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Choose health over your phone

All right, my friend. This is an intervention. I know you’re surprised, but things have got out of hand and we need to talk about your behaviour. You’ve been spotted walking down the street in a trance not looking where you’re going. You’re losing sleep.

You’re distracted at work, when you drive or when you’re with your kids. You sometimes seem preoccupied with this one thing, obsessing over it, even at dinner with family. My friend, I’m concerned that you’re addicted to that little super-computer in your pocket/purse — your smartphone. Strange to call it a phone, isn’t it? I mean, when I was growing up, a phone had a rotary dial (yes, I’m old) and a cord attached to a wall. When it rang, you had no idea who was calling and you threw caution to the wind and answered it anyway.

If you wanted to know what was happening in the world, you’d read a news­paper or wait until the evening news came on. If you wanted check your mail, you’d check your physical mailbox for an envelope, which took days to arrive, and you were OK with waiting for it. I have millennial clients who use their smartphone for everything except actually phoning people, which is just not done, apparently. Text, Snap, FB Messenger, but whatever you do, don’t actually phone someone.

Since the introduction of the smartphone, we could never have imagined how immersed we’d get in our little devices. It’s crept up on us to the point where we now have lawyers sitting on a beach in Costa Rica, feeling compelled to answer work emails that just must be responded to immediately.

We have articling students fearful of not responding to articling principals’ emails at midnight. We have law students “Snapping” each other in the middle of Constitutional Law class or having their phones beep and buzz while they study for the Solicitor Licensing exam, thinking all the while that they won’t be distracted.

In fact, it’s got to the point that, as psychologist Larry Rosen says, simply putting down one’s smartphone is anxiety-provoking, signalling the adrenal gland to release cortisol, the stress hormone. As a result, the average person checks their phone at least once every 15 minutes, whether they’ve received a notification that there is actually something to check or not, because that simple act of checking relieves anxiety. These devices have hooked us.

Tech entrepreneur and ethicist Tristan Harris insists that technology is not neutral. A few programmers can shape how a billion people think and feel on a daily basis through what they choose to look at on those little screens. As Harris puts it, “It’s a race to the bottom of the brain stem,” where we are emotionally activated.

By designing apps to attract our eyeballs as much as possible, they’re triggering in us an involuntary surge of feel-good brain chemicals, including dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, and a reduction of stress hormones.

Neuroscientist Ramsay Brown calls this “brain hacking” — the writing of code to provoke a neurological response so you’ll keep coming back. Algorithms in Instagram, Facebook and Twitter set up a proverbial slot machine where sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t. They give “followers” in little red or blue notification areas to keep you coming back, pulling that proverbial slot machine lever hoping to get a dopamine hit. And all of this is in lieu of actual human connection.

When you get a multitude of birthday wishes on Facebook, it feels good. On the other hand, how many of those wishes came from people you haven’t seen or spoken to since you graduated high school 30 years ago? Content creators won’t stop looking for ever more effective ways of hooking us so we need to manage our own use as a matter of self-care.

For starters, there are a number of apps designed simply to track your phone usage to get a better, more conscious sense of how much you really use that contraption. As with all addictions, knowing whether you have a problem is the first step in healing.

Rosen also suggests a gradual strategy for reduction in smartphone use by first announcing publicly your intention to cut back so that people won’t expect immediate responses from you. Then, setting a timer, start with a 15-minute interval increasing over time with the goal to ultimately check your phone a maximum of every 30 minutes. At the end of each interval, allow a minute or two of phone time.

As hard at it may seem, keep your smartphone a good distance from where you sleep. Getting those notifications about a news story happening halfway around the world aren’t nearly as important as a solid night’s sleep. This is one place where the “Do Not Disturb” feature of the phone is invaluable. Not only does it turn off audible notifications, but it stops the screen lighting up and the phone buzzing.

Law practice is stressful enough without a new, insidious, stress-inducing distraction to contend with. It’s time that legal professionals got seriously conscious about their smartphone use, mindful of the negative effects it can have on mood, relationships, work and sleep. The app designers will only get more creative. So we need to be a step ahead of them to protect our mental health.

Doron Gold is a registered social worker who is also a former practising lawyer. He works with lawyers and law students in his role as a staff clinician and presenter with the Member Assistance Program as well as with members of the general public in his private psychotherapy practice. He’s available at dorongold.com.


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