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Checking your phone constantly? Here’s how it could be affecting your mental health

Imagine having your smartphone right in front of you, but you’re not allowed to touch it. The notifications are coming in — emails, texts, news alerts, social media messages — but you can’t pick it up. Feeling a little stressed? You’re not alone. A study of people who frequently use their phones found that scenario to be anxiety-inducing.

Notifications and constant checking actually create stress. A 2017 study by the American Psychological Association found that people who constantly check their phones experience more stress than those that do not and report that this level of attention to their devices is stressful. Even with negative effects such as increased stress and anxiety, smartphone use is increasing. The study found that 43 percent of Americans consider themselves to be a “constant checker”, meaning they are almost always checking emails, texts, or social media accounts.

Notifications can be helpful because people are immediately informed, but they can also amplify stress about other things, like politics and social media presence. That 2017 study also found that 42 percent of people who constantly check their phones reported that political and cultural conversations caused them stress, compared to 33 percent of people who checked their phone less often.

Social media platforms give us the ability to connect with others around the world but are we really less lonely? Research suggests that social media does not make us less lonely as constant checkers are more likely to feel disconnected from friends and family even when they are with them and less likely to meet up with people in person because of social media.

Dependency isn’t healthy. You have conscious reasons you’re attached to your phone, but there are unconscious reasons too – like dopamine and reward pathways. “Half of this country’s adults say they can’t imagine life without their smartphones,” a 2015 Gallup survey reported. Smartphones have become a portal through which we do everything from share our emotions to confide our secrets, and absorb pop-culture. Trevor Haynes, a research technician at Harvard Medical School sheds light upon the unconscious addiction to our phones and points to dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical that is released whenever we experience pleasure and motivates us to do want to that activity again and again. For example dopamine is released when someone experiences a positive social interaction. Instagram likes or Facebook comments act as a positive social interaction and create a rush of dopamine in our brains, enticing us to check for notifications even when they are not there.

Tech companies aren’t motivated to fix this. In fact, they’re working to draw us in even more, with improved AI and “emotionally intelligent” smart assistants. Natasha Singer of the New York Times compared the ethos of the medical profession to the ethos of Silicon Valley, “The medical profession has an ethic: First, do no harm. Silicon Valley has an ethos: Build it first and ask for forgiveness later,” Singer wrote.

Efforts are underway to shift that mentality as Harvard University is offering courses on the ethics of technological advancement as artificial intelligence technology emerges. Many universities are beginning to understand how critical it is for engineers and computer programmers to see the implications of technology in people’s lives, and acknowledge that there may be a dark side to flashy new technology. While this conversation about the need for greater ethics around technological development is emerging, there is also a growing interest in personalizing technology to the point where it is embedded in every aspect of our lives.

Danielle Krettek, principal and founder of Google’s Empathy Lab is working with googlers to design technology with greater empathy. In an interview at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco, Krettek pointed out that since we are spending so much time with our technology, it is important that tech is designed to be emotionally intelligent. She spoke about the need for technology to understand its consumer on a more personal level so that the interaction between the device and the consumer resembles one of a human relationship. Google is looking at developing their voice smart speaker, Assistant, so that a human can have a sophisticated conversation with the speaker. It sounds as though Google is working to humanize technology, which many experts are concerned about. It is critical that companies developing emotionally intelligent software anticipate how this could alter human behavior.

So it’s up to us to curb our habits and be social in real life. As consumers we have a responsibility to ourselves to remain skeptical of smartphones and push tech companies to put us first. We are reaching a moment in time where we have to ask ourselves if the constant updates on our devices are continuing to improve our lives or negatively impact our mental health. Without pausing and examining the ramifications of constant connection to our devices, we may be oblivious to the fact that technology is robbing us of our innate human ability to connect with others in person, something that cannot be artificially produced.

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