprised me. In one day, I checked my phone 25 times PER HOUR. That translated to 6 hours 32 minutes PER DAY. 45 hours 45 minutes PER WEEK. At closer inspection, I also found out that my usage had dropped 44% compared to last week. And that was only on my phone.

Now this really WAS a shocker.

There is no denying that the creation of Web 2.0 and all the innovations that came after that (most prominently, smartphones and social media) brought with it many benefits to society. Around the world, people suddenly gained a voice now they had a platform they could share and gather information from. Web 2.0 and social media facilitated social interactions and made the world come closer so that anyone or anything could be at the tip of our fingers; created new jobs in online retail, content creation, social media marketing. It gave the world influencers (shout out to my friend) and it enabled people with similar interests and goals to connect and, in many cases, push for social change.

But for all the great things these technologies brought with them, they also brought a need to be constantly connected. Guilty as charged. When we think of addiction, much more serious topics come to mind, like alcohol, gambling or drugs. But smartphone addiction is rooted in the same principles: it gives users an escape from reality and sends a message to our brain to release dopamine, a chemical that affects our emotions. So, for every positive social stimulus, like a text from loved one with happy emojis or likes on social media, the more we want to repeat the interaction.

In recent years, new considerations have been put in place in order to determine what addictive behaviour is. These considerations place equal importance in the physical dependence element as in the compulsion to engage in a specific act. The rising popularity of web 2.0 and contemporary electronic devices has increased research and media interest in the effects of excessively using digital media. Since 201, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been researching the ‘public health implications of excessive use of the Internet and other communication and gaming platforms’ with gaming addiction already being considered an illness as of 2018.

While social media and smartphone addiction are still not considered as illnesses, extensive research has been done on the correlation of excessive social media usage and many aspects of our lives including our productivity; our relationship with others; and our mental health.

Productivity

One study by Microsoft Corp found that while our ability to multitask has largely improved, people now can’t concentrate on one thing for more than eight seconds at a time. That is one second less than the goldfish, notorious for its short attention span! According to Microsoft, since the year 2000, which is when there was a boom in mobile technology, they have recorded that the average attention span of their test subjects dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds. The study also found that 77% of Millennials aged 18 to 24 were guilty of reaching for their phones first when nothing else was occupying their attention compared to 10% of those aged over 65.

Again, guilty as charged.

Personal Relationships and Communication

On a personal level, I think everyone has been witness to or even guilty of checking their phones while out with friends and family or mindlessly scrolling through our individual social media feeds while in the company of our closest friends. Recent research by Qualtrics and Accel found that 52% of Millennials thought technology had improved their relationships with others. That same research found that 52% of Baby Boomers thought technology had ‘ruined’ their relationships.

So, the argument stands: does technology actually make relationships better? It’s undeniable that smartphone technology has opened up new frontiers in regards to communication. In fact, it has made it easier than ever. But has it made it any better? The answer to that is, not necessarily. In fact, it has been reported that many Millennials now struggle with face-to-face communication due partially to the editability of texts and also that people are growing accustomed to not having to hold eye-contact, as it has become common for communication to occur through a screen.

Physical and Mental Health

Most disturbing of all, however, were the finds connecting social media use and mental health issues. A study by Qualtrics and Accel found that 91% of Millennials claim they have a healthy relationship with technology but that 53% also admitted to waking up at least once per night in order to check their phone. Another study corroborated with some more disturbing statistics, claiming Millennials check their phones on average 150 times a day. Another one going as far as saying the number is as high as 2,617 times per day with 43% of Millennials check their phones every 20 minutes.

The list of psychological effects of addiction is extensive. It ranges from sleep disturbances, loneliness and depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, relationship problems, increasing stress, paranoia and anxiety. But that’s not all. Phone addiction has also been known to cause physical problems as well. Those include: digital eye strain, neck problems, increased illnesses, car accidents, and even male infertility.

Social media has become so ingrained in Millennial culture that we don’t stop to think about mindful usage, but there are a few red flags that can help us identify when we have a problem.

Things to Pay Attention To

(As per PsycheGuides – An American Addiction Centre Resource)

  • Compulsive need to check mobile device (as soon as you wake up, before going to bed and everything in between)
  • Interruption of face-to-face conversations to check mobile device
  • Prioritising social media over daily commitments and responsibilities
  • Comments, likes, shares and friend request statuses cause stress and anxiety
  • Mindless scrolling and loss of a sense of time

If you are guilty of any of the above, as am I, it is not the end of the world. In fact, the first step to making a change is realising there is a problem. The good news is there are very simple ways of start healthy digital habits.

What You Can Do

  • Practice mindful scrolling
  • Disconnect from social media to reconnect with yourself and those around you
  • Pick up your phone with intent instead of reaching for it for lack of something better to do
  • Ask yourself the hard questions: Are these comments really important? Why is social media validation so important to me? What is the deeper cause of my FOMO? Do I really need to check my notifications?
  • Add timers and reminders to keep you on top of your screen time every day

There is no denying that smartphones and social media have revolutionised the world we live in. But like all good things in the world, these technologies come with a much darker side to them too and it’s up to us to keep ourselves accountable for our smartphone and social media behaviours. Do you have a healthy relationship with your phone?


Interested in finding out more about digital disconnection? Robert Hassan’s newest book, Uncontained: Digital Disconnection and the Experience of Time, explores what it’s like to remove all digital devices from daily life – in Robert’s case by travelling from Melbourne to Singapore on a container ship.

Uncontained is on sale through our online shop, and is also available through Readings, Avid Reader, The Sun Bookshop and other independent bookstores.


Image by Kaitlyn Cherry. Used with permission.


The author is a self-proclaimed crazy cat lady currently living in Melbourne city. She is completing a MA in Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne and hopes to one day work as an editor. 

 

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