Seven ways your phone messes with your brain, and what to do about it
There is no escaping our phones. Even if we were to try to consciously uncouple from our phones, realistically it’s unsustainable. Our employers, spouses, children and friends all use phones to communicate with us.
What started out as a functional tool for calling people when we were away from home is now a constant source of entertainment, distraction, communication and stress. Phones are undoubtedly a useful part of life, but why do they also make so many of us miserable?
- Ssensory overload
Being glued to a screen for hours makes it difficult for kids to focus on school and tasks, and it’s the same for adults. Watching YouTube or your favourite TV/ Netflix show gives your brain fast-moving images and flickering lights that trigger brain overload. Its effects are similar to narcotics that over-excite the brain.
This brain overload means that normal-paced activities (ie, everything in the real world) feel boring and slow. Your mind is constantly cycling through one thing to the next, unable to settle on one task.
Not only are you not concentrating, but you aren’t making decisions as clearly. Brain scans have shown that extreme gaming and internet use can cause brain degeneration in the frontal lobe – that’s the part of the brain responsible for decision making and impulse control (read: uh oh.)
What to do: limit your screen time as much as possible. Minimise the amount of time spent watching TV or using your phone. Schedule in time for nature, reading a book, or family, and put your phone away, out of reach.
- Compulsive message-checking
Your phone’s dings and flashing lights when you get notifications are as addictive as gaming machines in a casino. First, you get a notification and you check it. Then you get positive reinforcement – and a dopamine rush – in the form of a message, ‘like’, comment or email. That makes the next ding even more compelling. This is the cycle of addictive behaviour – trigger and reward. It creates the compulsion to constantly check messages, and means you’re missing the great things happening in the real world.
What to do: turn off notifications for as many things as possible. Have your phone on silent or airplane mode. Remove all unnecessary apps – yes, even Facebook.
- Online addictions
Aside from addictive phone-checking, using internet and social media can feed into new addictions – online shopping, gambling or pornography, to name a few. Phones make these things so much more easily accessible, and many apps are designed to keep you hooked, with one purchase or win leading onto another and another.
Addiction is a mental illness, and while your phone isn’t causing it, it’s creating an easy and anonymous way to indulge in your problematic behaviour.
What to do: if you’re truly addicted, you may require professional help. However, before it gets to this stage, you can minimise screen time and remove some of the positive stimuli that reinforce the addiction. Remember – those app games do count as gambling, even if they’re not on a seedy casino floor.
- Harder face-to-face
Texting and instant messaging are short, to the point, and usually devoid of emotion. If someone is communicating like this the bulk of the time, face-to-face communication can become difficult. Non-verbal cues like body language and tone can become hard to decipher if you’re not used to them.
What to do: spend time with people, not on your phone. Have agreements with your friends that when you’re together, you focus on each other and put your phones away. Try to call people, rather than text.
- Loss of creativity
Depending on Google maps and not having a mental map in your head, relying on spellcheck to auto-correct your mistakes, or being constantly entertained by your phone, can all negatively impact on the ability of your brain to create solutions and form innovative ideas.
What to do: make changes to your life that mean you’re taking opportunities to think for yourself. Find your way there instead of GPS maps, turn off spellcheck and manually find and fix errors in your documents.
- Higher risk of depression
Blue light from your phone does more than just disrupt your sleep/wake cycle, it can increase your risk of depression. This is because blue light suppresses your melatonin production and completely dysregulates sleep, which is implicated in depression.
What to do: limit screen time, especially before bedtime, and don’t take your phone to bed. Use blue-blocking apps, and wear blue-blocking computer glasses.
- Problems managing anger
Phones can make it harder to regulate emotions – while this affects children and adolescents most, it’s a problem for grownups, too. If you find yourself constantly irritable and overreacting to minor annoyances, it might be time to minimise your screen time.
What to do: schedule phone use, and limit how much time you spend on your device.
Find the root of your addiction
While total abstinence from your phone isn’t practical, many people find they need to control the amount of time they spend with their devices. We know that phones, by design, are addictive, but there are plenty of things you can do to build a healthier relationship with yours.
Start by being more mindful of your phone use – how long are you spending on there a day? What apps are consuming most of your time? Like most people, you probably feel time-poor, and wish you spent more time exercising, with friends or family, or on that hobby.
Removing your most time-sucking apps can be the easiest way to reclaim your day. You’d be surprised how useful your phone remains even without Facebook, YouTube, or, believe us, any browsers at all. Carve out strict phone-free time, turn off notifications, and make a conscious decision to rely less on your digital devices. You’ll be amazed at the things you can get done, and how much freer and relaxed you’ll feel – you can look at funny cats some other time.