Phones are amazing—I barely remember life before the poop emoji. In a recent survey by Student Health 101, you praised the ease of communication and access to information that our digital devices provide. That said, we of the smartphone generation have a problem: We’re addicted to distraction. It’s as if going a single second without something to occupy our minds would be intolerable. We’re compelled to fill the space.
This is an ancient human problem. Scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal nailed it back in the 17th century: “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” But there’s no denying that the internet, and especially our phones, have made the problem worse. I’m not suggesting that we should toss our devices and go back to smoke signals. Instead, we can find a few simple ways to spend less time looking at our screens
Is screen addiction a thing?
Yes and no. There is a growing body of scientific studies regarding internet addiction, and some treatment centers have opened in the US. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the compendium of recognized psychiatric conditions, does not recognize internet addiction as a disorder, but it acknowledges that the compulsion to play video games deserves further study.
- Using electronics in bed correlates with a shorter night’s sleep and increased sleep difficulties. In our recent survey, 37 percent of respondents reported that they stayed up later than intended because of their digital devices at least two days a week, and nearly 3 out of 10 reported that this happened every night.
- Social media use is associated with lower mood and depression, according to several studies. A 2014 study suggests that extended Facebook use causes negative moods (Computers in Human Behavior). The more social media accounts you have, the worse the mental health effects may be, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Adolescence. When studying teens, researchers found that more social media accounts correlated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and FOMO (fear of missing out).
- All that screen time can also affect your grades. A 2013 study found a link between social media use and worse academic performance (Emerging Adulthood).
- A large body of research has linked screen time and weight gain—especially in teens. One study that followed teens throughout high school found more screen time was associated with an increase in BMI, especially for students who were already overweight (Obesity, 2013). Using electronics at night might be partially to blame—the habit correlates with excess body weight, according to Pediatric Obesity (2013). These effects may be due to a sedentary lifestyle and sleep disruption.
- A 2013 study found a link between social media use and worse academic performance among women in the first year of college (Emerging Adulthood).
Screen time is useful and fun, and gadgets can be liberating for people with certain health issues and disabilities that affect communication. Still, many of us could benefit from cutting back, and we know it. In our survey, over half of respondents had made efforts to do this.
Why practice non-distraction? As a meditation teacher, I often teach the practice of being quietly where we are without reaching for some diversion or entertainment. There’s no complex technique—just noticing when the urge arises to do something, consume something, or fixate on something, and politely saying, “No, thank you.”
By practicing non-distraction, we discover that a content-free moment is something to savor, not something to fear. When we drop the exhausting effort to fill every moment, we don’t tumble into some hideous void. Instead, we might find simple contentment waiting for us under all the noise.
Five ways to practice simple non-distraction
1. Try for five minutes of empty time
The next time you have “empty time”—waiting in line, walking to class, etc.—try not to pull out your phone, e-reader, tablet, or any other distraction for five minutes. Instead, you might rest your attention gently on the sensation of breathing, observe the people around you, or do nothing in particular. See what it feels like to go just five minutes with nothing to fill the moment. While you’re playing with this, the temptation to do something might bubble up. That’s OK. You can treat that as just one more interesting thing to observe.
2. Relearn how to walk
When you need to walk somewhere, experiment with leaving your headphones in your pocket. Terrified by the thought? To distract yourself from the urge to zone out with music or check your snaps, try this technique: Pick one of your senses and use your attention to “zoom in” on what you’re experiencing through that sense. For example, focus on your sense of touch—feeling the cool wind on your face and hands, the rustle of fabric against your skin, or the sensations in your feet as you walk. You might focus on the shifting pattern of sounds around you or take in the details of the visual landscape. You can even make a game of it. For example, when I’m walking somewhere, I sometimes like to pick a color and try to spot as many objects of that color as I can.
3. Make the bathroom a phone-free zone
I’m not judging, but there are compelling reasons not to use your phone on the toilet:
- Risk of dropping the phone in the toilet
- Opportunity to practice non-distraction
4. Make your early morning device-free
Try staying away from your devices until after you’ve gotten ready and eaten breakfast. You’ll start your day in a mindful place and set a solid precedent for your day. Pro tip: Use airplane mode at night (your alarm will still work). If you need to briefly use your phone, you won’t get hit with a zillion notifications.
5. Turn off some notifications
Speaking of notifications, do you really need an alert every time you get a like or comment? It’s hard enough to keep our noses out of our phones without them actively interrupting us. I still get notifications for texts, Twitter replies, and snaps, but I turned off the others. It works for me.
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