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Phones are amazing—I barely remember life before the poop emoji. In a recent survey by SH101, 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.
Is screen addiction a thing? And other problems with excessive screen time
Yes and no. There is a growing body of scientific studies regarding internet addiction, and some treatment centres have opened in North America. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (“DSM-5”), the US 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.
What are the problems with excessive screen time?
- Using electronics in bed correlates with a shorter night’s sleep and increased sleep difficulties. In our recent survey, 76 percent of respondents reported that they stayed up later than intended because of their digital devices at least two days a week, and nearly 25 percent reported that this happened six to seven nights a week.
- 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).
- In studies involving teens, screen time appeared to increase participants’ risk of developing metabolic syndrome, a condition associated with obesity, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes (Journal of Public Health, 2008). Using electronics at night 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). Excessive internet use may cause people to neglect important relationships, and result in withdrawal symptoms when use is discontinued (CyberPsychology and Behavior, 2000).
I’m not suggesting that we should toss our devices and go back to smoke signals. 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, more than three out of five respondents had made efforts to do this.
Why practise 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 practising non-distraction, we discover that a content-free moment is something to savour, 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.
The empty time technique
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?
How to walk without headphones
Decide not to listen to music. Resist the urge to check your snaps. Enjoy the simplicity of walking without distractions. One fun way is to 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 colour and try to spot as many objects of that colour 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:
B Risk of dropping the phone in the toilet
C Opportunity to practice non-distraction
4. Make your early morning device-free
Try staying away from your devices until after you’ve washed up 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.
Wherever You Go, There You Are: Jon Kabat-Zinn
Hachette Books, 2010
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