I have a Facebook friend whose life always seems perfect. They have a great job, live in a nice condo, and are always doing new and exciting things. They’re always posting happy comments about how blessed they feel and how lucky they are to have the life they do. I’ve actually considered blocking them because their positive enthusiasm was raining on my personal pity party.
Have you ever felt like this? Have there been times when you didn’t like someone because of their seemingly perfect life?
We all do this, It’s hard not to think like this sometimes. And even though this type of thinking might make us feel better in the moment, it costs us. Thinking like this makes us psychologically weaker and more susceptible to mental illness, according to psychotherapists. And it doesn’t help that we are constantly subjected to our friends’ carefully curated content.
Feeling sorry for ourselves is costing us our mental health; and research has found that envying our friends on Facebook leads to depression. We naturally tend to feel sorry for ourselves. But thinking “why me?” or “how come they get all the luck?” keeps you focused on the problem – in an emotionally-negative feedback loop – instead of a possible solution. From experience: It’s hard to find a solution when you’re too busy hosting your own pity party.
The addictive nature of smartphone media fuels envy, and keeps us stuck. Smartphones do this by triggering a compulsion loop in the brain – the same loop associated with nicotine or cocaine addiction.
App developers want us to use apps in an addicting fashion because that maximizes the profit that can be extracted from our attention and data. These companies are hiring ‘attention engineers’ who implement principles borrowed from Las Vegas slot machines in an attempt to trigger the “compulsion loop” to make apps as addicting as possible. This way profits can be maximized when app companies trade digital novelties:
…for bits of your information to sell. This is why phones are so hard to put down.
People who go without their phone for a period of time sometimes feel as if they are missing a limb, and some even experience withdrawal symptoms during a period of detox after being mobile-free. An early sign of dependency is ‘phantom ringing’ (when you feel your phone ring when it’s not in your pocket). This is a physical change in your brain’s neural networks from prolonged exposure to intermittent stimuli.
Our Evolving Attention Span
The compulsion loop that apps trigger condition us to digest bite-sized bits of information throughout the day. Research has shown that constantly breaking up our attention (to just take a quick glance at a notification for instance, or an intermittent text conversation) permanently reduces our capacity for concentration. So smartphones are actually conditioning our brains to have shorter attention spans. Moreover, studies have shown that this creates a pervasive background hum of anxiety, that often goes unnoticed.
This lack of attention makes us continually less valuable in an increasingly competitive world that demands work created from deep, long-term effort. This inadequacy further contributes to depression and anxiety.
Conditioning our attention to be fragmented also has complications on our social interactions. Our phones have conditioned us to short snippets of socialization, much like our texts and messages. So we are less comfortable holding a normal conversation.
A Digital Drug
Mental health experts at college campuses say that with the rise of smartphone use came an explosion of anxiety-related disorders. The novelty-seeking loops that we have been conditioned to have long term effects on the brain. Nine out of 10 young adults aged 18 to 29 now admit to using their smartphones as a tool to avoid boredom instead of other activities like engaging with people.
Escaping discomfort, like boredom or social anxiety, prevents us from developing skills that make us mentally strong and that in turn perpetuate confidence.
It has also been proven that the microwave frequency waves that cell phones emit have a direct and significant negative impact on the amplitude of alpha and beta brain waves. These are the main brain waves associated with daily problem solving.
The blue light emitted from smartphone screens also changes our internal circadian rhythm (sleep cycles), making our brains think that it’s still daylight out when the sun has already gone down.
Smartphones are now considered the new gateway drug according to some scientists. And because of their physical ability to change the brain, they can be used to either perpetuate mental illness, or tackle it.
That Old Thing Back
Creating meaningful connections is the best way to avoid loneliness according to personal fulfillment expert, Baya Voce. She states that connections are not created by the things we go get, they are created by the things we go back to.
In order to build connections, she suggests spending quality time ritually with people that value you. Her example of this is a weekly wine and onesie party she hosts with her friends every Monday… no exceptions, and no phones allowed. This creates what some call an “anchor of connection”: a deep rooted connection with those who value you that you can depend on when emotional storms hit.
Creating a deep-rooted connection with those close to you instead of resorting to a smartphone to escape reality or seek companionship will then physiologically remold the brain over time to lose those neural networks that expect and depend on smartphone stimuli. This in turn will lower the impulse to check your phone.
We’re often told to make small talk in order to pass the time or connect with people, but this social researcher suggests a different approach she calls ‘Big Talk’: where she asks deep, universal, thought provoking and open ended questions. Some examples of these are “What do you want to do before you die?”, “What if you found out you were going to die tomorrow?” and “What is a new habit you want to form?”
And although Big Talk was originally intended for others, there is something to be gained from asking ourselves these questions. These questions help us form deeper connections with those around us, and ourselves.
Mindfulness through meditation physically shifts the shape of the brain, according to recent studies. It also positively affects the default mode network; the same network that is overactive in most smartphone users and is directly linked to anxiety. By using proper mindfulness and meditation techniques, the default mode network can be controlled, and the brain reformed.
Smartphones can be used to do this with guided meditation and mindfulness apps. Apps like Headspace and Moodkit rewire the brain through short training sessions.
If we can practice a little discipline with our smartphones, we can use them to alleviate our problems instead of perpetuating them.