Mindfulness in the Electronic Age: Part 1
How many times have you checked your phone today? It seems that we have all become Pavlov’s dog and immediately respond to our phones alert bell, ding, beep, chirp or buzz without hesitation. Our brains salivate with each notification of a text or LIKE or HEART — and it feels good! It’s nice to connect and engage with others around shared interests and beliefs. No big deal, right?
As a therapist, when someone asks me if they are addicted, they tend to see the situation in black or white. But I think the relationship can move along a continuum of interaction. I see addiction on a scale — something like this: use, abuse, dependence, addiction.
Webster defines ADDICTION –
: a strong and harmful need to regularly have something (such as a drug) or do something (such as gamble)
Do you have a strong need for your phone? Well OK, phones aren’t drugs, and Instagram isn’t gambling. Webster continues…
:an unusually great interest in something or a need to do or have something
SO, maybe your interest in your phone might be considered “unusually great”?
I’ve noticed for a few years now, this strong need, this unusually great relationship some people develop with their smart phones. And it’s not really the phone itself that people are obsessed with, but the content and connections their phones provide them. Or the salivation — the chemistry our brains release with each notification and interaction.
Let me say, I find social media to be a great way to gather information and connect with community, especially for those who may be isolated in some way (such as queer teens in small towns, disabled folks, home bound senior citizens, etc). However, I also see how it can generate isolation and degenerate authentic connection and intimacy. By spending such considerable amounts of time engaging with your phone (liking, retweeting, commenting, reviewing, texting, chatting), the technology starts to become an extension of oneself. When someone has lost or broken their phone, I’ve heard many say it feels like withdrawing from a drug or like they’ve lost a limb. In some ways this is true — you do lose a particular ability to communicate, and there are particular chemicals in the brain that cease to be released when one loses this form of communication and connection with others.
So, what do you do about it? Easy — discipline. Moderation. Cut down. But, we Americans tend to have difficulty with moderation since we live in the land of bigger, better, louder, brighter, Super-Size Me! So even though discipline is a challenge, bringing awareness to your relationship with your phone (and other portals to social media and digital communication) is the first step to solving this conundrum.
In the world of mental health and dealing with substance or behavioral abuse (remember the scale? use, abuse, dependence, addiction), there’s the harm reduction model. Harm reduction is a way to evaluate level of use and level of “harm”, and then reducing use to reduce “harm.” An example of the harm reduction model is working with food addiction. Someone addicted to food can’t just stop eating or they’ll eventually die, but they can reduce their intake and change their relationship to food. The same thing can be done with your phone. Consume less time on your phone and use your newly found free time for other things — visiting with friends and loved ones in person, engaging in hobbies and physical activities, or all the other things you’ve been putting off (laundry, dishes, paying bills, etc.). The commodity is time and connection, not the phone.
The important part to remember is to start small. Maybe it means only 30-minutes less a day for a week, and then increasing to one hour, and so on. You want to stretch yourself without stressing yourself. And know that you maybe have cravings and that’s OK.
– Nick Venegoni, MFT