Has COVID-19 Made You Addicted to Your Phone?

August 5, 2020

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Eric C. Alcera, M.D. contributes to topics such as Behavioral Health.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, we’ve all spent a great deal of time using computers, tablets and smartphones as a means to communicate with one another and stay informed during the global pandemic.

Digital devices have also become a replacement for classroom learning, in-person meetings and most likely the primary way we keep informed on news. The reliance on social media and digital technology to keep us informed and entertained has also undoubtedly increased, driving us to check notifications and scroll more frequently than before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Digital devices are cleverly designed to crave our attention and give us psychological or other rewards for being attentive. They tap into human nature by making us feel good in seeking likes, connections, comments, followers and views,” says Eric Alcera, M.D., network medical director for Behavioral Health services for Hackensack Meridian Health and a psychiatrist specialized in child, adolescent and adult care. “Those cravings for attention and positive reinforcement, and our response to them, can get in the way of ‘being in the moment’ and enjoying or interacting with what is around us. I see this now more than ever, as extended periods of isolation and limited in-person social gatherings give us more time to interact with devices.”

What Is Digital Dependency?

Since the advance of smartphone capabilities and social media over the last decade, researchers have found that use of digital devices and social media can impact mental health in major ways. Spending countless hours on social media can have long-lasting negative effects on the body and mind, including:

  • Feelings of stress and anxiety about being left out or missing something
  • Interruptions in sleep patterns and inability to relax and unplug
  • Impact on self-esteem, harmful effects of cyber-bullying or perceptions we might have of ourselves
  • Feelings of fatigue, eye-strain or reduced interest in physical activity
  • Back pain, joint pain, or poor posture from sitting for long periods over keyboards or screens

Tips to Reduce Digital Dependency

As face-to-face human interaction with others slowly returns to our daily lives, Dr. Alcera offers some ways to reduce your digital dependency and create healthy boundaries with your digital device and social media.

  1. Set timers for social media apps on your smartphone and tablet. Use your device’s function that allows you to set a time limit on all applications. The amount of time set can be a personal preference, but it ultimately will serve as reminder for how much time you’ve spent scrolling on a daily basis and help you better manage it. Even if you do not shut off your device when the timer goes off, it will remind you of how long you have been on, and the number of hours may surprise you!
  1. Set aside time for non-screen time. Our jobs, now more than ever, require us to hop on video calls and remain plugged into email at all hours. This includes young people who were already high-volume users of digital devices, and this may increase as schools introduce more virtual learning. Going for a walk and reading a book are great ways to create space between you and your device. Meditation, even for just five minutes a day, can be a great exercise in mindfulness and finding stillness in a noisy world.
  1. Take a digital detox. If setting limits or taking time away from your device doesn’t work, try a “digital day off” or a brief period of detox—simply fasting from using social media and electronic devices for a period of time. Even one day can be a refreshing change. Yes, the fear of missing out on a new post may arise (and perhaps some minor stress and anxiety along with it), but creating deliberate space between you and technology will give you the opportunity to reconnect with the things and people that matter most. Whether it is one afternoon, a day, a weekend or longer, a digital detox will challenge you to reset the way in which you approach and use technology.
  1. Limit “doomscrolling.” “Doomscrolling” or “doomsurfing” refer to habitual surfing or scrolling through bad news, particularly when the news is saddening, disheartening or depressing. It’s easy to find yourself continuously digesting bad news about COVID-19 without being able to stop or step back. Try to step away and limit your time with this type of activity.

“These suggestions can help you develop a healthier relationship with digital media and become less dependent upon it. Simply understanding that these devices are designed to keep us continuously engaged and create a high level of anticipation is important knowledge,” says Dr. Alcera. “We are selective in answering the door if the doorbell rings. We can be selective in how we manage our life with digital devices so that they enhance our daily life in positive ways. This will be important as we begin to adapt to the ‘new normal’ and have more opportunity for in-person interaction. In-person interaction, even with safe social distancing and masks, is vital to good mental health and well-being.”

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.