I love my phone! I’ll admit it, it’s hugely helpful both in my work and personal life. And frankly, at times, it’s fun! In fact, sometimes I find it to be more exciting than my husband. But how can that be, as I truly love my husband?
I can’t count how many times I’ve been at an event with my husband and found that I “needed” to (again) just quickly check email, scroll through Facebook, or be sure that I missed nothing urgent on the never-ending newsfeed. And honestly, I do it even though I think it’s hugely rude. (Yes, I’m one of those!)
So many times I’ve rationalized this behavior by telling my husband something or other about checking work email. You know, I’ll just check once…or twice…or 15 times. What’s really the harm?
So I sit down on a chair or “discreetly” turn away from the group to check the phone for just a second. Then, there are those times when I’m watching a movie at home with my husband. Nice quality time right? You’d think so, except I’m not truly with him.
Where are you, you ask?
I’m on Realtor.com (I’m real estate-obsessed), Rue La La (I love a deal), or, of course, checking work email to justify my behavior. In these moments I think, “this is fine, there’s no harm.”
As a psychologist, I should truly know better.
While I’m answering a work email or quietly scrolling away in search of the perfect house or the greatest boots, my brain and emotions become over-stimulated and excited. My nervous system shifts into high gear and stays there. If I “slip” into playing games, I find that I’m now working to survive, collect coins, gather weapons, and protect supplies or land.
My heart rate increases from an average of 80 to 100 beats per minute. My blood pressure rises from a normal 100/70 to 140/90. I am charged, ready to compete, ready to “fight!”
Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, is now flooding my system. Levels of the so-called feel-good hormone, dopamine, are also are flooding my system and elevating my mood. At this point, I feel great.
I’m searching through different neighborhoods that I already searched earlier in the evening, or moving from one boutique to the next (maybe no Rue La La boots for me today, maybe a dress!). But here’s an interesting part of the problem: The only parts of me that are likely moving are my eyes and thumbs. I am locked onto a screen that is sending signals to my brain saying, “This feels great, this is exciting, do this MORE!”
If something is exciting and makes us feel good, wouldn’t we want to spend more and more time with it? Of course! Unfortunately, this proves true whether it’s a husband or a phone!
At this point, my wonderful husband may ask me a question. If he’s lucky, he’ll get a glazed, dazed “Um hm.” Less lucky, he gets radio silence.
Then there’s the fact that I have no idea what’s going on in the movie. So naturally, I ask one clueless question after another! My husband, patient though he is, becomes frustrated. He says, “Can you just watch the movie? Now I can’t follow what’s going on with all of the talking and questions!”
While I enjoy my feel good cocktail (my phone), my husband’s aggravated. Now, add to my wonderful cocktail the very intense visual stimulation the games, Facebook, or email provide my brain and, before long, it adjusts to the heightened stimulation by shutting down parts deemed non-essential.
In this case, what proves “non-essential” is watching the movie or noticing my husband’s existence. At this point, you may be asking, “Wait a minute. Are you saying that parts of the brain go ‘offline?’”
Yes, that’s precisely what is happening. Think about it: In the honeymoon phase of relationships, we only have eyes for our potential spouse. In this scenario we only have eyes for that which makes us feel good — our darn phones again!
Is that so bad?
Well, if we’re disconnected from everything else around us, the answer is absolutely “yes”. Our brain is being flooded with dopamine, that feel good hormone that rewards us for paying attention to the phone — but is also rewarding us for ignoring our loved ones!
Remove the feel good source — the phone — and you have one aggravated, impulsive wife! At this point, I’m likely snapping at my husband and my son, for that matter, and feeling pretty on edge.
But long after we put the phone away, its effects on us remain. Perhaps, like a husband, we long for that phone. We want to check something on it “just this once.” As that feel-good dopamine starts to drop, the levels of stress hormones or cortisol remain high. This might leave you feeling forgetful, spacing, or even depressed or anxious.
Of course, we need the stress response triggered by cortisol for emergencies and for motivation to get things done. Bu, repeatedly enduring the ‘fight or flight’ response when no threat is present — such as when we love all over our phones — does more harm than good.
When the fight or flight response is triggered too often, or too intensely, the brain and the body have difficulty regulating themselves. This leads to a state of chronic stress.
Chronic stress is also triggered when there is a mismatch between the ‘fight or flight’ response and energy expenditure (as is the case when we are playing video games or are otherwise engaged in screen time). The fight or flight response is meant to trigger the expenditure of energy — but this does not occur when we engage with screens.
Research currently demonstrates that an increase in the stress response is associated with screen time even among those who exercise on a regular basis.
Research also shows that the stress response is induced irrespective of the content of interactive screen time. But once chronic stress sets in, blood flow is directed away from the higher thinking part of our brain (the frontal cortex) and toward the more primitive areas necessary for survival.
This can quickly result in impairment of functioning, including difficulty paying attention, managing emotions, maintaining sleep, following directions, tolerating frustration, suppressing impulses, accessing compassion, and completing tasks.
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