By Amy Hiraldo, L.C.S.W.
Each day, billions of people around the world log on to a digital device – whether a desktop or laptop, a smartphone or smartwatch – to do everything from checking email to checking the weather.
They order groceries with a few clicks. Find a date by swiping right. Search for houses, book hotels, track their steps, and read the news.
They are chatting and conferencing, streaming and scrolling, liking and commenting, and texting, posting, and sharing like never before.
In many ways, technology has made life easier and more convenient, and there is no doubt that it has helped people stay connected, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But when does technology go from helpful to harmful?
Various studies have shown that excessive use of social media and the Internet, as well as dependence on smartphones and other devices, can increase stress and may lead to depression and anxiety.
In addition, excessive technology use can exacerbate existing mental health disorders.
At Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health, board certified psychiatrists and skilled professionals work together to provide the highest level of care for people of all ages who are struggling with mental health issues, including depression and anxiety.
Constant State of Fight or Flight
According to market research, six billion text messages are sent in the United States each day, and most are read within three minutes.
That’s just text messages. Add in the number of emails, alerts, tweets, and other notifications that are sent and received each day, and it’s hard to imagine how anyone can keep up.
What’s most concerning though, is that this steady stream of messages and alerts can put your body into a constant state of fight or flight, raising your stress levels, increasing anxiety, and impacting your overall health and wellbeing.
In addition, the amount of time spent sitting at a computer and staring at a screen can have physical effects, including eye strain, back and neck pain, and poor sleep, that can negatively affect your mood.
Signs that it may be time to put your phone down and step away from the Internet, include:
• Trouble concentrating. Constant interruptions can shorten your attention span and diminish your ability to focus.
• Difficulty sleeping. Screen time, especially before bed, can interfere with your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
• Boredom. Being overstimulated regularly can make normal activities seem boring.
• Inability to relax. When your body is in a constant state of fight or flight, it inhibits your ability to relax and unwind.
• Exhaustion. Keeping up with multiple social media and email accounts as well as receiving a steady stream of messages and alerts all day can be exhausting in and of itself, let alone if you’re already not sleeping well or unable to relax.
• Hiding your phone or Internet use. If you find yourself concealing your phone or Internet use, it could be a signal you’re spending too much time on your device.
Tips for Disconnecting
With almost everyone having a smartphone or some access to the Internet these days, it can be hard to disconnect completely. Nevertheless, it is important to take regular tech breaks each day to help your body and brain reset.
With that in mind, here are some tips to help you disconnect:
• Give your eyes a rest. In addition to making your eyes tired, staring at a screen all day can affect your ability to see long distances. Make sure to stop and look up regularly to give your eyes and brain a break. Looking up at the sky is especially helpful in broadening your perspective – literally and figuratively.
• Take frequent breaks. This may be easier said than done, but taking frequent breaks is critical to maintaining mental and physical health. If necessary, schedule breaks and set reminders.
• Move. Any amount of physical activity throughout the day is good for your mind and your body. Exercise helps release stress-busting hormones and can lead to better sleep.
• Get outside. Nature has a calming effect on the nervous system and getting outside can help you relax and take your mind away from your phone and computer.
• Do something unstructured and fun. Make a little music, even if you’re not good. Paint a picture. Dance. So often people are driven by goals and to-do lists. Doing something just for sheer pleasure can decrease stress.
• Make sure you’re getting human interaction every day. Though COVID-19 has changed how people socialize, human interaction – including touch – remains important to mental health. If you can do it safely, make sure you’re getting some form of human touch – a hug, a pat on the back, a shoulder massage – from a friend or loved one every day. If you live alone, explore how you might expand your bubble safely to include this kind of connection. If that’s not possible, reaching out virtually can help you make the emotional connection everyone needs.
Whatever you do, find something that works for you and do it with intention and mindfulness. When you approach something with intention – rather than just going through the motions – the benefits are even greater.
If you take steps to disconnect and continue to feel stressed, anxious or depressed, talk to your doctor. It may be time to seek professional help so you can hit the reset button and take back control over technology rather than letting it control you.
For more information about treatment programs at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health visit www.princetonhouse.org or call 888-437-1610.
Amy Hiraldo, M.S.W. is a licensed clinical social worker and the director of Outpatient Services at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health’s Princeton site.