Is Smartphone Making Me Worried Sick?

Checking for Covid results on email brings even more angst with the avalanche of email messages…

Worried from messaging on phone? Pacific Lutheran University sends its community reminders of a daily wellness check in on their phones.
Worried sick from messaging? (graphic courtesy of PLU)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is my phone making me sick? I got very worried last week while waiting for the results from a Covid test.  My health center sends out the results by email. So, I kept opening and checking email on my phone to see if it had arrived. Then, each time I went to email, it felt like there was an avalanche of other messages I had to read or respond to. That made me feel even more worried sick! The Covid test came back negative (thankfully) but I am wondering how to tame this email habit I acquired.  Soren, Walnut Creek 

Dear Soren: Glad to hear you are well. Surely it was useful to know the results of your Covid test quickly, particularly if you were feeling under the weather or planning a visit with other people. But, suppose that the result had sat in your inbox for a few hours, instead of checking as soon as it got posted. Would finding out a few hours later have changed things, or made you less worried-sick?

Now, prepare to get scared by the numbers, as the phone tells all! There’s a quantitative way to see how much your phone use increased last week.

On an IPhone (iOS 12 or later) go to Settings and then Screen Time (for Android, look here). Then, under the chart that shows daily activity, scroll far down. There you will find a section that visualizes the number of times you picked up the phone each day, and further report time on the individual apps you used, like email! 

Not So New…

But, back to your question, which was submitted, no surprise, by phone! You make a good point that one behavior, namely checking for a specific message, “begets” another behavior, like doing more email. However, the anxiousness brought on waiting for vital information is not new:  think about time spent waiting for a test-score to arrive in the mail or the nervousness when your doctor’s office tries to reach you over the phone about surgery dates. What is new is that smartphones have no time-constraints so they feed and spiral the angst as we wait for updates or news.

Taming the EMail

With regard to email, analyze how much you need to  use it. There is a recent review that suggests trying Slack or Chat . But, it’s not clear- these platforms might just switch your time use to a different channel, one that emphasizes social, one paragraph content. One latent problem is that using Slack could keep you in an ‘always-on’ status with friends or colleagues.

A different approach is to go on an email diet.  While you continue to check it via your phone, you commit to writing and responding to messages just once or twice a day. On weekends, you try out an email Sabbath. 

Taming the Speed

I used to have a co-worker (whose name I shall not speak aloud) who said that only organ transplant candidates and surgeons needed to check their phone messages around the clock.  In that case, speed matters and lives could be spared.

As early as 2012, Pew Research found that nearly a third of phone and tablet users checked their phones throughout the day for breaking news, and not during a specific time of the day (say before 8 am. or from 5 to 9 pm). So, reflect on what the speed of knowing gets you.  Does the speed feed an ever-growing mound of angst?

Speed will not always be an advantage and time away from our phones may compensate in terms of well-being. You learned this week, gratefully, that well-being, is everything. Thanks for writing.

Apple Watch for Seniors?

The apple watch, series 6.0. The watch screen displays the date, time, weather, and a cartoon icon of a boy. It has a blue watch band.
Seniors and the Apple Watch, Series 6

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Saw your post about the Apple watch and raising free-range kids. Great idea if my kids were younger. But I have a Dad who is a free-range elder! He lives alone in a big house, it’s nearby. He is fairly healthy and still drives, but I worry. What if he takes a fall when he climbs up the ladder to clean the leaves or sweep the pool? He is used to carrying a smartphone, so should I get him the watch? Fernando, Ross

Dear Fernando: You Dad sounds like an independent spirit so he may not see the need for this new gizmo. Up to now, older people have not been sold on these Dick Tracy watches, and research finds that they discontinue use (it goes back in the box) within three to six months.

However, if you can impress on your Dad that the watch will let him stay independent and healthy, then he might keep it on for good. The pandemic has accelerated technology and services that were always on the horizon for older people. Make sure that he has the digital skills and is not afraid to ask questions about privacy and Family Setup settings.

Not a Dongle!

You mentioned ladders and falls. I’ve noticed that when old people go out, and this holds more for women than men, they clutch their purse and keep checking to make sure it’s there. This tends to throw them off balance, and makes them less stable on their feet. Anything that eliminates the need to tote bags and paraphernalia seems like a good idea.

