As we approach Independence Day, it is worth remembering just how far we have come. But it is also important to acknowledge where we have stumbled.
Nowhere is our independence in more jeopardy than in our digital lives. Various surveys find people more willing to give up food, sleep and sex than to lose their Internet connections. One recent study found that half of us would rather have a broken bone than a broken phone.
How many times do you check your phone a day? I guessed 20 times, and cringed at the thought. But that isn’t even close to reality.
Apple says that iPhone users unlock their phones 80 times a day. Even worse, research firm Dscout found that we tap, type and swipe our smartphones more than 2,600 times a day, on average. The majority of us check in front of our kids, during meetings, while we eat and while we should be sleeping.
This is a serious addiction that few people are talking about, probably because we are almost universally addicted. More than just an intrusion into our lives, our smartphones are actually killing us. Pedestrian deaths have skyrocketed as a result of both pedestrians and drivers looking at their phones.
Why can’t we stop?
The answer lies in our brains. Have you ever felt the twinge of anxiety when you are forced to be away from your phone? That’s not imaginary; it’s what bona fide addiction feels like. During a recent 60 Minutes piece, researchers at California State University, Dominguez Hills, connected electrodes to reporter Anderson Cooper’s fingers to measure changes in heart rate and perspiration, just as they had done previously with subjects in experiments. Then they sent text messages to his phone but placed it just out of reach. To no surprise, Cooper’s breathing changed, his perspiration increased and his heart rate spiked with each notification. Textbook anxiety.
In this case, the anxiety was caused by withdrawal from an addiction. But why are we addicted in the first place?
The answer is we get a massive thrill from what we are addicted to — a reward called dopamine. Dopamine is a brain chemical that literally makes us happy, and it is released every time we receive something on our phones. It could be a text from a loved one, a “like” on Facebook, or a bit of breaking news we find interesting. Dopamine feels good, so we keep checking our phones, hoping to get a little hit of it.
It’s the same principle behind gambling, and this is the reason it is such a common addiction. Our brain's need for dopamine makes us pull that slot machine arm just one more time, even if we know rationally there is little reward in gambling. Incidentally, dopamine is also the driver of heroin and cocaine addiction, just for another reason. These drugs flood the brain with imitation dopamine, creating a euphoria not unlike that which occurs when you get a few dozen “likes” on your latest Instagram selfie.
First, proximity matters. Mental problems can often be solved by creating physical barriers. The farther you can move your phone away from your body, the better. Instead of your pocket, put it in your purse, briefcase, or better yet, on the other side of the room. If it takes actual physical effort to get to your phone, the work-reward ratio changes, naturally allowing you to check less.
Another element of proximity is where apps are located on your phone. If you are trying to reduce usage of a particular app, put it in a folder on the last page of your app screen. This will take your brain off autopilot and force you to think about whether you really need to open that app.
Second, turn off every non-essential audio notification. As Anderson Cooper found out, when your phone dings, you feel anxiety if you don’t check it immediately. We learned from Pavlov’s famous experiment that we associate cues with things we are addicted to, and we tend to react similarly to both. Both Cooper and Pavlov’s dogs are slaves to the same trigger — that damned ringing bell.
Everyone has a different definition of “essential,” but most of us can agree that we have rushed to check our dinging phone only to find that the notification was completely unnecessary. Five minutes spent thoughtfully adjusting your app notification settings can pay off in a big way in time gained and attention not wasted.
Third, create digital safe zones, mental spaces where you agree to eliminate your digital footprint. For me, I do my best to never use Wi-Fi on airplanes. I travel a fair amount and the airplane is my mental space where I detox from the Internet. I also never have screens in the bedroom and turn off my phone whenever I sleep. There can be exceptions: You can program emergency numbers to break through your safe zone.
If you run a company like I do, you can go a step further and make an effort to keep everyone healthy at work. First, make physical, in-person communication a priority over emails and texts. We place a cell phone box in our meeting rooms and ask that all cell phones remain there until everyone is done speaking.
Some companies have experimented with “Internet-free days,” something I’m strongly considering instituting on a monthly basis. Discouraging electronic communication after hours can help employees genuinely be present with their families at home to re-energize each evening. (What you can't do is block cell phone and Internet reception by purchasing a “jammer.” I tried, and it turns out to be illegal in this country!)
We are living in a world where barriers are blurred; our physical independence is no longer the only thing we have to protect. Our minds are at war and we have willingly subjected ourselves to digital devices. Let’s take this Independence Day to gain some ground and give our brains a break from our digital drug addictions.