“I fear the day that technology will surpass human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.” -Albert Einstien

 If the photo above looks anything like dinner with your family, your time alone, or a recent meeting you had with your team—this post is for you.

This series is all about maximizing your productivity at work, and in life. And I believe it is impossible to be truly productive without having a strategy for our interaction with—and possibly addiction to—devices.

With many more people working at home during the pandemic, device distractions may pose an even greater threat to personal productivity. We may also have to work harder to maintain personal interaction with colleagues. That is why I am updating this post about strategies for device interaction. 

In this article, I will share the research that highlights the potential danger of screens to your personal productivity, your health and wellness, and your family—and as usual—provide you with action steps to disentangle yourself from devices.

Three Big Ideas:

Screen addiction is a real thing, clearly proven by research and has several potentials dangers:

  1. It harms your productivity. Most screens are distraction black holes. And chronically distracted people/leaders are not the most productive or effective people.
  2. Too much screen time can have serious negative effects on your mental health. Too much time with devices has been proven to cause depression, anxiety, perfectionism, addiction, agitation, obsessive compulsive behaviors, unhealthy social comparison, overspending, and even potentially increase your risk of suicide. Additionally, screens can degrade essential cognitive abilities like attention, concentration, and focus.
  3. It is critically important to model healthy interaction with your devices because problems with screens are more serious for your children. The greatest law of leadership is this—People do what people see. This applies to your workplace and your family. Parenting experts also constantly remind us—more is caught than taught. The dangers of screen addiction are far more serious for kids who lack the self-control and understanding of all the ways they can be harmful.

The first iPhone

Did you know the first iPhone was released June 29, 2007? That is not that long ago.

In the recent past, we’ve had a nuclear explosion of devices and their capabilities—and we have been caught in the riptide ever since. Like every human invention, the research is only just now catching up to reveal the full spectrum of effects—good and bad.

No one can debate the fact that devices have completely changed the landscape of our lives. Today, 90% of adult Americans have a cell phone. And devices are affecting our habits and behaviors—often in ways we don’t fully realize.

Have you ever felt that strange nagging pull to check your phone, even when it hasn’t vibrated or made a sound? According to PEW research, nearly 67% of smartphone owners do this! Am I the only one who finds that unsettling?

What you are experiencing is a craving for the small release of dopamine—a chemical reward system in your brain—that you might get from a text that someone is thinking about you, or a “like” on your social media page, or even the sheer ecstasy that comes from discovering the answer to anything on the internet.

This is not unlike the chemical reward of a drug addict (or any addiction for that matter).

You have formed a habit loop for this behavior—perhaps without intending to do so.

What is really scary is that many devices (and especially social media apps) have been specifically engineered to target the addictive tendencies that all humans have, and the reward circuitry in your brain!

Loren Brichter is the inventor of the “pull-to-refresh” mechanism for Twitter and admitted recently, “Smartphones are useful tools, but they are addictive. Pull-to-refresh is addictive. Twitter is addictive.” He openly expressed his regrets about the possible downsides of the technology.

Is device addiction a disorder?

Although device addiction hasn’t been added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, consider the following hallmarks of addiction that are strikingly similar:

  • Persistent failed attempts to use (a device) less
  • Uncontrollable urges to use (a device)
  • Preoccupation with (a device)
  • Absence of (a device) causes anxiety and depression or withdrawal
  • (A device) causes problems with a relationship or job
  • Increasing tolerance of (a device)

Here are some of my favorite resources and studies on problems associated with devices:

  • In 2017 the media analytics company Comscore found that the average American adult spent 2 hrs and 51 minutes on their phone every single day.
  • A 2017 study in The Journal of the Association of Consumer Research found that even the mere presence of a phone (even when powered off) “reduces available cognitive capacity.” University of Texas at Austin professor Adrian Ward says, “If your phone is in the environment, it’s as if it’s calling out to you.”
  • The CDC recently noted a 65% rise in teenage girl suicide between 2010 and 2015 that some studies suggest is highly correlated with device usage.
  • UCLA and Princeton did some great experiments showing that students who use laptops in lectures or meetings have a substantially worse understanding of the material. Further studies showed that computers in meetings even distract the people who aren’t even using them! Phones can have a similar effect.
  • David Greenfield is a psychologist at the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine who created a short 15-item test for Smartphone Compulsion (link at bottom).

Conclusion

In a new fascinating book How to Break Up With Your Phone, award-winning health journalist Catherine Price details the latest behavioral and brain research on smartphones. Have you recently felt that you are losing your ability to concentrate? This feeling is not your imagination. Apparently, when people spend too much time with digital media, they enter what Price calls “an intensely focused state of distraction”—the effects of which can create long lasting changes in our brains.

Cal Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown and holds a Ph.D. from MIT. In his amazing book Deep Work, he suggests that our fragmented attention from devices is hampering the deep states of focus required for truly great work.

I think we can all benefit from his simple recommendation on smartphones:

“To be a minimalist smartphone user means that you deploy this device for the small number of features that do things you value, and then outside these activities, put it away.” -Cal Newport

I believe the most effective leaders of the future will avoid the pitfalls of lost productivity, the associated mental health problems, and poor modeling for their teams and families—by developing clear strategies for their interaction with devices.

Your homework—Turn information into action

Here are some ways you can apply this information to yourself, your family, and your workplace today:

  • Put your phone in your trunk for 24 hours per week. This helps you do a mini-digital detox and weaken the grasp your phone may have on you.
  • Avoid screens the first and last hour of your day. Checking email or the internet in the morning or right before bed sends your brain down any number of rabbit trails. Start and end your day with gratitude and calming activities instead. Additionally, the light from screens too close to bedtime may activate your brain and increase insomnia.
  • Use the “Do Not Disturb” feature on your phone. You can google how to do this.
  • Don’t sleep with your phone. Even the mere presence of your phone in your immediate proximity can increase your urge to reach for it.
  • Take this simple 15 question smartphone addiction test! Developed by the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction here
  • Put your phone out of sight while working. Interruptions can cost you up to 40% lost productivity.
  • Set strict times to use your phone, the internet, or email.
  • Decide on clear limits for screen time and access for your children. I love what psychologist and parenting expert Charles Fay of the Love and Logic Institute says—“Kids need things like gravity, sunlight, and the feeling of dirt running through their fingers to have healthy development. The more I learn, the more I simply recommend doing no screens at all for as long as possible.” Kids also need to move their bodies and to interact with other humans—in other words—real life!
  • Try a team meeting with no laptops or phones. It might force you to really focus your meetings if people cant diddle away on their phones.

Have a great weekend!

Parker

Suggested Resources

  1. See also my previous post on the dangers of Multitasking https://leadyoufirst.com/stop-multitasking/
  2. Deep Work—by Cal Newport
  3. 7 scary things you never knew about cell phone addiction https://www.health.com/anxiety/cell-phone-addiction
  4. Phone addiction is a real thing—and so are its mental health risks https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2017/12/11/phone-addiction-is-real-and-so-are-its-mental-health-risks/#34d222c613df
Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Opinions expressed are the authors own.
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