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Being constantly connected to a steady stream of updates, messages, and news through our smartphones can leave us feeling even more stressed out and anxious at the end of the day. Cavan Images/Getty Images
  • Experts say the barrage of text alerts and our constant social media engagement on our smartphones can take a toll on our mental and emotional health.
  • From the COVID-19 pandemic to the 2020 election, our cellphones can act as a direct conduit to anxiety with a stream of upsetting information at a very stressful time.
  • They suggest adopting practices in our daily routine to put our phones away and take a breather.

It’s late at night, you should be getting ready to fall asleep, but instead you’re up, phone in hand, doomscrolling through your social media feeds.

Or, take this one: You’re heading out for a midday walk, and instead of taking a break from the problems of the world, you’re constantly alert, getting text notifications from friends and news updates on everything from COVID-19 to politics.

It seems impossible to peel our eyes away from our phones.

Yes, our phones are a near-indispensable, universal presence in our daily lives. But how is this constant onslaught of information affecting our mental health? During the already anxious time we’re all living in, are our cellphones making our stress worse?

Experts say the barrage of text alerts and our constant social media engagement on our smartphones can take a mental and emotional toll.

In fact, it might be a good idea to adopt practices in our daily routine to put that phone away and take a breather.

Yamalis Díaz, PhD, a clinical assistant professor in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, told Healthline that, anecdotally, she and her colleagues have seen record numbers of visits this year to NYU’s child study center for mental health issues.

Whether you’re an adult or a child, she said 2020 has been a year marked by an unusual combination of stressors for many people.

The COVID-19 pandemic reoriented how we live our day-to-day lives. Coupled with the charged political climate that culminated in this month’s presidential election, the pandemic has made this a stressful time quite unlike any other in recent memory.

In many ways, our phones and other devices are something of a conduit for this stress. Díaz said that our “stress activation system” (what’s often called our “fight or flight” system) is a very real biological process.

This is where our brains are inclined to look for threats in the surrounding environment, spot them, and then send signals throughout our bodies that we need to prepare for those threats.

Getting a stream of upsetting notifications through our phones can activate this response.

“Adrenaline, stress hormones like cortisol, are activated. They make us ready to respond to a threat,” Díaz said. “This overload of information, especially stressful information, basically activates that system more often and keeps it more active.”

This threat-response system basically is always on “high alert” with our regular phone check-ins.

“It doesn’t bother shutting off if we are constantly receiving notifications or reading and watching the news, with pings, and dings, and emails,” she said. “We can have a stress reaction to that notification or information and on a physiological level, it can all activate our stress system throughout the day.”

Maria Mouratidis, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist at The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt, a psychiatric hospital in the Baltimore, Maryland, suburb of Towson, told Healthline, and echoed Díaz, that this “constant influx of information” can increase our stress and anxiety.

“Having devices literally in our hands all of the time keeps us in a state of alertness that can be draining over time,” she said. “The amount and type of information is not often filtered for urgency or importance.”

Mouratidis added that anxiety is often “reinforced by trying to deal with uncertainty by checking” your phone. Social media also adds its own unique level of anxiety given that it can force you to compare yourself to others, which can increase feelings of depression.

“Focusing on phones can be a way of avoiding one’s thoughts, feelings, and relationships,” she said. “Avoiding difficult feelings or relationships can contribute to mental health and addiction problems.”

Díaz said that smartphone and tech developers clearly “knew what they were doing” when they “created things like ‘likes’ and notifications — all things that activate our dopamine circuitry reward system.”

She explained that this makes us feel a sense of pleasure when something is exciting or interesting. It keeps us wanting to go back for more. With constant social media and news updates, we’re conditioned over time to have that need to constantly tap into that dopamine circuitry.

“Our brains are constantly ‘on,’ either through our pleasure center or our stress reaction center,” Díaz said.

As a result, it’s hard for us to just relax. If we’re at dinner and have our phone near us, we quickly look to see what that latest alert is telling us. If we’re about to sleep, it’s hard to power our brain down if we’ve just been checking election news on Twitter.

This can disrupt our sleep patterns and elevate our depression and anxiety levels. It can be disruptive to functioning well in daily life.

