Dr. Heather McKee's Evidence Based Insights


The impact our phones have on our attention and health and what to do about it

 

240 minutes

That’s the AVERAGE time spent on our phones each day

That's nearly 4 hours, meaning most people spend a full quarter of their waking hours on their mobiles.

I was startled by this number. According to some studies, about half the time (1 hour, 56 minutes) is spent on the top five social media platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube.

Interestingly research shows we are not even aware of how often we are checking our phones, that this has just become completely habitual.

Think about the last 24hours......

Did you check your phone in the middle of the night?

Research shows 1 in 3 of us do

Did you check your phone within 15 minutes of waking up?

75% of us do

Did you use your phone during meal times?

50% do during most meals

Between 40- 90% of us check their phone in the toilet and even 17% in the shower

It's no secret that most of us are addicted to phones. but what is this doing to us? What impact is it having on our life, our relationships our habits, and our goals?

They say, where the attention goes the brain follows,

There's a cost to all that "connection," and that cost is your presence

Research repeatedly demonstrates that we aren't meant to stimulate our systems with the kind of dopamine scrolling through a social media feed gives us. This is due to the crash that comes after. We also aren't meant to constantly switch our attention the way we do on our computers, tablets and phones it is too much for our brains to handle and can lead to overwhelm.

In fact, recent studies claim that humans now have shorter attention spans than the common goldfish. A study carried out by Microsoft on 2000 participants illustrates that goldfish have an average attention span of nine seconds, while humans now have eight!

This split in attention has consequences not only on sucking away our time and our productivity, but it also has a negative impact on our mental health.  It is known to increase levels of anxiety, low mood, frustration, reactivity, impulsiveness, it negatively affects working memory and it impacts our sleep. Interestingly it also can have an impact on our ability to resist temptation and it even has consequences on your weight.

It also has an impact on our relationships, our goals and ultimately the way we live our lives

Knowing how vital it is to our productivity and mental health how do we reclaim our attention?

There are a number of ways you can do this:

One is through environmental engineering – what we know from behavioural science is that if you reframe your environment so that its supportive of your goals it makes it easier to focus your attention on these goals.

It’s impossible to stick to your goals if your environment is unsupportive. For example, if you are trying to reduce the time spent on social media it is going to be near on impossible if you are constantly getting notifications on your phone in your email or if those apps are the first thing you see when you look at your screen.  You can reduce the temptation to engage in social media apps by removing them from their normal place on your phone, hiding them in folders, replacing them with more constructive apps, scheduling social media time or deleting them from your phone altogether. How about removing your phone from your visual field, not placing it on a table, having a box for it or putting it in a drawer in your home. Out of sight is out of mind. And by doing so removing the visual prompt that interrupts your attention.

Once you have engineered your environment to be supportive of your goal of fostering a greater focus on what matters to you, you can then look to build your attention skills.

Training our attention

Research has shown that one of the most effective ways to train our attention is through mindfulness practices.

Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment with awareness and without emotional reactivity. It is essentially a portable brain fitness routine to keep our attention strong.

What they have found in the research is that the attention of someone who hasn’t had mindfulness training declines when they’re under intense stress, but in people who’ve had the training, their attention remains stable. What’s more, in people who regularly do mindfulness exercises, their attention actually gets better over time — even when they’re under stress.

Going back to the definition mindfulness; it helps cultivate present moment awareness without emotional reactivity. One way to do this is through performing a Mindful Attention Meditation an example of which I will shortly go through.

But you can also train your attention by incorporating certain daily rituals that bring calm. Simple things like making a cup of matcha tea in a focused and slow way. Having a mindful shower, being conscious of the temperature of the water, Breathing in the aromas of your shower gel, listening to the sound of the water as it soothes your brain and allowing any thought and feelings to be washed away. These activities can bring and restore harmony in an otherwise busy day.

The beauty around the ritual of meditation is that it is yours to own and mould in a way that works best for you.

To help in terms of growing your attention muscles I’d like to now share a specific meditation known as Mindful Attention Meditation. It is something that has been shown in multiple studies as useful for cultivating a calm and focused state of mind.

Let’s try this now. 

Mindful attention meditation

Find a comfortable seat

Close your eyes or if you’d like or direct your gaze downward, gently softening the visual field.

Start to notice where your body is in space.

Notice your feet and their contact with the ground.

Notice the sensations of your body sitting, your legs, your core, your posture the contact between your body and the chair or the ground

Notice your shoulders, and your arms, is there any tension there? See if you can relax into and let go of your shoulders another 10%

Now begin to notice your breath. 

Direct your attention to the experience of breathing, the sensations of the in-breath and the sensations of the out-breath.

noticing the air coming in and the air going out of your body.

Keeping your focus firmly but gently directing to this experience of breathing whatever that means to you.

There is nothing else you need to do right now but focus your undivided attention on your breath

Noticing the air coming in your body and the air coming out.

Paying attention to this full cycle of breathing.

If you’ve noticed your mind has wandered, that’s perfectly natural. 

Just like a small child or puppy may wander from a path bring back your attention gently but firmly to your breath

Come back to the experience of in-breaths and the out-breaths, the full cycle of breath. This is the process of focused attention on the breath.

As we draw our mindful attention meditation to a close I’d like to invite you to take three long deep breaths completely at your own pace

And then, whenever you’re ready, open your eyes.

That is the practice of Mindful Attention Meditation.

I’d like to finish on this; we now know where our attention goes our brain follows. 

So be intentional with your attention and focus on the things that matter most. Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.

Let’s reclaim some of that 4 hours and in the process not only reclaim lost time but also allow yourself you to live in each moment.

Published on 13th May 2019 at 17:38 by Heather McKee

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This work is in no way meant to replace any medical advice. Dr. McKee is Non-HCPC-registered. Photography by Dylan Madden.

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