It was not until 1964 that the surgeon general Luther Terry made a bold announcement to a roomful of reporters: “Cigarette smoking causes lung cancer and most likely heart disease.”
Interestingly, the press conference was held on a Saturday to minimize the report’s effect on the stock market.
Tobacco was an even bigger business during that time and was common as well as fashionable. Although the percentage of Americans who smoke today has declined to 14 percent (it was 42 percent at its peak in 1964), it still has taken decades to reverse the trend. The show “Mad Men” was a powerful portrayal of this era and its addiction to smoking.
Everyone did it. All the time. Everywhere.
People heard that it might be bad for you, but nothing much changed. Just like many others, my own mother, who was in the field of health care, was not moved enough by the weight of scientific reports and continued to smoke even throughout her pregnancies.
As I was preparing to write this article and researching the effects of cell phone use, it was clear that many out there have become concerned about the negative impact of this relatively new technology. There are countless studies about cell phone usage, and, although they have many positive advantages, most are now concluding that they are addictive and can be destructive in our daily lives if not used mindfully.
Overall, people say they would like to unplug more often. Nearly two-thirds of people surveyed say they agree that taking an occasional digital detox is good for their mental health. However, less than 30 percent say they actually do so.
Hmmm. Sounds familiar.
As a yoga teacher in New York City, my awareness button has been on high alert about how much we are all on our phones. As I was on the F train last week for work, I was observing fellow riders on the train. Many seemed exhausted and were trying to get some shut-eye between the screeching stops of the subway. The rest were head down, eyes glued to their phones. Even as I was exiting sliding doors, people continued, head down, eyes glued like a zombie apocalypse causing a traffic jam up the cement stairs and out onto the busy streets of New York City.
Along with the cacophony of yellow taxi, car, and bus horns, mixes of music blasting from store windows, tourists from all four corners of the globe herding the sidewalks in Times Square, people still remained HDEG (my acronym for head down, eyes glued) to the phone. Eating, driving, walking, biking. You name it. Everyone, everywhere was on their phone.
No wonder people are so exhausted. We are distracted, disconnected, and connected to an artificial world 24/7. We are reachable 24/7. We can get almost anything at the touch of our fingertips at any time. Although smartphones are more convenient than ever, they have fractured our attention.
The UC Health Organization reported that the average American unlocks their phone 100 to 150 times per day to do anything from check the time, the weather report, texts, or social media; surf the internet; make phone calls; listen to music; play video games; and so on and so on.
The simple math of this study means that if the average person checks their phone 125 times a day and uses it for 60 seconds, this is already around two hours per day. And yes, maybe we open it for less time, but if we are honest, we all know that it’s usually much longer.
According to research from RescueTime, one of several apps for iOS and Android created to monitor phone use, people generally spend an average of three hours and 15 minutes on their phones every day, with the top 20 percent of smartphone users spending upwards of four and a half hours.
This is more than a full day spent on the phone per week.
What I hear the most from people, including myself, is how busy we all are. I am probably gonna get some backlash for this, but are we? Sure, we all have a lot going on, but are we caught in the vacuum of technology and lured into the digital world for more time than we are willing to admit?
If the above average is true, then that means we are on the phone in an artificial social world for an estimated 48 days a year. And no, it’s not all artificial, but that’s a lot of screen time.
“It might be said we are addicted to being distracted,” said Victoria Strohmeyer, a registered psychotherapist with UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “When you check your phone or hear an alert, you activate your sympathetic nervous system, the part of your body that’s always scanning the environment. It gives you a little shot of adrenaline for every interaction.”
That adrenaline, which is meant to trigger your body to pay attention, sets off a cascade of chemicals that increases heart rate, pulse, and muscle tension, as well as shunts energy from the brain to the muscles.
“It will take five to 30 minutes for your body to get back to baseline after every one of these alarms,” Strohmeyer said. All that stress wreaks havoc on the body and mind, causing or contributing to a range of diseases, from heart disease and depression, to sleep deprivation and chronic fatigue.
As I arrived to the office building where I teach corporate yoga and meditation classes, the phenomenon of HDEG is the way of the world. I see Charlie zip past me, phone in hand, his short black hair spiked straight up, moving a zillion miles per hour. In his blur past me, he says he can’t make the 20-minute meditation today.
Even when he is able to come to a session, one eye is on his phone just in case his boss needs him. He is 24 years old and stressed to the max with chronic back pain.
Charlie is one of the many I work with, and each person like him is not able to disconnect from their smartphone. He as well as the others feel they must be accessible at all times regarding work. And from my limited understanding of technology, these devices are honed to keep our attention.
Even if we are only focusing on work, notifications and pop-ups are built to keep us tuned in and zoned out. An internal Facebook report leaked this year revealed that the company can identify when someone feels “insecure,” “worthless,” and “needs a confidence boost.”
I also remember feeling like a Charlie when I used to work in the film business as a wardrobe stylist. It started with the beeper.
