It may come as little surprise, but as it turns out, smartphones aren’t actually making our lives easier.
Whether it’s the constant pinging of notifications vying for our attention, the temptation of playing around on our phones at all hours of the day, the blue light of LED screens degrading our eyesight and sleep patterns, the inexorable growth of a culture of distraction, or the mounting proof that social media can make our lives miserable, the evidence has grown irrefutable that we should probably reevaluate our dependence on our smartphones.
As it turns out, there is a simple reason underlying the problematic nature of our phones. They chronically raise our levels of cortisol–the main hormone related to stress in our bodies–and in so doing, our health is threatened and our life spans are shortened.
While most of the conversation surrounding the biochemical effects of phones has revolved around dopamine–the brain chemical connected to habits, which smartphone and app developers have exploited to feed our dependency and behavioral addictions–the relation of our phones to cortisol is even more shocking.
“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.”
Now it’s one thing if the occasional notification sends our cortisol levels upwards due to some phone-related issue—but it isn’t that simple.
In the case of the average American—and increasingly, people across the globe—an average of four hours a day is spent staring into the “black mirror” of our smartphones, which are kept within arm’s reach at all times. And while many of us jump for joy when we receive the latest phone, tablet, or phablet, even Google reports that these “mobile devices loaded with social media, email and news apps” create “a constant sense of obligation, generating unintended personal stress.”
And keep in mind that the four hours aren’t one solid block of consecutive time, but are stretched and spread throughout the day—constantly spiking our cortisol levels and causing stress even when we anticipate a stressful notification.
David Greenfield, professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, told the Times:
“Your cortisol levels are elevated when your phone is in sight or nearby, or when you hear it or even think you hear it … 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.”
The result? Increased risk factors for a range of serious problems including but not limited to depression, type 2 diabetes, heart attacks, dementia, high blood pressure, stroke, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and fertility issues.
Robert Lustig, emeritus professor in pediatric endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of The Hacking of the American Mind, noted:
“Every chronic disease we know of is exacerbated by stress … And our phones are absolutely contributing to this.”
Additionally, the constant elevation of cortisol levels packs a powerful punch that impairs our prefrontal cortex–that crucial part of the brain we rely on for trusty decision-making and rational thought–degrading our self-control and pushing us toward doing normally counter-intuitive or dangerous activities like texting while driving.
So what can we do to break the cycle, as Catherine Price–the “Marie Kondo of smartphones”–frames the question? How can we reduce those “phantom vibrations” and quick-draw reflexes that accompany the sound of a notification that may not even come from our own device?
Here are a few tips:
- Turn off all notifications besides those we actually want to receive.
- Evaluate which apps we check out of anxiety, and which actually benefit us. Delete, hide or silence the apps as needed.
- Take regular breaks, such as day-long digital sabbaticals.
- Become more mindful of when our addictions or cravings are dictating our phone usage.
After all, maybe we can’t completely unplug from our phones due to the need of our work, our relationships, or our daily routines.
But as Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield explains:
“If you practice noticing what is happening inside yourself, you will realize that you can choose how to respond … We don’t have to be at the mercy of algorithms that are promoting the fear of missing out.”