Are you addicted? Nomophobia is the fear of being without or unable to use your mobile phone, and it affects nearly 2/3rds of all adults. How does this behavior affect our personal relationships? Our mental health? In this episode we speak to Jess Davis, a formerly plugged-in digital strategist turned tech ethicist and mindfulness leader, and Dr. Brian Primack, a Clinician, Professor, and Researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Brian: I am Brian Primack and I have two major roles here at the University of Pittsburgh. The first is that I am dean of the Honors College. Then my other role is that I'm director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health and I look at both the potential positives that media and technology may have for health as well as some of the problems or drawbacks.
Jeff: Well I'll start with this question. I believe you also have a teenager, and I can't seem as hard as I tried to read to her and cook her kale every morning to shake that Snapchaty phone out of her hand. So now that we seem to come to an understanding that social media adoption is on the rise, what other kinds of behavioral ramifications or outcomes have you found potentially associated with that rise in adoption?
Brian: Well, we've been particularly interested in mental health and one of the reasons for that is that there is a real epidemic of mental health problems in the United States and the world.
Jeff: So when we started looking at the relationship between social media use and say depression, we actually thought that there was going to be sort of a nuanced relationship. We did not expect to see a straight line, more social media use, more depression. We thought, well maybe it would be kind of a U-shaped curve.
Brian: We really had thought carefully about what we thought we were going to find and we did not find that at all. We found a straight line. Every level of increase of social media use was associated with a increase in the likelihood of depression. That was true across all age groups. That relationship was true for men and women and basically every sort of sociodemographic category that we looked at. It was a steep relationship and it was linear and that was definitely news to us.
Jeff: Did you come to a kind of a hypothesis?
Brian: I think that we had overestimated the value of what people get from a cellphone, what people get from their social media, in the sense that we thought that people were going to be at a disadvantage if they didn't use any social media at all. But it turned out that those were basically the happiest people. That's probably where we were not correct. I still think though there are a few different possibilities. I mean, one thing that certainly you have to keep in mind with a study like this where you're just looking at relationships and you're not necessarily looking at people over a 20-year period or something like that is that we don't necessarily know which direction this relationship goes.
So it very well could be that what we're finding is that people who are more depressed tend to spend more time on their cellphones. The other possibility is that people who use a lot of social media, they might think that they're connecting but really those connections that they're forming aren't necessarily really replacing valuable in-person relationships. The other possibility there is that people who spend a lot of time on social media are subject to sort of lots and lots of hours of seeing everybody else talking about how great their lives are and that person doesn't feel like they can quite measure up.
Jeff: Yeah, exactly. I think about the accumulation of friends or followers and those little dopamine hits that you get chemically every time you get a certain amount of likes or positive reinforcement on social media and you may accumulate tens of thousands of those, but then all of a sudden, you have a flat tire and you need someone to pick up your daughter from school and how many people can you really call, like one or two.
Brian: Yeah, yeah.
Jeff: That's maybe a result of just the reality that real deep connection takes time. But it also may require face to face connectedness, which social media cannot provide.
Brian: Yeah. We're a very social animal, and we've developed that need for social interaction over literally millions of years of evolution. But social media has been around for about 20 years.
Now, we can try through social media to mimic some of those things. Maybe an in-person smile gives you joy, so then there's an emoji. Maybe it does give you a little bit of, like you said, that dopamine hit but can it truly replace the natural? Not necessarily.
We did a study on this and published it, we found that the more people in your friend list who you've never met before face-to-face, for every single one of those people, your likelihood of being depressed, of being socially isolated, actually increases.
The idea there is when you're just accumulating friends and you get this big rush of like, "Oh my gosh, this person I don't even know accepted my friend request and likes me," that actually turns out to be a false sense of joy because it's those weak relationships that don't really have a basis in reality that may contribute to problems later on. Those are the people who might be more likely to misinterpret something that we say.
I think one of the real values is in saying, I already have this group of friends and this is a way for me to extend my relationship in today's very hectic, chaotic world with people that I already have a connection with.
Hopefully, what we're doing is we're not having it replace ... We're having it augment.
Jeff: Yeah. So, your advice, potentially to a young teenage girl per se, be it my daughter or not, might be: As far as friends and followers on social media go, less might be more.
