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Disconnecting from Your Phone Can Help You Reconnect with the World

Have you ever felt stressed or nervous when you forgot to take your phone with you when you left home? Ever told yourself you'd go to sleep after one more YouTube video only to look at the time and realize you spent another two hours watching videos? I'm sure we all do this at times. But have you ever thought about your phone's impact on your overall mental health? Dr. Chad Rogers is here to tell us about the science behind cell phone usage and some of the negative (and positive) impacts it can have on our mental health.

We've all heard it said before: we spend too much time on our phones. "I think especially having lived through the pandemic where we stayed at home more,” Dr. Rogers says, “we were less connected with people. We tried to reconnect through social media and stay up to date on the latest news. Soon enough, though, something we do to pass time becomes almost an addiction, as some people describe it, where you just have this constant need and drive to hop on social media, check your email, even look at the news." It doesn't help that our phones have notification pop-ups now that constantly prompt us to read our texts or look at posts. Cell phones and social media have become such a big part of our lives.

While we’ve all heard of the dangers of too much cell phone use, there is a lot of good. Phones allow us to stay connected to what's happening in the world and the news, and we all want to stay connected to family and friends. Connection is important to a healthy life, but it can get to a point where it’s not good. “We’ve seen an increased rate in depression and anxiety not just among adults but also among teens and children because of the impact of social media,” Dr. Rogers warns. The biggest factor contributing to social media leading to anxiety and depression comes from a fear of missing out. "We're all afraid of missing some event. We're afraid that we're not having as much fun as someone else or that our life is not as great as someone else's," Dr. Rogers says.

Maybe it’s not about a fear of missing out, though. Maybe we have a fear of losing connection with the world. Maybe some people feel they need to be connected with their job. “We need to be needed,” Dr. Rogers adds, “and we need to check our email from somebody, or maybe we got a like on an Instagram photo, or someone replied to our text.” Eventually, you get bombarded with so much information that you can’t put it down. It starts to wear on your psyche, and you begin to experience anxiety and even depression from comparing yourself to someone else.

It's even been said that every time you get a like or some reaction on your phone, it releases a little dopamine. We all want that hit to feel good and to carry us through the day.

Dopamine is very powerful in the brain. It’s part of our reward system. Dr. Rogers says, “There is a lot of great research, especially with young people, to show that when they post and someone likes it, it gives that dopamine release. However, this release can lead to things like worsening of eating disorders, worsening of overall depression, sleep deprivation.” In our attempts to reach out and connect with people, we become more withdrawn. We become even more disconnected. Never in the world have we been so connected to this little device but so disconnected from each other. Human connection keeps people alive, and by staying on our phones all day, we lose that vital human connection we all desire.

What about our relationships? How do our phones impact our interactions with the people around us?

“You can walk into a restaurant or maybe at your kitchen table and see what it’s done to our relationships,” Dr. Rogers jokes. “I saw on a late-night show that 60% of parents now text their kids when dinner is ready instead of yelling up the stairs and telling them to come down. We have totally disconnected." Jealous and mistrust may even come up between couples. You may friend an old acquaintance on Facebook or message an old partner, and your significant other finds out and becomes jealous. That can be damaging to a relationship.

Now that you've heard about how cell phones can negatively impact our mental health, are you ready to take a break from your phone for the day?

Some people can go cold turkey, but, as with any addiction, there can be some struggles with detachment. Some people may even experience withdrawal symptoms.

While it depends on the person, Dr. Rogers provides great advice on how to ween yourself off excessive phone usage: "Some people have to go totally off social media. They need to delete that app and limit the time they connect, look at their email, or do things associated with work. They also need to tell their friends that they're taking a break from their phone so their friends aren't wondering why they can't get a hold of them."

It doesn't have to be an all-or-none phenomenon, though. “You can begin to set things in place to limit your exposure,” Dr. Rogers suggests. “You should limit social media usage to 20 or 30 minutes a day. Let’s face it. After 20-30 minutes of news, you won’t hear anything new unless there's some big breaking story. The news will reiterate what you've already heard or reframe it differently.”

Dr. Rogers also suggests setting a time frame where you will check your phone. Maybe you decide from 8-9, you’ll check your phone, but then you will put it down for the rest of the workday and not pick it up until 3-4. “Don’t constantly check throughout the day,” Dr. Rogers warns, “because it becomes that trail and things start popping up: so-and-so liked your picture, so-and-so liked your post on Facebook. Then you find yourself back in that trap.” Even being aware of your time on social media can be the first step to disconnecting. I'm always embarrassed to look at my screen time on my iPhone for the day or the week because it is such a long time. When I see it like that, it almost feels like I've wasted that much time out of my day.

Another thing Dr. Rogers suggests is to begin to replace checking your phone with other activities. “Instead of getting up and looking at your phone,” he says, “get up and go for a walk, or go work on a project, or call somebody.” As adults, it's important to set media-free times throughout the day. “The number one complaint I hear from people all the time is how much time kids spend on their phones,” Dr. Rogers says. Despite these complaints, even as adults, we don’t put down our phones, so how can we expect our kids to do it?

When you’re with people, be with people. Make it a media-free zone when you’re at the dinner table with friends or family. Put your phone away, or, if you have it out, put it upside down so you won't be distracted by all the notifications. "Some phones now have settings where you can silence our phones so you only get notifications from specific people like your parents, kids, or work so that you can put the phone down and shut it off,” Dr. Rogers says.

It is also important to cut down on your phone usage before bed. The blue light from your phone can distract you from getting a good night’s sleep. “Blue light suppresses melatonin production, which is very important to helping you fall asleep,” Dr. Rogers says. “If you’re constantly thinking about or looking at text or email, your mind is not winding down as it should be, and you won’t get good sleep.”

Most people (myself included) use their phones as alarm clocks. I'm guilty of waking up in the middle of the night to my dog barking, only to check my phone for the time and see three text messages. Then, I have to check the messages before I go back to bed. When I'm ready to go back to sleep, it's hard to wind down because my brain was already stimulated from the blue light and the notifications I got. So, like Dr. Rogers mentions, putting your phone down at night is important. "Turn it off, if you can, put it in a drawer, put it in the kitchen, or in an area that’s not your bedroom,” he says. Whatever you do, make sure that you take steps to disconnect from your phone so that you can start reconnecting with the world around you. It’s good for you.

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