While cell phones, tablets and laptops have undeniable benefits, there are trade-offs for the convenience of mobile technology: documented negative effects on health and happiness. Despite their advantages, research indicates that the use of technology, especially cell phone use, disturbs our sleep, stresses us out, and monopolizes our attention.

Although long-term studies are difficult because of the rapid changes in technology, one finding recurs over and over: using cell phones at night disturbs sleep. For reasons that are not entirely clear, it appears that cell phone use disturbs sleep more  than laptops or tablets, although all emit the blue light that is thought to play a role. It may be that because it is easier to bring a cell phone to bed, cell phone users tend to stay up later than intended reading or texting. Sleep disturbance may also be related to emotional reactions to texts, calls and messages right before sleep. Some users, especially younger ones, wake up during the night to answer calls and respond to texts.

Many people extend their use of cell phones and other devices in an attempt to be stay on top of their work. However, the loss of sleep outweighs any increase in productivity phones promise because studies show that sleep-deprived users actually produce less the next day than co-workers who limit their use at night.

Cell phone use, especially for heavy users, is also directly associated with anxiety and depressive symptoms. Excessive cell phone use can result from, cause, and worsen mental health symptoms. Pre-existing anxiety and depression may spur increased use in an attempt to stave off unwanted feelings. Like many avoidance techniques, the cure soon becomes the problem, producing increased rather than decreased symptoms. Young people with the heaviest usage among their age-peers experience increased anxiety during even short periods without their phones.

Users can take steps to minimize the impact of technology on their lives and mental health. In an article in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology magazine, writer Kristen Weir makes the following suggestions:


Seven ways to overhaul your smartphone use

APA Monitor March 2017, Vol 48, No. 3

Print version: page 48

Want to minimize the pitfalls of smartphone use? Research suggests seven good places to start.

  1. Make choices.The more we rely on smartphones, the harder it is to disconnect. Consider which functions are optional. Could you keep lists in a paper notebook? Use a standalone alarm clock? Make conscious choices about what you really need your phone for, and what you don’t.
  2. Retrain yourself.Larry Rosen, PhD, advises users not to check the phone first thing in the morning. During the day, gradually check in less often—maybe every 15 minutes at first, then every 20, then 30. Over time, you’ll start to see notifications as suggestions rather than demands, he says, and you’ll feel less anxious about staying connected.
  3. Set expectations.“In many ways, our culture demands constant connection. That sense of responsibility to be on call 24 hours a day comes with a greater psychological burden than many of us realize,” says Karla Klein Murdock, PhD. Try to establish expectations among family and friends so they don’t worry or feel slighted if you don’t reply to their texts or emails immediately. While it can be harder to ignore messages from your boss, it can be worthwhile to have a frank discussion about what his or her expectations are for staying connected after hours.
  4. Silence notifications.It’s tempting to go with your phone’s default settings, but making the effort to turn off unnecessary notifications can reduce distractions and stress
  5. Protect sleep.Avoid using your phone late at night. If you must use it, turn down the brightness. When it’s time for bed, turn your phone off and place it in another room.
  6. Be active.When interacting with social media sites, don’t just absorb other people’s posts. Actively posting ideas or photos, creating content and commenting on others’ posts is associated with better subjective well-being.
  7. And, of course, don’t text/email/call and drive.In 2014, more than 3,000 people were killed in distracted driving incidents on U.S. roads, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. When you’re driving, turn off notifications and place your phone out of reach.

For further information on this topic and many others visit apa.org/topics

Submitted by Nancy R. Soro, Ph.D.