“Technology is a tool. It is important to decide what type of relationship you want to have with your technology,” Mouratidis said. “Phones and alerts are stimuli. You have choices about how and when to respond to stimuli. Not every stimulus needs a response or a response right now.”

She said there’s growing evidence that using video conferencing platforms like Zoom “can contribute to brain fatigue for a range of neurological reasons.”

All of these unyielding interactions with social media can contribute to our depression, anxiety and interpersonal conflicts, Mouratidis added.

What are some strategies to combat this?

For one, she suggested limiting technology use overall. Not every task in your day needs to revolve around your phone. Read a book, or instead of looking at social media or scrolling through the news, use your phone to call a loved one or a friend.

She also suggested turning off notifications from your social media and email accounts.

If you do use these platforms, try to steer clear of arguments or debates with people online. It also might be a good idea to set designated times in your day to check email or Facebook on your phone. She also emphasized the regular recommended phone and tech break of 1 hour before bed.

“Many apps have features where you can limit the amount of time you can spend using it. While it is true that you can override the limit, at least you are doing it intentionally,” Mouratidis said.

She also recommended that you “clean up” your social media feeds, and follow a wide range of pages and individuals so that you can engage with pleasant events and updates beyond more upsetting content.

If you want to stay abreast of what’s going on, she said some pages, websites, and email newsletters provide a “digested version of information” with quick summaries of what’s going on during the day. That way, you can stay on top of the news one time rather than consistently checking in throughout the day.

“Not every stimulus demands or deserves a response,” Mouratidis added. “When you choose to respond, do it when you have set time aside to respond.”

Díaz added that modern life has made it hard to always adhere to these kinds of recommendations.

For instance, while the common recommendation is to stay away from technology an hour before bedtime, she said she doesn’t know “any adults or kids or teenagers” who unplug for a full hour before bed.

She said to try to set a goal of 15 minutes before bed if an hour is too hard. Similarly, in the early morning, many of us tend to immediately look to our phones or tablets to get caught up on what we missed overnight.

Díaz stressed perhaps delaying that urge for a bit. Doing some early morning exercises or giving yourself just a little breather instead can go a long way so that you don’t begin your day at elevated stress from the long list of notifications that you missed.

She said it’s important to be very intentional about approaching your phones and devices in a way that’s more conducive to taking care of your mental health. Set aside specific moments both for looking at your phone and putting it aside.

Díaz said it’s also important to pinpoint for yourself exactly when and how stimuli from your phone is affecting your stress levels. Knowing what kinds of information or announcements are specifically triggering for your stress levels is important so that you can be sure to avoid them in the future.

If you find yourself getting particularly agitated, then unplug for a bit and walk away from your device.

Díaz said she teaches this “regulation stress management process” to everyone from 6-year-olds to medical residents. It revolves around what she calls the “three R’s”:

  • Recognize what’s causing stress in the first place.
  • Redirect it by either moving away from it or shutting the phone off for 5 minutes.
  • Resolve it by moving on to whatever is next. That might even be returning to the email or social media post that you needed to set aside. Find a way to take the temperature down a bit and reorient yourself.

There’s no doubt that in 2020, technology has become an increasingly indispensable resource, Mouratidis said. Technology has preserved our ability to work from home and kept us in touch with loved ones while sheltering during the pandemic.

But technology can also force us to move beyond healthy communications, relying on screens rather than interpersonal connections.

“There are many research questions related to the impact of the pandemic on mental health. Future research will demonstrate what impact technology has had on social and cognitive functions,” Mouratidis added.

Díaz said the pandemic has already exacerbated our “already murky” work-life balance, at least in the United States.

We’re now getting up earlier to get started on work, continuing on later, taking fewer breaks. The division between home and the workplace has vanished completely. She said this means a division between ourselves and technology has dissolved as well.

It’s important not to fall into what Díaz said is a “rabbit hole of information” where you go “almost into a time warp, where you’re reading a Wikipedia page and then go to Facebook and then suddenly realize you’ve lost an hour of your day.”

It’s necessary we figure out how to restore balance in the way we integrate technology in our lives, Díaz said.

“It has real implications for our mental health,” she said.