Lots of well-meaning sons and daughters sign their parents up for wireless dongles that older people are meant to wear like a necklace. Should they take a fall, or have an emergency, there’s one button to press that connects to 911. The problem is that older people pleasantly “forget” to wear these things- it’s an acknowledgement of frailness.

So, the watch has an advantage. Dad will not have to wear the dongle and with the Series 6 , he will not even to carry a phone, assuming it is connected to your plan. He can sport a device that is equally coveted by an athletic runner, a busy Mom, or a gadget-geek.

Whose Well-Being?

If you have a recent iPhone you will notice an app you can’t delete called Apple Health. The new watch was designed so that Apple did not need to get FDA approval as a medical device but it does many of the functions like monitor blood oxygen levels and take an ECG. It will also do some level of fall detection. These measures are not completely accurate though- so they should not substitute for trips to the doctor. Still, the watch can help your Dad’s well being…if he allows it. But, the best medicine for an older person is reaching out and staying in relationships, so if this watch helps you and Dad maintain that over the years, it’s a fine timepiece.

Phones & Disaster

twitter posts from California fires (Sept. 30).

Dear Ms. Smartphone: It’s a disaster. My wife and I had to evacuate our home this week because of nearby fires. Now I am getting inundated with texts and calls from far-away friends and distant relatives who want updates. I know that we should be grateful, but we are getting worn down responding to each message and reliving the trauma. It’s just so emotionally draining. Can’t these people just wait? Moira and Myron, Sonoma

Dear M & M: The primary thing is safety, and as you said, you are thankful you made it out. It is stressful wondering what you left behind and if you can go back. It is hard to settle in a temporary locale and pick up the pieces.  And then there is your social network, reverberating. There is no digital etiquette here and no rules of response.

Inflamed Media

The people who are calling mean well but they  are probably “inflamed” by social media. It’s hard for someone far away and without information to not react to what they see and hear on social medial. See the picture (above). It got reposted 73 times and there were 186 people who “liked it”. Perhaps someone who called you viewed these pics- what they saw is unfiltered and unedited.  ‘Citizen- journalism’ as this is called is useful but it lacks the perspective, distance, and context we get from a professional newscast. 

This type of reporting is enabled by our smartphones, as they allow us to take “on the spot” photos and send “in the moment” texts. The speed of the citizen journalist has to be balanced with the slower, but more comprehensive reporting of traditional news media. But, that’s not for your friends and family to sort out. It’s a larger societal issue about how we use media and the sources we find trustworthy and useful.

For now, consider using your smartphone to take a quick picture of your safe relocation, maybe with family or pets?  Then attach the picture to an email or text with a canned greeting that says, “ As you can see, we safely evacuated on (date) and are now back in (location). Not to worry. We will get back in touch when the dust settles and the ashes subside.” Or, post it to your Facebook page. It’s a digital reaction to a digital blowup.

Confront DIgital With Digital

While you may feel like silencing your phone, remember that these devices are incredibly useful during a natural disaster. You probably received the alert to evacuate over your phone, not from a public address system or a neighbor knocking on the door. You probably found the safest, least congested route to leave by consulting the GPS enabled traffic map. Note in the image (above) there is useful information for evacuees needing meals. Consumer Reports (CR) recently published a list of digital tips for electronic devices during an emergency. Among them are keeping your devices fully charged- with public safety alerts turned on, having a car- charging cable, stashing an extra power strip, and abstaining from power hungry apps and settings that drain the battery, such as WiFi on the road.

CR goes on to say that if you need to call 911, don’t hang up. During a disaster, the phone queue can be long. In some locations you can text to 911, but emergency officials caution that a conventional call from a 911 call from a cell phone or a landline should be your first move, not the Facebook plea for assistance. The end-run to Facebook brings us right back to the original question you posed. 


In closing, note that many people are not aware that the phone network and electrical power are interconnected. When the electricity gets knocked out, many landlines work not operate because the  backup batteries fail, or more centrally, the fiber-optics are compromised. Placing a call from any device may depend on connecting to a  cell phone tower but it could be damaged too. The telephone companies and cable crews are the new first-responders.  God bless in the coming days.