We are now surrounded by technology in every single aspect of our lives. It puts the world at our fingertips with constant connection, information and entertainment. We know there are many benefits that technology can bring, but are we all turning into smombies (smartphone zombies)? And do we really know the long term psychological, emotional and physiological impact of this?
As a psychologist, I often wonder about the impact of technology on the structure of our brain, after all – when it comes to shaping our brains – our environment plays a hug role. According to the some researchers the answer is yes, technology can change our bodies and brain as it affects our memory, attention, focus and sleep.
Most people now know the impact of blue light emissions from our devices can interrupt the production of melatonin and therefore impact on our sleep (due to the fact that blue light has a short wavelength and therefore produces high energy). Sleep disorders are on the rise, possibly due to the increased exposure to blue light devices. (Here are 5 MNB tips for nourishing sleep)
But did you know that our attention span is becoming shorter? In 2000, the average attention span was 12 seconds. Now it’s 8 seconds which is shorter than the 9-second attention span of the average goldfish! Scary huh?
“Without focus, it is nearly impossible to thrive in the modern world, but paradoxically, the modern world has created so many distractions that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to do so.” I love this quote by Daniel Goleman from his 2015 book Focus. Technology and how we use it may be the biggest distraction device humanity has ever faced. So why is our technology so all consuming?
Well, interactions with our devices can trigger a release of dopamine in the brain (the same chemical associated with addiction and pleasure), making it an intrinsically rewarding activity.
How does that impact our daily life?
So what does this mean in terms of our daily life, mental health and performance? Recent research suggested that the mere presence of a smart phone on a desk (face down, notifications off) significantly reduced performance on a number of cognitive tasks compared to people who had their phone in another room. Having a phone nearby reduces cognitive capacity due to the energy it takes to resist the temptation to check the phone, in other words creating a “brain drain”. We can see how this then detracts from our ability to stay connected in our relationships and our work.
What happens in your average work or study day? New research has suggests that the average office worker get only 11 minutes of work done before they are distracted by that email notification, text message, social media notification. Moreover, can you believe it takes about 15 minutes to focus back on the original task. This reduction in productivity contributes to major financial losses in business globally.
Being overly connected and plugged-in may lead to mental health issues especially by increases stress levels. The need to constantly check our emails, phones, social media can contribute to the stress we experience day by day. Furthermore, attention issues, behavioural problems, poor self regulation (managing moods) and distorted self image may be just some of the issues which affect mental health via technology. Social media users report more disconnection and isolation. How many “likes” we can get can get mistaken for actual real life measures of success/approval. Studies have indicated that higher use of social media is associated with an increased risk of loneliness and depression. So are unhappy people using social media, or does social media use affect people’s happiness?
But there are some positives when it comes to technology and mental health. Using the internet, we can now test for mental illness, access vast amounts of information about mental health problems and treatment options, engage with an online treatment programs or access crisis counselling.
How do we manage this?
It’s important to remember that technology is simply a tool, and how it impacts our lives depends entirely on how we use it. After all, concerns about technology are not new as the same worries were raised with the invention of the telephone, television and video games. Ironically, technology will play a role in assisting with some of the health and mental health concerns it can contribute towards through wearables, sleep aids and apps which can also improve health.
What we need think about is setting some boundaries on when, where, and how you will use your devices and ensuring it does not dominate during family time and social occasions (ever heard the game that the first person to check their phone at a restaurant has to pay for the meal?). (Here are our tips to help)
Real life social interactions produces oxytocin in the brain which is another feel good neurchemical. Try putting your phone away completely during set work times which allows you to increase focus and reduce distraction, giving you the best opportunity to get into work “flow” (a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi, meaning the complete focused absorption in a task).
Pick a few places — elevators, queue, cafe…etc where you can make a mental note to actively avoid your device and take that time to focus on your breathing, observing your body and noticing your surrounds.
In the corporate sector, businesses are encouraging workers to become more “mindful” of technology, leading to better decision making, fewer mistakes and happier employees.
Like anything, moderation, mindfulness and self awareness are key in ensuring that the lure of tech doesn’t distract you from living a happy healthy lifestyle, but adds to it.
How does technology impact your daily life?
Caroline Anderson is a Psychologist, Olympian and Director of Performance Edge Psychology.
She sees a range of clients wanting to improve their performance, wellbeing and mental health in her private practice. She also delivers presentations to the corporate sector on enhancing performance and wellbeing through evidence based, psychological approaches. Learn more about Caroline here and here!