Brian: Yeah. What I like to think of it is selective. One thing is to select your friends carefully. You know, who is it that you really want to be forming these relationships with? But the other is like, for example, selecting the different platforms that you're going to use, because it's also been shown that the more platforms you try to use, even controlling for the total amount of time that you spend, is directly also related to more depression, more anxiety, more social isolation.
If there are two people and they both use two hours a day of social media but the person on the right splits that up among seven different platforms and the person on the left just uses two different platforms, the person on the right is actually three times as likely to be depressed.
Again, we're not sure if depressed people are just more searching or whether there's something about trying to deal with so many different platforms that it really gets overwhelming. Each one of these platforms is kind of its own little world. It has this very idiosyncratic almost language, and if you're trying to keep up with that with a whole lot of different platforms, you're more likely, potentially, to make a gaffe. You're less likely to form some more solid connections, and everything is a little bit weaker.
It's not just that fewer friends may be more, but fewer platforms may be better, and also being selective in terms of how you use the social media.
Jeff: Yeah. And I think that there is a component of this discussion that has to do with addiction and addictive behavior and back to that neuro-scientific approach of, okay, we're getting this reward neurotransmitter burst every time that we pick up our phone and we see positive reinforcement in the form of likes or, as you say, new friends accepting you to the point where we have, as a culture, developed this sort of irrational fear of being without our phone.
There's this term that has started to circulated called "nomophobia".
Brian: Oh yeah, absolutely. In fact, we've done some specific studies not only demonstrating that it is a real thing, but also demonstrating that when people have that, it is linked independently, again, with the amount of time that you use your phone to things like anxiety, and depression, and feelings of social isolation. But if you look at definitions of addiction and what the key components are, like withdrawal.
Fear, like withdrawal, having symptoms when you don't have something. That's how we define things like alcohol and cocaine addiction. There was this one study that I think of, for example, that says I think it was 20% of people would rather go without shoes for a week, then take a break from their phone. So it's one of these things where I would be concerned about those 20% of people.
It's been estimated that it's about two-thirds of adults who have some degree of this nomophobia, about two in three people sleep next to their phones. People answer phones at all kinds of awkward times, even during intimacy. These are all things that we look at when we try to assess whether someone's addicted to something. We say, "Well, has using this interfered with your social relationships, your family life?" And all of a sudden, it really does make sense when you look at those same addiction criteria. I think it's worth noting that it makes sense on this neurotransmitter level that you're talking about because there are some very, very sophisticated companies and infrastructures that are out there sort of increasing that dopamine rush.
Jeff: Right, yeah.
Brian: There are designers who are very specifically figuring out exactly how quickly and or slowly the notification should pop up, should it fade in, should it fade out. What's going to be the most compelling, the little sound that that goes along with it, should it be an A flat rate or an A natural. Those are real kinds of decisions that are being made.
Jeff: But I wonder if you would suggest, when we enter social situations, real face to face connectivity, that we find ways to actually discard our phone.
Brian: Yeah. I think that in the best of all possible worlds, we would be developing our own self-control. We would be more likely, whenever we go to some kind of a real social situation, not only to not have the phone on the table, but to have it turned off and somewhere physically truly away. There was a study that showed that even when the phone is completely powered off, but if it's still on the table, then you are distracted.
Jeff: Well, I have a lunch in about an hour and I'll tell you what, I'm going to turn my phone off and I'm going to put it in my bag and I will ask the other two gentlemen that I'm having lunch with to do the same and I will report back. How's that?
Brian: That sounds good. You can blame it on me. You can say, "Oh, I talked to this really annoying doctor today and he said we should try this. Let's just try this annoying thing." I do think that it really does make a difference and I didn't always feel that way. It really has been actually doing the research and working with patients and working with research subjects that has really, I don't know, helped bring a lot of these issues to light in my mind.
Jeff: Well, I don't think that this is a subject matter that is going away anytime soon, so my sense is I will need to call you again if that's okay.
Brian: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. You can find me on social media. No, I'm just kidding.
Jeff: I'm sure I can.
Jess: My name is Jess Davis and I'm the founder and editor and chief of Folk Rebellion, which started out as a lifestyle brand advocating for awareness and change in how we're using our technology, but has since transitioned more towards a slow media concept where we do a printed publication that people can take into their homes and pour over their content. It's 80 pages long, so it should take them a month to read it purposefully, and help their internet riddled brain's focus again. And we're launching a podcast similar to you guys in the new year.
