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Why This Brain Doctor Wants You To Take A Tech Timeout

Image by TINO RENATO / Death to the stock photo
November 22, 2019

Have you ever been heading into a meeting at work and noticed that all of your colleagues are staring at their phones? Or gone on a date only to watch the person you're having dinner with constantly check messages on their smartphone? Of course, you have. And you've probably done it, too.

Most of us can't imagine living without our digital devices. Yet, less than a decade ago, only 35% of Americans owned a smartphone, according to Pew Research. Today, however, that number has jumped to 81% and to a whopping 96% among 18- to 29-year-olds. Our phones, as well as our tablets, laptops, gaming consoles, and other devices, make our lives so much easier, and better, in so many ways. However, they also come with a hefty price.

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Our love affair with all things tech is taking a toll on our brain health.

What technology is doing to our brains. 

As a psychiatrist for more than three decades, I've worked with hundreds of people who are so tied to their tech devices that it's negatively affecting multiple areas of their lives. Here are some of the main problems I see among my patients.

Tech addiction

In my practice, I see many people struggling with an unhealthy relationship with their devices. They are among the estimated 210 million people struggling with Internet and social media addiction1. The brain-imaging work we do at Amen Clinics shows that tech addiction, which is considered a behavioral addiction, is associated with negative changes in multiple brain regions.      

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Anxiety and mood issues

More time spent on tech devices adds up to more problems with mental well-being. Did you know that teens who log five hours each day on their phones are twice as likely to have symptoms of depression? And in young adults, using seven to 11 social media platforms triples the risk of developing depression and anxiety2 compared with those who use no more than two platforms.

Inattention

All those notifications and alerts from our gadgets can be so distracting, and if the buzzing or beeping occurs when you're knee-deep in a critical task, it impairs performance. In fact, you don't even have to read that incoming text message or email to experience a drop in your ability to complete the task at hand, according to findings in the Journal of Experimental Psychology3.

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Low self-esteem

Sadly, self-esteem4 is too often tied to the number of likes you get on social media. We collaborated with The Dr. Oz Show on a brain-imaging experiment involving the Tinder dating app to assess its effect on mood and focus in a group of men and women in their 30s. In this trial, when they got a "swipe right"—meaning someone using the app liked their pictures and short bio—it increased activity in the pleasure and mood centers of their brains. However, getting more "swipe left" reactions—indicating rejection—caused changes in their brains associated with increased vulnerability to pain and depression.

Forgetfulness

Our reliance on technology and media multitasking are diminishing our working memory capacity as well as our long-term memory function, according to researchers at Stanford University5.

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Increased impulsivity

Our gadgets give us the ability to see something we want and get it immediately. Scientists are discovering that heavy smartphone use is more likely to lead to impulse control issues.

Relationship woes

Is that smartphone getting between you and your romantic partner? It's called "technoference," and emerging research shows it can sabotage relationships. A 2019 study found that smartphones could be a source of frustration for couples. I can vouch for that statistic based on the number of people who come to me for couples' therapy complaining about their partner's tech devices.

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How to take a tech timeout at work.

When my patients are struggling with the adverse effects of digital obsession, I usually prescribe a tech timeout. You may need one too. Here are some simple strategies to help you unplug at work, in your relationships, and at school.

Try intermittent internet fasting.

As intermittent fasting has become a popular and effective way to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, the same concept can be used to develop a more blissful relationship with your gadgets. Obviously, I wouldn't recommend strutting into the office on Monday morning and announcing, "I'm going on an internet fast today, so don't text, email, or call me for the rest of the day." But you can choose to unplug on your own time. Take a 15-minute break in the afternoon without your phone or leave it at the office when you go to lunch. 

Stick to the single-screen rule

Are you one of those multi-screeners? You know the type—updating social media feeds on an iPad while videoconferencing with a client and working on a spreadsheet on your computer? This type of multitasking leads to problems with attention and has been found to decrease productivity by up to 40%. Limit yourself to one screen at a time. It will boost your focus and help you complete tasks more efficiently so you can be more productive.

How to take a tech timeout in relationships.

Don't talk and text.

If you're going on a date, I suggest that you both put your phones out of reach, so you can get to know each other and spend quality time together. If your date has a hard time detaching from his or her phone or seems super stressed about it, it could be a warning sign of tech addiction.

 

Make the bedroom a tech-free zone.

If you want to enhance intimacy with your partner, clear out all screens from the bedroom, including computers, smartphones, and televisions. Creating a relaxing, distraction-free environment will let you focus on each other. I've worked with several couples that have reported developing a stronger bond after removing this "third wheel" from the bedroom.

How to take a tech timeout in school. 

Avoid the "Google Effect."

Schoolwork—whether it's high school, college, or continuing education, at one time required students to use their brains to memorize facts. This ability has dramatically diminished due to what researchers call the "Google Effect6," or digital amnesia. To give your brain a workout, put your tech devices aside for at least a portion of your study sessions, and make an attempt to memorize class material.

 Log off during class.

Considering that lecture notes are widely available, and it's easy to hit the "record" button on your phone or computer, you may be tempted to tune out during class and get distracted with your phone. This is dangerous! Make it a habit to hide your phone in your backpack so you can't access it during class. This will help you concentrate on the material, ask questions, and have a better understanding of what the instructor highlights as important and will likely be on the exam!

Taking a temporary tech timeout in the important areas of your life will enhance your overall brain health and can increase productivity, strengthen relationships, and improve academic performance. Commit to some tech timeouts today so you can start recharging your brain and enhancing your life.

Daniel Amen, M.D.
Daniel Amen, M.D.
Clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist

Daniel Amen, MD, is a clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist, physician, professor and 10-time New York Times bestselling author. He is a double board-certified child and adult psychiatrist and founder of Amen Clinics, Inc., which has eight clinics across the country with one of the highest published success rates for treating complex psychiatric issues with the world’s largest database of functional brain scans relating to behavior, with more than 160,000 scans on patients from 121 countries. Amen is the lead researcher for the largest brain imaging and rehabilitation study for professional football players that demonstrates high levels of brain damage in players with solutions for significant recovery as a result of his extensive work. His research on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury was recognized by Discover magazine’s Year in Science issue as one of the “100 Top Stories of 2015.” Amen has authored and co-authored more than 70 professional articles, seven scientific book chapters and 40-plus books, including the No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, “The Daniel Plan” and “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.” His most recent book, “Change Your Brain, Change Your Grades,” includes editorial contributions from his teenage daughter, Chloe Amen, and niece, Alizé Castellanos.