Yes, it was that long ago, and if you would like to snicker more, I can remember the Dark Ages and my first answering machine. Oh my! How did we survive having to wait for messages until we got home? Then it transitioned to calling in to retrieve them and, finally, the ultimate: being able to carry your phone with you. All the time. Days were crammed long before this stage at my job and this new technology made what used to be impossible now possible in shorter amounts of time. And you guessed it, less face time with an actual person as we humans tried to keep up with this ever faster technology.
I don’t believe I am the only one feeling disconnected although we are paradoxically connected all the time. We are forgetting how to talk to each other face to face, and it’s affecting our relationships, our health, our democracies.
Have you noticed friends who cannot put their phone down during a meal together? Or that the phone is the first and last thing you might look at when getting up or going to bed? Or when your partner attends to a phone instead of to you, it feels like rejection—it hurts. Feeling ignored when your partner is on their phone can feel as bad as being shunned.
So what’s impact of all this on our social fabric, relationships, and communities?
>> Shorter attention spans
>> Outrage over dialogue
>> Addicting our children
>> Polarizing democracies
>> Turning life into a competition for likes and shares
Thankfully, there are people out there recognizing these issues. Some of the top engineers in the field, such as Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google, have created what you might call an anti-tech start-up called the Center for Humane Technology (CHT). Their message is that technology is addictive and destructive for individuals, kids, culture, and society as a whole. They are working on how to tackle these important issues, envisioning a world where technology supports our shared well-being, sense-making, democracy, and ability to address complex global challenges.
Technology will continue to upgrade and smartphones will inevitably remain part of our lives. But instead of becoming part of the zombie apocalypse, we can push our own awareness button and stop the distraction madness.
As a yoga teacher and practitioner, these are five mindfulness tips that have helped me with this issue:
1. Everyone can meditate. It just takes commitment and practice. If we recognize how much screen time we are logging, perhaps we can find five minutes. Know that it does get easier and those brief pauses between thoughts will be something you start to look forward to.
And yup, I can hear some of your eyes rolling in disbelief, but as someone who hated meditating and had to be forced to do it in teacher training, I understand this feeling. Just like a bicep muscle getting stronger lifting a dumbbell, the mind muscle needs patience and practice as it learns this skill.
>> Sit in a comfortable seat.
>> Set a timer. Start with five minutes.
>> Soften your jaw and your forehead.
>> Observe one breath at a time.
>> Radically accept anything that shows up! Continue to observe.
>> Add a minute each day, up to what you honestly feel like you can commit to. Better to maintain 15 minutes a day than give up and quit.
>> Keep showing up for yourself. Sprinkle kindness and gratitude in.
2. Put the device down. Preferably in another room—or a drawer, if you live in a shoebox studio like most of us in NYC. Become aware of the need to check the phone when waking up and going to bed. Practice leaving it alone first thing in the a.m. and last thing in the p.m. for 30 minutes. If that’s too difficult, try 15!
I personally have turned this into self-care time to read and write in my journal. It has made a significant difference in setting the tone for the day ahead and a better night of sleep. If that’s not your jam, then write a love letter to yourself or your cat. Floss! Do 20 pushups! Whatever it’s gonna take to wean yourself off your phone heroin fix.
3. Same as number two. When eating a meal, put it down. Take the time to savor what’s on your plate. Observe what’s around you. Have an uninterrupted conversation with a friend. Listen. If alone, luxuriate in silence.
Learning to be aware of the present moment is when clarity shines through and true connections to others as well as ourselves happen. Our phones have many positive effects with a wealth of information at our fingertips. Let’s use them wisely and not let them use us.
4. Ready to fire up your insight? Creativity? Personal growth? Make time to do nothing. Yup. That’s what I said. Nada. Niksen (a daring Dutch concept of doing nothing).
But doing nothing has never really been acceptable, has it? Many of us associate it with irresponsibility, wasting our life, and generally being lazy. Most of us feel guilty if we don’t have something to do.
Busyness has become a way of being, and distraction-inducing behaviors like constantly checking email stimulate the brain to shoot dopamine into the bloodstream. Space triggers creativity and imagination! Just like if a car were crammed with crap up to the ceiling, we would not be able to see anything new out the windows and would be stuck aimlessly in the driveway.
5. Move! You know I am going to say yoga because of it’s many healing qualities. Learning how to flow with your breath in a kind-hearted way is not only liberating, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, regulates cortisol levels, relieves muscle and mind tension. I could go on with a laundry list of its positive effects, but any movement is good. And as convenient as it is to do a class online, skip the app once in a while and get your booty to a local class, look someone in the eye, and say hi.
There are bound to be some refuseniks out there about the negative effects of phone use. Will it be an epidemic in the way smoking was and is? Nobody knows for sure. But how long will we wait? What kind of proof will we need to combat the break down of human relationships and the impact this has on our children and societies?
The answer is right in front of us now.
Be smarter than your smartphone. Use it purposefully. Disconnect more to reconnect.