Addicted to your phone?  How to separate from your phone for a healthy lifestyle[1]

Erik Peper, PhD[2] and Monica Almendras

Our evolutionary traps with technology

Maintaining and optimizing health at the computer means re-envisioning our relationship with technology—and reclaiming health, happiness, and sanity in a plugged-in world.  We have the ability to control everything from our mobile phones without needing to get up from our seat. Work, social life and online learning all involve the mobile phone or some type of smart devices.

A convenient little device that is supposed to simplify our lives has actually trapped us into a vicious cycle of relying on it for every single thing we must do.  We spend most of our day being exposed to digital displays on our smartphones, computers, gaming consoles, and other digital devices, immersing ourselves in the content we are viewing. From work related emails or tasks, to spending our free time looking at the screen for texting, playing games, and updating social media sites on a play-by-play of what we are eating, wearing, and doing. We click on one hyperlink after the other and create a vicious cycle trapped for hours until we realize we need to move. We are unaware how much time has frittered away without actually doing anything productive and then, we realize we have wasted another day. Below are some recent estimates of ‘daily active user’ minutes per day that uses a screen.

  • Facebook about an hour per day
  • Instagram just under an hour per day
  • Texting about 45 minutes per day
  • Internet browsing, about 45 minutes per day
  • Snapchat, about 30 minutes per day
  • Twitter, about 25 minutes per day

Adolescents and college students interact with media for over 40 hours per week, or around 6 hours per day. That is a lot of hours spent on staring at the screen, which it is almost impossible not to be distracted by the digital screen. In time, we rehearse a variety of physical body postures as well as a variety of cognitive and behavioral states that impact our physical, mental, emotional, and social health. The powerful audiovisual formats override our desires to do something different, that some of us become enslaved to streaming videos, playing virtual games, or texting. We then tell ourselves that the task that needs to be done, will be finished later. That later becomes never by the end of the day, since the ongoing visual and auditory notifications from our apps interrupt and/or capture our attention. This difficulty to turn away from visual or auditory stimuli roots in our survival instincts.

Each time visual or auditory stimuli occur, we automatically check it out and see if it is a friend or foe, safety or danger. It is such an automatic response that we are unaware are reacting. The good news is that we all have experienced this compelling effect. Even when we are waiting for a response and the notifications has not arrived, we may anticipate or project that there may be new information on our social media accounts, and sometimes we become disappointed when the interval between notification is long. As one student said, “Don’t worry, they’ll respond. It’s only been 30 seconds”. Anticipating responses from the media can interrupt what we are otherwise doing. Rather than finishing our work or task, we continuously check for updates on social media, even though we probably know that there are no new important messages to which we would have to respond right away.

Unfortunately, some forms of social media interactions also lead to a form of social isolation, loneliness–sometimes called phoneliness (Christodoulou, G., Majmundar, A., Chou, C-P, & Pentz, M.A., 2020Kardaras, 2017). Digital content requires the individual to respond to the digital stimuli, without being aware of the many verbal and nonverbal communication cues (facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, eye contact, body language, posture, touch, etc.) that are part of social communication (Remland, 2016). It is no wonder that more and more adolescents experience anxiety, depression, loneliness, and attention deficit disorders with a constant ‘digital diet’ that some have suggested that include not only media, but junk food as well.

In my class survey of 99 college students, 85% reported experiencing anxiety, 48% neck and should tension, and 41% abdominal discomfort.

We are not saying to avoid the beneficial parts of the digital age. Instead, it should be used in moderation and to be aware of how some material and digital platforms prey upon our evolutionary survival mechanisms. Unfortunately, most people -especially children- have not evolved skills to counter the negative impacts of some types of media exposure. Parental control and societal policies may be needed to mitigate the damage and enhance the benefits of the digital age.

Zoom Fatigue- How to reduce it and configure your brain for better learning

Zoom became the preferred platform for academic teaching and learning for synchronous education during the pandemic. Thus, students and faculty have been sitting and looking at the screen for hours end. While looking at the screen, the viewers were often distracted by events in their environment, notifications from their mobile phones, social media triggers, and emails; which promoted multitasking (Solis, 2019). These digital distractions cause people to respond to twice as many devices with half of our attention- a process labeled semi-tasking’ -meaning getting twice as much done and half as well.

We now check our phones an average of 96 times a day – that is once every 10 minutes and an increase of 20% as compared to two years ago (Asurion Research, 2019). Those who do media multitasking such as texting while doing a task perform significantly worse on memory tasks than those who are not multitasking (Madore et al., 2020).  Multitasking is negatively correlated with school performance (Giunchiglia et al, 2018). The best way to reduce multitasking is to turn off all notifications (e.g., email, texts, and social media) and let people know that you will look at the notifications and then respond in a predetermined time, so that you will not be interrupted while working or studying.

When students from San Francisco State University in the United States chose to implement a behavior change to monitor mobile phone and media use and reduce the addictive behavior during a five-week self-healing project, many reported a significant improvement of health and performance. For example one student reported that when she reduced her mobile phone use, her stress level equally decreased as shown in Fig 1 (Peper et al, 2021).

Figure 1. Example of student changing mobile phone use and corresponding decrease in subjective stress level. Reproduced by permission from Peper et al. (2021).

