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Being smart about our phones

Published: November 30, 2012
Section: Opinions


Back in September, The New York Times released a story in which researchers from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found that artificial light from devices like iPhones, iPads and computer screens can negatively affect the brain chemicals that promote sleep. The light can lower levels of melatonin, a hormone that naturally induces our sleep cycles and regulates our internal clocks, by a significant amount.

The researchers had volunteers play games, watch movies or read on their iPad and computer screens for various amounts of time and tested their levels of melatonin. They found that two hours of exposure to a bright screen at night reduced melatonin levels by 22 percent. In another recent study published in the journal Nature, researchers analyzed two groups of mice with different cycles of light and darkness. They found that the mice exposed to the harshest light cycle developed more symptoms of depression. This study found that exposure to bright lights in the evening hours can boost risk of depression and affect learning abilities. Overuse of these screens before going to sleep led to long-term negative effects.

Two weeks before Nature released this study, I got my first iPhone. I had been holding out on getting a smartphone and trying to prolong the life of my Motorola Razr, circa 2007. My parents, in an attempt to pull me into the present day and age, replaced my old Razr with a smartphone. At first, I was reluctant to jump into the world of smartphone technology. I had seen how reliant my friends were on their phones and how much heavier their pockets became, metaphorically and physically. As my dad put it, there was more technology in my iPhone 4 than there was in the space ship that took astronauts to the moon in 1969. I didn’t want to become the type of person that couldn’t live without their phone and had to rely on having a signal or a Wi-Fi network.

Unfortunately, my parents were right. The world we live in today is constantly moving forward and implementing new technology. Even the train I took to New York City for Thanksgiving offered free Wi-Fi and most people showed the conductor their ticket on their smartphone. Most museums now use QR codes, or “quick response” two-dimensional matrices resembling a barcode that can be read with a smartphone, to display information about paintings and exhibits. As useful as smartphones can be in a fast-paced futuristic world, there can be downsides to a technology that allows me to take a picture of a cute animal, cover it with a filter and send it out to everyone I know in a matter of seconds.

During my first few weeks with my new iPhone, I started to notice how much time I spent staring at this miniature screen. I no longer had to pull out my hefty computer every time I wanted to check my email, poke my Facebook friends, or Google the correct spelling of ‘guarantee.’ But I also felt compelled to constantly check my phone. It was the first thing I did when I woke up and the last thing I did before I fell asleep and after a few days, I started to hate that reliance. Similar to the results of the study in the Times article, I was having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. As much as I loved Instagram, I was not happy with how much it was controlling my life.

According to Cary Cooper, a Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University in Lancashire, England, smartphone screens can numb your mind in a destructive way. “It’s the exercise equivalent of treading water and can be both addictive and destructive in the way it occupies your mind without actually stimulating it,” says Cooper.

In Sweden, experts say that smartphones can contribute to prolonged stress, sleep disturbance and depression. Cooper compares the constant checking of email and Facebook to gambling. “It’s like slot machines … we’re seeking that pleasurable hit,” Cooper warns. He also suggests turning off your phone for a few minutes to a few hours each day to unwind, and to spend time talking face-to-face with friends and family instead of participating in disconnected social networking.

Not only did I feel like I was winning the lottery every time my phone vibrated, but I felt like I was losing every minute it stayed silent. I am still not 100 percent sure how to handle having a smartphone. But there are a few guidelines I’ve set for myself to try to limit my dependence and they may be of interest to students anticipating studying and avoiding distractions for finals. First, I only pull out my phone during class or while I’m studying if I need to take a picture, send a message to someone important like Mom or Dad, or make a necessary phone call.

I recommend turning off notifications on your lock screen so that your phone isn’t constantly lighting up with messages or Facebook comments. At night, I charge my phone on my desk, far away from my bed. Having to leave my warm bed to walk across the cold floor and check my Instagram feed keeps me away from the bright screen and it also forces me to make the trek every morning to turn off my alarm. Finally, when I’m with my friends, I keep my phone in my pocket or I place it on the table and ignore it. Even in my days pre-smartphone I considered it a common courtesy to give my full attention to the person with whom I’m talking, and I shouldn’t change now just because I have the urge to crush my new score in Fruit Ninja.

Smartphones are a wonderful thing. They’re a connection to the world around us and at times a lifesaver when we’re lost, confused or just plain forgetful. But it would do all of us some good to put them down once in a while and try to focus on the world around us. Sometimes it’s okay to not know the capital of Albania or the newest tweet from Beyoncé and it feels good to break away from that connection and give our minds a break.