Is your phone hijacking your mind?

Is your phone hijacking your mind?
Catherine Price, Author of How To Break Up With Your Phone

Being glued to your smartphone isn't simply about being on top of 'trends'. There is a price to pay, says science writer and author of the bestselling How To Break Up With Your Phone Catherine Price


Anamika Chatterjee

Published: Thu 21 Mar 2019, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 29 Mar 2019, 10:14 AM

How often have you stared at your smartphone only to realise that you've been on it for hours? Technology, and social media, may have changed our social landscape, making communication convenient. However, it is, slowly and steadily, also changing our psychological landscape. Science writer Catherine Price recently wrote the bestselling book How To Break Up With Your Phone that has stirred up an important conversation on how your phone usage is actually impacting your brain and sociability. In an exclusive chat with WKND, Price talks at length about the need to develop a "healthier" relationship with your smartphone.
What led you to write this book?
I thought of writing this book about three-and-a-half years ago. My primary inspiration was that I had a baby and there was a time when she would look at me while I would look at my phone. My background is that of a science journalist, and it really upset me. I began to re-evaluate my relationship with my phone and digital devices, in general. During the course of my research, I discovered that phones affect our attention spans, creativity, productivity and even physical health. It was scary and depressing, and no one really told you what to do about it. My hope was to write a book that could combine those things.
What was the scariest finding?
The time that we spend on our phones is changing our brain in ways that interfere with our ability to be intelligent and thoughtful human beings. The kind of activities we do on our phone is causing physical changes to our brain. I am particularly alarmed by how easily parents hand over this device to their children. More recently, I have also been interested in the impact staying connected has on our cortisol levels, which is the stress hormone. If you have elevated cortisol levels, you may, over a period of time, develop serious health conditions like diabetes and various metabolic syndromes. In the short term, if you are stressed out, cortisol can impair the part of your brain that is responsible for intelligent decision-making.
In many modern jobs, 'breaking up with the phone' is simply not an option. What are the potential remedies in such situations?
Just to clarify, breaking up with your phone does not mean getting rid of it. It's about creating a relationship with your phone that's healthier. When people talk to me about how certain jobs demand connectivity, I tell them that if you are the boss, you must realise that this is affecting your workforce; it is making them distractful, less focused, creative and insightful. From a worker's perspective, I would say our definition of constantly being connected is wrong because we take it to mean we cannot have boundaries, which is not true. Check your mail twice in the morning instead of six times in an hour. Most of the time, we check apps aimlessly without even realising we're doing it.
What would you say are the red flags that suggest one's obsession with technology is bordering on addiction?
To begin with, if you notice that people around you are upset with the way you use technology, that's a sign. There's something called a Smartphone Compulsion Test, which was created by David Greenfield at the Centre For Internet and Technology at Connecticut. He said that if you find yourself mindlessly spending time on your smartphone and often look up to realise you have spent more time on it than intended, it's a sign that you do not have a healthy relationship with your phone. These devices are deliberately designed to encourage these obsessive relationships. Some people may have more of an issue with this than others. The other thing to do is to look at your screen usage and assess how you feel about it. Apple has a new screen-time feature that's not perfect, but it gives you a sense of how much time you're spending. There's also an app called Moment, which is available on Apple and Android, that does a better job because it excludes certain apps. For instance, an important phone call is not exactly a waste of time.
How exactly does phone rehab, as suggested by you in the book, work?
There are different approaches. I guess what makes my plan effective is that it doesn't just give you tips and tricks, it doesn't just say turn off your phone or charge it outside the bedroom, which may be great suggestions but you still need to have a broader context. A lot of people tie a rubber band around their phone in order to lessen their usage. You need to know what your end goal is, and why you want to change. You have to ask yourself why are you reaching out for your phone. Is it going to be productive? Or are you doing so because you're lonely and anxious? Or because you saw someone else do it? Once you start understanding that, you will be able to make concrete changes. Also, when trying to limit the time spent on the mobile phone, keep a weekly record of usage. Success will not be defined by perfection, it will be defined by how quickly you notice you're slipping and then get back on track.
What are some of the withdrawal symptoms that people exhibit while breaking away from their phones?
A lot of them feel anxious. There is twitchiness and craving. Sometimes, you may even feel your phone is vibrating in your pocket, even though it is not there.
You make a point that turning your phone to grayscale or deleting apps is not enough. Can you elaborate on that?
It is effectual. You cannot have a black-and -white approach to technology - some apps are great and some make us feel good for a little while and then leave us disgusted. So, you ought to notice how individual apps make you feel. If you miss Instagram, go ahead and reinstall it. You don't want to feel as though you're going on a diet, you need to feel as though you're giving yourself a gift.
How would you say our engagement with smartphones is impacting our mental health?
There's actually a lot of work done by myself and others on mental health and phones. There are many angles to take on it. When you look at a professionally taken, airbrushed photograph on Instagram, you compare yourself to that. You keep going there for social affirmations and judge yourself accordingly. It really messes up your ability to measure yourself based on things that actually matter. Also, it's important for people to recognise how it impacts anxiety. A smartphone can affect your biochemistry. Many would argue that they need more studies to prove that, but I argue that it's a qualitative, not quantitative, question.
You argue against multitasking, saying it doesn't achieve a greater purpose in terms of work.
Our brains are not multitasking machines. The more you do it, you might think you're great at it, but that's not true. When I talk about multitasking, I am talking about doing two tasks simultaneously that require your absolute attention. So, if you're folding laundry clothes and talking, that doesn't fit into the scheme of things simply because folding clothes doesn't really demand that kind of attention. Our brains cannot process doing two important things at the same time. You see evidence of this all the time: people meet with accidents while driving a car because they are texting. What we call multitasking is actually task-switching. If you're driving on a highway and you turn directions, you will eventually have to slow down. That's true for our brains as well.
What kind of moral responsibility do you think technology giants have when they are conceptualising such apps?
Tech companies should also be accountable for this. But, practically speaking, the solution can come from different angles. One is definitely to pressure tech companies to not have business models that require them to steal our attention from us. Second, there is a need to make it a bigger issue in terms of legislation. For instance, data collection is something that needs to be regulated. We cannot wait for companies to solve these problems for us.
(Check out for lock screen downloads and a free seven-day challenge and, Price's latest initiative, of which breaking up with your phone is a part.)

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