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  • Mindfulness Vs Notification Addiction – Two Contradictory Trends

    • October 22, 2018
    • Neer Korn
    "They wish to curb their notification addiction but are unsure how to do so. Left to their own devices their will power fast gives way to instant gratification."

    Our dependency on screens has evolved fast. Faster than society has been able to develop the appropriate guidelines for when their use is appropriate and life enhancing and when it is diminishing. In our recently published study, The Switching Off Edition, we asked Australians how they feel about their screen use and they had plenty to say about it.

    They readily admit to being addicted to their screens and uncomfortably so. This is true of all ages and socio-economic groups, although the degree of dependency dissipates the older they are. They are also adamant about wishing to curb their behaviour. We asked them to observe how long they take between checking their screen and the responses were not in hours but in minutes, and a number of people said that they check on average every five minutes.

    The compulsion to check screens is due to two primary reasons. The first is a desire for distraction from their thoughts, which is the very opposite of their desire for mindfulness. They acknowledge the benefits and importance of being in the moment, yet when nothing else is happening, when they are on public transport or in a waiting room and have even a minute or two to kill, they cannot help but reach for their screens. As one Millennial admitted “I feel like I’m going to be very personal here, but I can’t go to sleep without being on my phone. I cannot lie down and close my eyes and fall asleep. It’s not possible. And my boyfriend, hates it.”

    While mindfulness is a commonly expressed ideal many – particularly younger people – confess to being uncomfortable left to their own thoughts. They fear that allowing their minds to freely meander may lead them to dark places and a diversion is therefore appreciated. A Sydney man in his late 20s described it thus: “I know my mind’s always ticking, ticking, ticking and I feel like if I have too much thinking time I start over analysing things and I prefer to not be just thinking in my mind aimlessly about stuff that’s going on.”

    Beyond distracting themselves and avoiding contemplation, the main reason Australians say they check their phones is what they describe as “notification addiction.” What they seek when hitting the button is an abundance of messages, emails or chats signifying they are needed, wanted and relevant to others. One participant described the experience as “similar to a dopamine hit, like a poker machine or something. It’s like getting an opiate.”

    The essence is: “I get notifications, therefore I am.”

    Anyone whose plane has landed will have observed the flurry of activity as soon as the announcement is made that phones may be taken off flight mode. There is a subtle yet discernible disappointment on the faces of those for whom the hour or two they have been out of range has yielded few notifications. A Melbourne participant related the following: “As soon as I wake up in the morning, when the Alarm goes off, first thing I do is check what are the notifications from overnight. Who’s messaged me? What emails came in? I like to see a lot of messages because I think I’m needed by somebody, I’m thought of, which may be a bit of a sad reflection of my life.”

    While emotionally Australians are captive to their screens, intellectually they know this to be unhealthy. They wish to curb their notification addiction but are unsure how to do so. Left to their own devices their will power fast gives way to instant gratification.

    The worst offenders are chatting apps where multiple conversations take place and just keeping up with these is exhausting. Not wishing to be out of the loop, constant updating is necessary because they may miss something important and, besides, catching up later is unmanageable. “I use WhatsApp with my girlfriends. We have a group and it’s constantly going ding, ding, ding,” said a mid-30s Melbourne woman, adding “I hate hearing that ping go off every two seconds because I’ve got a bunch of people messaging at once and it’s too much.”

    Along with a variety of apps, there is a feature in the latest phone operating system, Screen Time, which announces how long users have spent on their device, how often they picked it up, which apps they have used and how many notifications these have sent.  They are hoping this may shock them into inaction. Some believe that in an ideal world there would be an enforced downtime to help curb their usage.

    Some participants in our study resort to physically removing their devices from arms reach so as not to have instant access on a whim. Most said they tend to look at their phones as soon as their concentration is disturbed from whatever task they are focussed on. Some will turn their phone to silent so that their notifications are silent and therefore out of mind. “There’s actually a function on the iPhone, I think it’s the moon, which is the silent one, ‘do not disturb’. So, I have that one on usually in the afternoon till the morning,” said a middle-aged man in regional NSW, “And it only gives me notifications when my mum or dad or sister give me one, no-one else.”

    Solutions to this modern dilemma will no doubt continue to evolve as current behaviour is deemed unsatisfactory and is seen to diminish our quality of life. Social mores, struggling to catch up, will deem it shameful to utilise screens at inappropriate times, like when sharing a meal.

    Tellingly, another question we posed to our study participants was to recall any lengthy period they have spent out of range and describe the experience. Invariably they spoke of an enforced period spent in a remote geographical location. While the realisation frustrated them at first, the upsides they spoke of were many. Not surprisingly they were able to be in the moment, be present with those around them, notice things they had not previously and ultimately experience what they all wish for – mindfulness. And the effects resonated afterwards. “Even when I got back I had a slightly clearer vision of my thinking and what was happening around me than I do when I have the phone and I’m just sort of craving that feeling now,” said one participant.

    It’s interesting that while holiday destinations are keen to promote the internet access they provide, others are increasingly promoting the contrary, offering not free Wi-Fi but the pleasure of being Wi-Fi free.

    Society may choose to heed the words of American counterculture icon of the psychedelic movement, Timothy Leary, when he urged 30,000 hippies in Golden Gate park in 1967 to “turn on, tune in, drop out.”

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