Jeff: Good for you. Have me on. I'll start with you. You know, sometimes these statistics can just really grab someone, right? There's a few that just freak me out. Ninety percent of 18 to 29 year old's sleep with their phone.
Jess: Yeah. I know that's up to 95% now, and something like 80% sleep with it either on their chest or under their pillow. And 60% of the cell phones radiation is absorbed into the head. So if you want to get scary about it right off the bat, I just went for it, This is a problem. Just physically being within something that we are not able to study quick enough.
Jeff: There's this one 67% of cell phone owners experience phantom vibrations. What is that?
Jess: That is where you don't have your phone within arm's distance or on your body, but you feel it vibrating and this just happened to me. I took a group of people to Greece on one of our off the grid adventures. We do these big trips once a year and it was day six and I was still feeling buzzing and I have a pretty good relationship with my phone. It's not always on me, it's somewhere away, but I still felt it. And what I feel are email dings. I know the difference. So that's a phantom vibration.
Jeff: Even you have that?
Jess: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, no, this all started because I was a total addict and I needed to change things for myself and mostly for my son because I had had a whole life without this technology. I didn't get my first cell phone until I was 21. And if I became this addicted, I couldn't imagine what it would be like for Hayes.
Jeff: Yeah. So you use the word addicted, on purpose?
Jess: Yes. Yeah. We got to call it what it is and people don't like it. Five years ago maybe I wasn't so outright with it, I was just trying to get people to wrap their heads around the fact that we could challenge the concept of how we're utilizing this right now. But what I found is without balance or boundaries in education, you will become addicted because it's designed that way. So my goal is to start to pullback that veil, educate the average user.
User also sounds like a drug user, and start to let them understand what's happening technologically behind the scenes so that they can say they feel a little validated when someone says to me, "I don't know why I'm doing this," or, "I'm so mad at my husband because he's on Reddit instead of snuggling with me." And when you start to explain that maybe they can't help themselves because the same thing is happening in their body as when they have alcohol or cigarettes or things like that. It gives them that permission that they need to say, "Okay, this is a problem and now I can take necessary steps to start to change it."
Jeff: Yeah. So when you make that comparison to alcohol or drugs, what's happening? And I know you're not a neuroscientist, but what is happening with your brain chemistry that continues to reward that sort of behavior that keeps you coming back and checking likes or followers?
Jess: Your brain is actually being rewired by the internet or what it is you're consuming. So it's not necessarily what you consume but how you're consuming it. So the shorter the content, the shorter your attention span. The rewiring is happening. They've been able to map this. And these technologists and people building these platforms understand that this same response that you're getting when you smoke a cigarette or have sex or have alcohol, it's creating this sort of dopamine in your body that makes you feel pleasure, enjoy briefly.
And this is the briefest form of it. And if you're every square on Instagram is releasing that, every notification is releasing that. So the more you do it, the more you crave it. It's a sad, empty, void. And without boundaries, people are just going to start opting out without understanding it's kind of eroding everything from Democracy to children and relationships.
Jeff: Yeah. This community tool that essentially erodes community,
Jess: Right? Well, the words connection, sharing, community mean one thing, but when you realized that the person sitting at home alone and not actually going to meet their friends because they can see what their friends are doing. I understand because I've read all of this research that you feel sad and you texting me LOL is entirely different than me seeing you laugh, right? Biologically we are analog creatures and yes, it's great to be able to do that once in a while, but it shouldn't be a replacement.
Jeff: And in fact, Brian Primack talks about the proportional interrelationship between digital adoption and social isolation. That you actually can map the two in equal proportion.
Jess: And there're people out there like Jean Twenge who's gone on the record and said, "I am able to say I've studied this." She's able to show that bell curve of when these social platforms were introduced in the iPhone and then when the prescription anxiety medication went up between ages 12 to 18. Teenagers who spend more than three hours on a cell phone devices through social media are 35% more likely to commit suicide. That's crazy.
Jeff: I think it's important to point out that you play a very unique and important role in what you're doing in terms of being able to connect these ideas that are certainly circulating around the intellectual community, the university community, the neuroscience community, but that's not where teenagers are hanging out or getting their information.
