Unplug and Re-Engage in Life

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Everywhere around us, we see people constantly checking their smartphones. You might wonder "what could be so important that would have people tied so closely to those little devices?" Are they checking texts from friends? Facebook or Instagram updates? Work e-mails? I have become accustomed to seeing individuals hunched over their phones during breaks at meetings, waiting in lines, eating in restaurants, and unfortunately, while driving (when walking one evening, I was almost hit by one of these!) But recently on vacation, I really started to notice how widespread and possibly toxic this issue has become. On a beautiful remote island, I observed groups of mostly young adults, sitting together, but completely engaged in their phones, not speaking to each other and oblivious to the wonderful sights and experiences around them. Are their virtual lives better than their real lives? Is this an unhealthy habit? That would depend on if it's disrupting your work or personal life.

I didn't find a lot of research articles on this topic, but I would like to share what I did find. According to Pew Research Center, 2/3 of Americans now own a smartphone and from one of their studies, 46% said it was something they couldn't live without. The Pew Research Center also revealed that 93% of 18-29 year old smartphone owners used their phone at least once during a one-week study to avoid being bored, and 47% of young smartphone owners used their phone to avoid interacting with the people around them. 42% of cell-owning 18-29 year olds in serious relationships reported that their partners have been distracted by their mobile phone while they were together. In a study of 1600 managers and professionals conducted by Harvard Business School, researchers found that: 70% checked their smartphone within an hour of getting up and 56% within an hour of going to sleep. They also found that 48% checked their phones over the weekend, including Friday and Saturday nights and 51% checked continuously during vacation.

What about those who are juggling checking their phones while at a game, doing housework, watching a movie, listening to a lecture? You will hear people profess to be excellent multitaskers who can carry on many activities at one time, but researchers are finding out differently. There is more scientific evidence that multitasking leads to lower overall productivity and more mistakes – you may be able to do many things at once – but none of them very well. When trying to switch your focus from one thing to the next, there are "switch costs" or periods of time that the brain needs to adjust and get back to where it was before the distraction. This prevents us from thinking very deeply and solving complex problems. One study in particular found that multitasking with technology (watching TV, checking e-mail, texting, etc.) decreased grey matter in the area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex which is responsible for decision-making and emotional regulation. Those same structural changes are also associated with issues like obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and anxiety.

Maybe some people want to scale back, but they don't know how. Here are some tips for unplugging from smartphones and other devices:

1) Set aside times of the day (and night) that you will put away your phone. This could be during meals, walks, and yes, bathroom breaks. For families, set up no phone zones in your home and have agreed upon rules and expectations regarding smartphones and other devices.

2) Turn off your app notifications – especially for social media. This includes audio also. It will help you resist the temptation to just quickly check, and then be hooked for a lot longer.

3) Keep the phone out of the bedroom. We need quality, uninterrupted sleep to be fully functional during the day. Use an alarm clock – they still exist.

4) Get out and enjoy nature. Don't ignore those palm trees or whatever happens to be growing around you.

5) Practice mindfulness meditation. It has been found to help increase focus and attention, combat multitasking and improve emotional regulation.

There is a project called National Day of Unplugging scheduled for March 4-5, 2016 that encourages people to get off their devices and relax, get outdoors, and get back in touch with loved ones. You may want to check it out at http://nationaldayofunplugging.com/

When researching this topic I came across an article I really liked on Greatist.com from Sophia Breene. You can read it online here: http://greatist.com/happiness/unplugging-social-media-email