You Could be Having a Digital Mental Health Crisis Without Realizing It

Because everybody is addicted to their smartphone, nobody individually feels like an addict.

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By John Boitnott

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We're glued to our technology and a study commissioned by Nokia illustrates the depth of our obsession. According to their research, the average person checks their phone every six minutes (150 times a day). We're doing more than simply checking in; a Pew Research Study shows that younger Americans send a whopping 110 texts per day. Considering we're awake an average of 16 hours a day, that's a lot of tech time before we even think about what we do on our computers, tablets and TVs.

Perhaps the most enlightening statistic comes from the University of Maryland, where researchers created a "World Unplugged" project spanning 10 countries. Through the course of their research, they found that college students experienced symptoms consistent with addiction when deprived of their smartphone for 24 hours. They used adjectives such as "itchy," "sad," "lonely," "depressed," "desperate" and even "dead" to describe the anxiety of being cut off.

Psychotherapist Nancy Colier suggests these findings mean we're developing an addiction to technology and that this addiction is leading to mentally and emotionally malnourished human beings.

Related: I Tried Google Goals for a Week. The Result: I Meditated, Hydrated and Hibernated More Than I Ever Have Before.

Are you addicted to your smartphone?

Think about the last time you went to dinner, either for business or pleasure. Were you engaged in conversation with your partner, or were you both guilty of keeping your phones on the table, compulsively listening for that telltale buzz or watching to see how your latest tweet was trending? Maybe you stopped yourself from constantly checking your device while they kept at it, making the experience less enjoyable for you. Maybe it was the other way around. Regardless, the most appropriate question here is: are you a slave to the very device that was supposed to make your life easier and give you more freedom?

For both entrepreneurs and employees, smartphones and other forms of technology are a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we can take our business with us wherever we go. On the other hand, this is exactly the problem. We get few breaks from work stress. We're continually obligated to answer emails, comment on social media and complete other work-related tasks.

Robots don't make for good employees (yet). We shouldn't behave like them. It's time to take charge of our digital health and make human interaction and self-care priorities this year.

Related: The Shocking Lessons I Learned After I Quit My Social Media Addiction in 3 Days in the Desert

Start to develop your digital detox.

Weaning yourself off extensive smartphone use is easier wished for than done. For many of us, our phones are the last thing we see at night, and the first thing we reach for in the morning. Part of the detox is making simple swaps – for example, instead of reaching for your phone first thing, reach for a loved one, your dog or a cup of coffee. To avoid morning temptation, purchase an alarm clock so you can turn your phone off at night. At the very least, turn the sound down or put it on airplane mode, so it doesn't wake you up with notifications.

Here's an idea. Wait at least 30-60 minutes before you turn the phone back on after waking up. What might you do instead?

  • Take a few moments to linger over a newspaper or a book.
  • Make breakfast or tea. Sit down and enjoy these things.
  • Listen to an audio book.
  • Listen to that ancient device called the radio. They have news, weather, music and sports on that thing.
  • Take a shower or bath. You know, clean your body. The experience is rejuvenating.

In other words, take your time getting out of first gear each day. Wake up earlier (and go to bed earlier) if you have to. Trust me, I've spent a lot of years going right to my phone first thing in the morning and it wears you down. A typical work day is a marathon -- not a sprint. So, don't flood your senses with digital material first thing when you know you'll have to do it much of the rest of the day.

Related: Why You Really Need to Unplug While on Vacation (Infographic)

Assess your digital habits.

Stop blaming battery life when you run out of power and start taking a hard look at your digital habits. The line between our personal and professional lives has become increasingly blurred. It's time to reinforce boundaries. We may no longer live in the era of 9 to 5, but there should be dedicated times for work, and dedicated hours of relaxation. During your dedicated leisure time, put your mobile device out of reach and on silent. Your business will wait for you.

I'm Mr. Fancy Pants work-from-home writer guy, so I have options. What I like to do is to work in more breaks, even nap time, into the day as it wears on. That's right; I'm not afraid to admit I like to take a nap in the afternoon when I get a chance.

If you work for yourself, try a morning shift which might be longer than the others. Give yourself a secondary shift that lasts a few hours, usually after lunch, and then a third shift later in the day at 4 or 5 pm, which can last an hour or so. This allows you to work in things like walks, workouts at the gym, or meetings and phone calls.

This is all of course just one way to do it, and may not be a fit for you. Also, if you work for a company with a more traditional workday, none of this may be appropriate for you. However, try to integrate some of these ideas, with the permission of your boss, in the interest of your productivity and health.

Related: Why Leaders Should Welcome Employees Napping on the Job

What you could be doing instead.

The University of Maryland students deprived of their smartphones for 24 hours reported feeling anxious and depressed. Having grown up so connected to digital technology, they didn't know what to do with themselves. The emerging generation will probably never know life without it.

Idle time can make anyone anxious, but how much of your smartphone activity is idle time? Could that mindless text message you sent to a friend have waited until you saw them in person? Do you actually gain anything from compulsively checking your Facebook page? Does your aimless web surfing actually accomplish anything other than itchy eyes and disturbed sleep?

This year, salvage some of your digital brain drain to take a class, learn a new skill or develop a hobby. Sit around the house or at the park near your office and do nothing for an entire half-hour. Let your consciousness roam free without distraction or duty. I know, what a revolutionary thought!

These things can get you out of your digital mindset, out of your own echo chamber and into a more fulfilling life. Make your mental health a priority by spending a little more time unplugged. You may be surprised how much you like it.

John Boitnott

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Journalist, Digital Media Consultant and Investor

John Boitnott is a longtime digital media consultant and journalist living in San Francisco. He's written for Venturebeat, USA Today and FastCompany.

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