So I've always been a great admirer of your visual identity and how you've presented the brand. And you are using that brand to connect with younger people, not just younger people, but all people. What do you feel your role is in the conversation as a business owner, as a cultural icon?
Jess: Oh God, thanks. I learned early on that I was super interested in this research and this data. And when I came out on the other side, I was a little scared. No one wants to be told that they're scrambling their brain or their kids' brains. But forever I've been a lifestyle brand builder and a marketer and I knew how to build community around a concept or an idea. I knew how to take big ideas or intellectual ideas and simplify them a little bit so it was more consumable to the everyday person.
Five years ago when I started this, the words digital detox didn't exist. Now you have Google coming out on their IO and Apple saying, "Digital well-being is a thing." So, there is headway being made, but again, this stuff can effect you very quickly in your own home, in your own four walls.
Like, "Hey guys over there with all your degrees, can we take this information and bring it to the mom who's struggling with her teenager or the school teacher who can't get the kids to pay attention because cellphones are allowed in their classroom or the husband who's having a hard time connecting with his wife because they've got the menage a trois in the bed with the iPad?"
I try to go into people's homes and micro communities and make the information accessible, digestible for them, easy to understand, and then give them tools to then go and enact change in their own communities in a very simple and actionable way.
It's worked. It's really worked. I've got people writing me letters from ... nurses writing me letters from doctor's offices saying, "We used to know all of our clients and we don't anymore because everyone comes in and they stare at their phones. What can we do? It's not about being anti-technology, it's what you're losing when the technology's there all the time."
What these nurses felt is they were losing the connection of knowing who these people were. So, we made it a game and we had a basket and they got rewards and so, I guess, that's my role, is the advocating for the everyday person.
Jeff: You're the Pied Piper.
Jess: Yeah, I like that.
Jeff: Of digital detox.
Back in the 70s, Texas had an awful problem, and this wasn't just Texas, but Texas was particularly egregious, where people would buy fast food and they would drive down the highway and eat the food, and when they were done they would just take it and throw the trash out the window. There wasn't a consciousness around that, but it got so bad on the Texas highways that it became a huge problem.
The state of Texas tried everything to solve this problem. Eventually they hired an agency that was started by a guy named Royce Pence and they said, "Roy, help us with this problem." Roy came up with a slogan that was powerful and cool and macho. It was, "Don't mess with Texas."
Jeff: And that, of course now has taken off a whole life.
Jess: Holy crap.
Jeff: And on every other t-shirt that one might see, but he just found that way of phrasing it that made people take pride in their own land and said, "This is screwed up. We have to stop it. Don't mess with Texas."
Jess: That's amazing.
Jeff: That's what you're doing. You're doing the same of being able to create a new way to think about this problem.
Jess: Yeah, I chose to position it like a counterculture, a little edgy, going against the grain, and let people get a little fire in their belly once they realize what's been happening to them, 'cause it's just been happening to them. It's funny, once I have these conversations where people see me talk or listen to this podcast, it's like a switch. They've just never even thought about it. They didn't even realize there could be a different way. Then they get pissed and I love that 'cause that's where the change happens.
Jeff: Okay, so when people get pissed or when they start to actually acknowledge ... with any addiction, right, it's like your technology addiction first, and then you have to start to unwind old patterns and bad patterns and wind out new good patterns. What do those new good patterns look like when it comes to mindful phone use or mindful digital device use?
Jess: You just have to start to create space there again where these things have kind of consumed everything or cannibalized everything. It's now our phone, it's our calendar, it's just everything. You have to create space, both physically, mentally, and then with the device itself and how you're utilizing it.
So, the simplest thing people do right off the bat, is to remove the phone from your bedroom. Of course the radiation is bad, but more so it's the space that you allow even if it's 10 minutes before you go to sleep and 10 minutes when you wake up to just let your brain not be stimulated.
Jess: Okay. So, I was big Zig Ziglar fan in my late teens and early twenties. He used to have you picture a check on your ceiling of what you wanted in your life. That could be anything. On that check you could have a family, you could have a dollar amount, you could have a house.
So, I had this check that I visualized every morning when I woke up and every night when I went to bed. Then I was giving a speech and I was talking about this and I realized I was speaking about it in the past tense, as in I hadn't been doing this. I was like, "When did I stop doing this?" I looked back and it was when I brought a cellphone into my bedroom.