During this class project, many students observed that the continuous responding to notifications and social media affected their health and productivity. As one student reported,

The discovery of the time I wasted giving into distractions was increasing my anxiety, increasing my depression and making me feel completely inadequate. In the five-week period, I cut my cell phone usage by over half, from 32.5 hours to exactly 15 hours and used some of the time to do an early morning run in the park. Rediscovering this time makes me feel like my possibilities are endless. I can go to work full time, take online night courses reaching towards my goal of a higher degree, plus complete all my homework, take care of the house and chores, cook all my meals, and add reading a book for fun! –22-year-old College Student

Numerous students reported that it was much easier to be distracted and multitask, check social media accounts or respond to emails and texts than during face-to-face classroom sessions as illustrated by two student comments from San Francisco State University.

“Now that we are forced to stay at home, it’s hard to find time by myself, for myself, time to study, and or time to get away. It’s easy to get distracted and go a bit stir-crazy.”

“I find that online learning is more difficult for me because it’s harder for me to stay concentrated all day just looking at the screen.” 

Students often reported that they had more difficulty remembering the material presented during synchronous presentations. Most likely, the passivity while watching Zoom presentations affected the encoding and consolidation of new material into retrievable long-term memory. The presented material was rapidly forgotten when the next screen image or advertisement appeared and competed with the course instructor for the student’s attention. We hypothesize that the many hours of watching TV and streaming videos have conditioned people to sit and take in information passively, while discouraging them to respond or initiate action (Mander, 1978Mărchidan, 2019).

To reduce the deleterious impact of media use, China has placed time limits on cellphone use, gaming, and social media use for children. On February 2021 Chinese children were banned from taking their mobile phones into school, on August 2021 Children under 18 were banned from playing video games during the week and their play was restricted to just one hour on Fridays, weekends and holidays, and beginning on September 20, 2021 children under 14 who have been authenticated using their real name can access Douyin, the Chinese version of Tik Tok, for maximum of 40 minutes a day between the hours of 6:00 and 22:00.

Ways to avoid Zoom

Say goodnight to your phone

It is common for people to use their mobile phone before going to bed, and then end up having difficult falling asleep. The screen emits blue light that sends a signal to your brain that says it is daytime instead of night. This causes your body to suppress the production of the melatonin hormone, which tells your body that it is time to sleep. Reading or watching content also contributes, since it stimulates your mind and emotions and thereby promote wakefulness (Bravo, 2020). Implement sleep hygiene and stop using your phone or watching screens 30-minutes before going to bed for a better night’s sleep.

Maintaining a healthy vision

We increase near visual stress and the risk of developing myopia when we predominantly look at nearby surfaces. We do not realize that eyes muscles can only relax when looking at the far distance. For young children, the constant near vision remodels the shape of eye and the child will likely develop near sightedness. The solutions are remarkably simple. Respect your evolutionary background and allow your eyes to spontaneously alternate between looking at near and far objects while being upright (Schneider, 2016Peper, 2021Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020).

Interrupt sitting disease

We sit for the majority of the day while looking at screens that is a significant risk factor for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety (Matthews et al., 2012; Smith et al., 2020). Interrupt sitting by getting up every 30 minutes and do a few stretches. You will tend to feel less sleepy, less discomfort and more productive. As one of our participants reported that when he got up, moved and exercised every 30 minutes at the end of the day he felt less tired.  As he stated, “There is life after five”, which meant he had energy to do other activities after working at the computer the whole day. While working time flies and it is challenging to get up every 30 minutes.  Thus, install a free app on your computer that reminds you to get up and move such as StretchBreak (www.stretchbreak.com).

Use slouching as a cue to change

Posture affects thoughts and emotions as well as, vice versa. When stressed or worried (e.g., school performance, job security, family conflict, undefined symptoms, or financial insecurity), our bodies tend to respond by slightly collapsing and shifting into a protective position. When we collapse/slouch, we are more at risk to:

When stressed, anxious or depressed, it is challenging to change. The negative feelings, thoughts and worries continue to undermine the practice of reframing the experience more positively. Our recent study found that a simple technique, that integrates posture with breathing and reframing, rapidly reduces anxiety, stress, and negative self-talk (Peper, Harvey, Hamiel, 2019). When you are captured by helpless defeated thoughts and slouch, use the thought or posture as the trigger to take change.  The moment you are aware of the thoughts or slouched posture, sit up straight, look up, take a slow large diaphragmatic breath and only then think about reframing the problem positively (Peper, Harvey, Hamiel, 2019).

When we are upright and look up, we are more likely to:

The challenge is that we are usually unaware we have begun to slouch. A very useful solution is to use a posture feedback device to remind us, such as the UpRight Go (https://www.uprightpose.com/). This simple device and app signals you when you slouch. The device attaches to your neck and connects with blue tooth to your cellphone.  After calibrating, it provides vibrational feedback on your neck each time you slouch. When participants use the vibration feedback to become aware of what is going on and interrupt their slouch by stretching and sitting up, they report a significant decrease in symptoms and an increase in productivity. As one student reported: “Having immediate feedback on my posture helped me to be more aware of my body and helped me to link my posture to my emotions. Before using the tracker, doing this was very difficult for me. It not only helped my posture but my awareness of my mental state as well.”


[1] Adapted from the book by Erik Peper, Richard Harvey and Nancy Faass, TechStress-How Technology is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics, North Atlantic Press.  https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/232119/tech-stress-by-erik-peper-phd/ 

[2] Correspondence should be addressed to:

Erik Peper, Ph.D., Institute for Holistic Healing Studies/Department of Recreation, Parks, Tourism and Holistic Health, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94132   COVID-19 mailing address:  2236 Derby Street, Berkeley, CA 94705   Email: epeper@sfsu.edu  web: www.biofeedbackhealth.org  blog: www.peperperspective.com



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