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.