So, by removing the phone, one, it's better for your health. Two, it's better for your sleep. It lets your brain click into that off position and start to process things. Think about your day or just be there with the person lying next to you.
And then in the morning it lets you be proactive versus reactive. So that seems to be the biggest and easiest change.
Jeff: When you say space, you are referring both to physical space and time space.
Jeff: Are there other actionable things that people can just put in their life?
Jess: Totally. Yeah, so they just have to figure out what boundaries they want. So usually the first thing that comes up is work. We start to have to push back a little bit on that, but you can't change these boundaries and say, "I'm going to batch my email. I'm going to not work after 8PM. I am not going to carry my phone on me 24/7 so if you don't hear from me, I'm not dead in a ditch," but just know you can't do these things unless you communicate it. So I always say the best defense is a good offense.
So decide what your boundaries are. You're never going to get them right the first time. It took me six months to figure out what was going to work for me, work for my business, work for my family. The whole time I'm communicating with people, "Hey, I'm trying this thing. I think it's going to make my work better. I think it's going to make me feel better." No one's going to say, "I don't think you should do that."
Jess: Or if they do, it's usually because they also have a problem they don't want to look at.
Jeff: Yeah. So I think that that's part of the issue that might prevent someone from taking some of these actionable steps is that there's a worry that, "Oh, my business is going to suffer because I'm not going to be responsive, and so people are going think I'm a flake or things are going fall through the cracks, my to-do list is not going to get done.
Jeff: But you could apply it to other parts of your life too. What would you say to the worriers?
Jess: I 100% can guarantee that their productivity will increase if they start to set better boundaries to their usage. I've read all these studies. I understand that every time my computer or phone dings, it takes me off task and it puts me back on ... It takes me 25 minutes to get back on. If you do that all day long, you're never actually doing any work. You're just responding or looking or distracting yourself. So I started to bucket my time and it's very much like Tim Ferriss. I mean, you do your most important task first. You spend two hours fully focused on it, you shut out the rest of the world. You tell them, "For two hours, I'm going to be doing this," and you have to set up solutions. So I had to put a landline in both my office and my home.
So I say, "For two hours, I'm shutting everything down. I'm working on this really important book proposal. It's the most important thing in my life right now. I have to do it. You guys know that. If you need me call the landline." Guess how many people have called the landline in five years.
Jess: Zero. Because I'm making people start to relearn the difference between urgent and instant. The more that you start to set these batch times and these boundaries, your creativity increases, your productivity increases. It's nothing but blue skies and amazing stuff, but no one will know until they try. So just try.
Jeff: Yeah. Well, I have a feeling that this is the beginning of this movement because I have a teenager, I have three daughters and man, you can make them as much kale as you possibly can and you can read to them every night and we do, but you cannot compete with Snapchat and Instagram. You just need to change the way that they're thinking and approaching their life and this message is really important, so thank you.
Jess: Thank you for having me.
Jeff: So do we have something to be afraid of? Can wan we truly assess the cost vs. value of compulsively checking our phones and social media?
When it feels like everyone else is always connected, we add a dash of FOMO to that Nomophobia, making it even more difficult to change our habits. We wonder: Will I be at disadvantage if I try to change? The freedom sounds great in theory, but in today’s world, is it possible to stay connected without staying glued to our phones?
According to recovered phone addict Jess Davis, it can be done. And as for that fomo? In Brian’s study it turned out that happiest people didn’t use social media at all.
As both our guests said, it’s still early when it comes to researching the long term effects, and yes, it’s possible that people who are more depressed spend more time on their cell phones, but maybe those connections they're forming are replacing valuable in-person relationships.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t need research to shows us just how these behaviors negatively affect our relationships and mental health. We’ve all looked across the dinner table at a loved one’s face as they look down at the screen instead of into our eyes. We’ve all scrolled through other people’s lives, wondering why ours don’t seem as picturesque.
But perhaps it’s time to start taking a realistic look at what we’re doing with our devices; those little hits of dopamine might keep calling our name, buzzing in our pockets and inside our brains, but this Halloween, maybe try something really scary: leave the phone at home.
Thanks for listening to this week’s Commune podcast, be sure to subscribe as we have new episodes airing every week. I’m Jeff Krasno. See you next time.