Media task-switching is linked to increased anxiety, depression, and mental exhaustion. Try this simple, 30-second ritual to establish positive associations with tech breaks.
For most of my life, one of my greatest pleasures was gazing up at the stars on clear, dark nights. As my eyes adjusted, I was always mesmerized by the countless new points of light that kept magically appearing as time went by. I never tired of communing with such vast, mysterious splendor.
But lately I’ve been sad and concerned to notice that stars no longer hold my attention like they used to. Even during the most beautiful nights in the countryside, after just a few minutes I find myself heading back indoors, drawn away from the limitless beauty to reengage with one of my technological devices. Is there an email that needs a reply? Might my son have returned my text? Did my daughter post any new photos?
I’ve been chagrined to face the fact that my technological devices, with their ability to deliver virtual connection and unlimited distractions at lightning speeds, are weakening my ability to stay present in the “real world” (as in physical, tangible). After decades of trying to slow my overly busy mind to “be here now,” I’m noticing how often I bombard my brain with unremitting stimulation rather than consciously attuning myself to the slower, healing rhythms of nature. My iPhone creates such a powerful gravitational pull that it is slowly and insidiously becoming like the sun of my personal solar system.
Be Here Now vs. Task-Switching
Diving into research on this topic, I discovered that there is indeed a documented relationship between screen time and the loss of sustained focus. Because the human brain is unable to perform two or more cognitively demanding tasks at one time, what we think of as “multi-tasking” is actually rapid “task-switching.” Heavy media task-switching (such as alternating between texts, emails, and social media) has been conclusively linked to shorter attention spans, declines in working and long-term memory, lower productivity, and less impulse control.
Considering that 75 percent of screen content is viewed for less than one minute, with most people switching every nineteen seconds, it’s not surprising that media task-switching is also linked to increased anxiety, depression, and mental exhaustion.
I’ve also learned about the many ways technology companies intentionally manipulate us into allowing screens to monopolize our precious time and attention. Screen addiction is intentionally fueled by our basic human need for acknowledgment, approval, and connection that is embedded in our very biology. For example, when we receive a slew of “likes” from a social media post, the feel-good hormone dopamine is released, causing a rush of pleasurable emotions, especially excitement. Being wired to repeat pleasurable behaviors, we naturally come back for more. New experiences also lead to the release of dopamine, and smartphones are designed to offer up constant novelty.
Healthier Boundaries with Screens
These days, Americans are spending an average of four hours a day on their smartphones (approximately one-fourth of our waking hours), and nearly one in four people report being online “most of the time.” Studies have found that we have become so well trained to check our smartphones (two-thirds of us check our phones approximately 160 times per day) that our bodies generate the stress hormone cortisol when we haven’t checked them for a while. This means that our phones could be keeping us in a subtle but continuous state of hyperarousal. Too much cortisol in our bodies can lead to many health issues, including anxiety, depression, headaches, digestive issues, trouble sleeping, weight gain, as well as memory and concentration problems.
Thinking back to my childhood in the 1960s and ’70s, my family had one telephone attached to the wall in our kitchen. Our television sets were black and white, limited to the offerings of three networks, and there was no 24-hour programming. While standing in line or waiting at the curb for a light to change, our lives were full of pauses where our only entertainment was observing the world around us. Now, these opportunities to pause are far less frequent, and they usually find us with our heads down staring at the little screens on our phones.
As someone whose work depends upon using a laptop many hours a day, I’m determined to establish healthier boundaries with all of the screens in my life. I’m taking every Sunday offline as a technology detox and nervous-system reset. Without any devices assailing me with texts, news, and tempting offers, I am the one setting the pace. The day feels long and moves slowly. My mind settles, and I have time to process the week and my emotions. I am calmer, move less quickly, and feel more connected to nature.
During the week I’ve started to leave my phone face down on silent mode. Instead of reflectively picking it up every time I pass by, I try to only check it periodically, with conscious intention. I no longer bring my iPad to bed at night. Instead, I read real paper books with content that needs to be read slowly, such as poetry or the calming words of wise Buddhist teachers.
An Easy Technology Detox Ritual: “Welcome Back”
I’ve also developed a delightful and effective practice that quickly brings me back into the present moment while establishing positive associations with breaking my engagement with technology. Every time I put down a device, I reward myself with a pleasant routine that stimulates oxytocin—a “feel good” hormone that generates love, happiness, calm, and security, while reducing feelings of stress and anxiety. Oxytocin, which is easily generated by caresses, warmth, deep breathing, and experiencing kindness, can serve as a powerful counter-lure to the dopamine rushes I’ve become accustomed to when I engage with my screens. I call this ritual “Welcome Back,” and here’s how it goes:
- As soon as I put down a device, I turn the palms of my hands upward and really look at them while I take a big breath—a deep inhale, and a long, slow, sighing exhale—feeling my body relaxing into the moment.
- I smile as I rub my hands together, generating warmth as I bring feelings of love and joy into my heart and hands.
- With my palms touching in prayer pose, out loud or silently, I greet my conscious arrival back in the real world with an effusive “welcome back!” full of heartfelt delight and self-praise.
- Finally, I caress or massage myself in a way that feels delicious for ten to twenty seconds. Sometimes I’ll draw circles on one palm with three fingers of the other hand and then caress my inner wrist and forearm before switching sides. Other times I’ll rub my ears and jaw or massage my scalp. The options to treat ourselves to soothing and restoring self-touch are unlimited and wonderful to explore.
The whole ritual takes less than half a minute and ends with me consciously acknowledging that I am back in the real world. And then I take a moment to notice how calm and alive I feel.
In addition to helping me break the spell of technology’s persistent lure, doing my “Welcome Back” ritual many times a day supports my mindfulness practice and reminds me that what we give our attention to is what grows.
Instead of my screens, I am determined to choose the stars.
Hold your gaze with there "17 Affirmations for Focusing Your Attention."