NOT-SO-GOOD VI­BRA­TIONS

Your ding­ing, buzzing, vi­brat­ing phone is stress­ing you out — and so is its si­lence

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - SAMMY CAIOLA

Doug Ross, 31, wakes every morn­ing to a screen full of no­ti­fi­ca­tions.

He re­ceives up­dates from news apps, chats from co-work­ers and emails from East Coast clients, all beck­on­ing to be an­swered be­fore the work­day even starts. Work­ing dur­ing the day as a con­sul­tant for the soft­ware com­pany Adobe, the alerts pour in on a near-con­stant ba­sis. He usu­ally an­swers within sec­onds.

“I never have it away from my per­son,” said Ross, a Sacra­mento, Calif., res­i­dent, about his phone. “That gives me anx­i­ety. It both­ers me, be­cause I know what is go­ing to be on the phone when I get back to it, or what I’m go­ing to miss.”

Many peo­ple find the con­stant dings, buzzes and beeps that come from their com­put­ers and cell­phones im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore. Ex­perts say it’s a sign of our de­pen­dency on tech­nol­ogy, which val­i­dates and en­ter­tains us while also cut­ting into our pro­duc­tiv­ity and al­ter­ing our at­ten­tion span for the worse.

When a cell­phone, lap­top com­puter or smart­watch makes a noise, it pro­duces men­tal and phys­i­cal re­ac­tions in peo­ple, said Larry Rosen, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Cal­i­for­nia State Univer­sity, Dominguez Hills, and au­thor of “The Dis­tracted Mind: An­cient Brains in a High-Tech World.” Their heart rates in­crease. Their skin tin­gles. They grow in­creas­ingly antsy with every minute they don’t look at the screen.

“We’ve trained our­selves, al­most like Pavlov’s dogs, to fig­u­ra­tively sali­vate over what that vi­bra­tion might mean,” Rosen said. “If you don’t ad­dress the vi­brat­ing phone or the beep­ing text, the sig­nals in your brain that cause anx­i­ety are go­ing to con­tinue to dom­i­nate, and you’re go­ing to con­tinue feel­ing un­com­fort­able un­til you take care of them.”

The re­ac­tion is so in­grained that it kicks in even with­out a prompt, Rosen said. The av­er­age per­son checks their cell­phone about 60 times per day, or nearly four times each wak­ing hour, whether they hear a sound or not, ac­cord­ing to one of his re­cent stud­ies. That adds up to a to­tal of 220 min­utes per day.

“Al­most ex­actly half of the check­ins have no alerts or no­ti­fi­ca­tions,” he said. “It’s your brain telling you to check in. It’s your brain telling you ‘I don’t know if any­one new is fol­low­ing me.’”

Some­times, peo­ple even hear “phan­tom rings,” where they think their phone is go­ing off but it isn’t, said David Laramie, a Bev­erly Hills psy­chol­o­gist who coined the term “ringx­i­ety.”

Laramie said the mind is al­ways an­tic­i­pat­ing alerts and peo­ple of­ten imag­ine them to fill a void.

Ross said he some­times feels a buzzing in his right pocket when he knows his phone is in his left.

“It’s def­i­nitely a real thing,” he said of the phan­tom rings.

The rea­sons for the ob­ses­sion are man­i­fold, ex­perts said. When peo­ple could only com­mu­ni­cate by land line, mes­sages ap­peared on an­swer­ing ma­chines, with no ex­pec­ta­tion for a prompt re­sponse. Now, a cell­phone is a con­stant com­pan­ion that takes in thou­sands of emails as well as up­dates from so­cial me­dia net­works in­clud­ing Face­book, Twit­ter and Snapchat.

“It’s won­der­ful, pow­er­ful tech­nol­ogy, but it’s re­ally se­duc­tive, and you need to be de­lib­er­ate about how you use it,” Laramie said.

Many peo­ple can’t es­cape their tech­nol­ogy be­cause they rely on it for work, said Whit­son Gor­don, editor in chief of tech web­site “How to Geek.” Gor­don works re­motely from his Los An­ge­les-area home, and said he used to panic over every sound his de­vices made, fear­ing it was an ur­gent ques­tion from a co­worker when it was re­ally just a mun­dane no­ti­fi­ca­tion from an app.

One way to al­le­vi­ate that stress, Gor­don said, is to pri­or­i­tize alerts into cat­e­gories. Your co-work­ers, for ex­am­ple, could have a dif­fer­ent ring­tone than your friends. Phones also have op­tions to si­lence cer­tain con­tacts or to mute chat con­ver­sa­tions tem­po­rar­ily.

When it comes to ap­pli­ca­tions, most ask the user di­rectly af­ter down­load whether they’d like to re­ceive no­ti­fi­ca­tions or not. Say­ing “no” can help, though many apps are con­stantly adding new fea­tures that re­sult in a flood of no­ti­fi­ca­tions any­way, he said.

“In or­der to keep you on for as long as pos­si­ble, they send you a no­ti­fi­ca­tion to have you use it when you might not oth­er­wise,” he said. “If you’re prun­ing those no­ti­fi­ca­tions prop­erly and your phone’s not buzzing every five sec­onds, it’s about just fil­ter­ing the stuff that’s ac­tu­ally im­por­tant.”

Laramie said he works with many of his pa­tients on how to de­crease their screen time, whether it means putting the phone in an­other room or even just in an­other pocket.

“It be­comes drain­ing to al­ways be on call, to al­ways be con­cerned with the phone,” he said. “It’s just per­pet­ual aware­ness.”

An­other so­lu­tion, Rosen said, is to put your­self on a sched­ule, such as al­low­ing your­self to check your phone for a few min­utes every hour on the hour.

He also sug­gests an at­ten­tion span test. Set a phone alarm for 15 min­utes. Put your phone face down, some­where near you. Get en­gaged in an­other task and keep do­ing it un­til the alarm goes off. Check your phone. Start over.

“Keep do­ing that un­til you get to a point where your alarm goes off and you say, ‘Wait, I want to fin­ish what I’m do­ing,’” he said. “Then you know you can fo­cus for 15 min­utes. The more in­vested you are in th­ese apps, the more you’ll strug­gle. It may be that the best you can get is 15 min­utes of at­ten­tion, and that’s a sad thing to say about our at­ten­tion spans.”

GETTY

Some ways to al­le­vi­ate stress caused by con­tin­ual alerts from your smart­phone is to pri­or­i­tize them into cat­e­gories us­ing dif­fer­ent ring­tones, si­lenc­ing cer­tain con­tacts and say­ing "no" to no­ti­fi­ca­tions when down­load­ing an app.

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