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Do You Have Technology Separation Anxiety?

Illustration by Stephen McDermott

Our definition of success shifts generation to generation, but there has only ever been one way of attaining it: hard work. Since the technological revolution, however, toil has gone from a means to an end to an objective in itself.

Two-thirds of us are working twice as much as we did two decades ago, according to the 2012 National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada, a good deal of it is outside the workplace. Success has become measured by hours banked and how quickly we respond to our boss’ Slack messages. We don’t reach our limits when we’re physically exhausted, but when our smartphones run out of juice. Blame the economy, right?

Employees who use mobile devices to connect with work find it hard, if not impossible, to psychologically detach from their jobs, according to a 2014 Applied Psychology study carried out by Erasmus University. Smart device users may think they are in control, researchers found, but checking emails here and there during personal hours adds up to much more time than we realize. This leads to workaholism, blurred boundaries, an inability to relax, family conflict and, eventually, an ugly burnout. 

Enter the movement to take back our lives from the very devices that were supposed to improve them. Conversations about work-life balance began in the mid-aughts, and yet we still haven’t settled on a definition that works. But drawing boundaries between the office and home isn’t always feasible, and compartmentalizing how we spend our time may lead to more stress than by having our phones around.

Our screen time outside work has ballooned to almost eight hours a day, according to a 2014 Ipsos survey commissioned by Google. That means many of us spend almost every waking hour under the warm glow of a monitor.

Clearly, we have a problem. We have Technology Separation Anxiety.

How do you know you’re affected? If your first instinct after reading the words “transactive memory” is to type them into web search, you’ve already illustrated one of the most widespread reasons why we’ve become dependant on constant connectivity. With a reliable external source for all the world’s knowledge, we have less reason to go out of our way to learn and retain new information. And if you’re starting to think that the art of conversation is dead, that’s because our minds are taking our ability to instantly call anyone, anywhere as a given.

Not that we actually do. Texting has overtaken voice calls as the most popular smartphone feature, according to the Pews Research Center, a US-based think tank that monitors social trends. University of Zurich neuroscientists have found that this shift toward impersonal interaction has made daily touchscreen users develop a powerful somatosensory cortex, the part of the brain that controls the fingers. It sounds unremarkable, but it has consequences: researchers warned that changes to this typically plastic nerve centre can lead to chronic pain and motor control issues.

Dependence has developed into anxiety — nomophobia. Iowa State University researchers studying human-computer interaction set out to define what it means to suffer from the modern-day phobia, and identified nomophobia’s symptoms as a fear of being unable to communicate, connect or easily access information.

As for the disorder’s effects, the UK government tapped international market research firm YouGov to find out what they are. YouGov’s study found found that more than half of respondents panicked when caught without a functional phone or Internet connection. Physical effects include trembling, tachycardia and perspiration alongside potentially intense emotional symptoms. It’s no surprise that researchers concluded that nomophobia, left unchecked, could lead to serious psychiatric issues for sufferers. (Think PTSD from missed memos.)

Facing burned-out employees and decreased productivity, companies are searching for a solution. A survey of 270 Canadian C-suite employers by Robert Half Management Resources, one of the largest staffing firms in the world, suggests restricting employees’ ability to access work correspondence after hours and training managers to lead by example are some ways to help workers cope. With these policies becoming more widespread, RHMR reports that 36 per cent of Canadian professionals have felt an improvement in their work-life balance over the past three years.

Where HR leaves off, individuals can also take steps to reduce the effects of technology dependence. Throwing out your phone is a little extreme, so cutting usage out at times when you know you won’t be staring at your screen could easily help decrease total usage. A 2011 Journal of Applied Physiology study suggests that powering off before bed might be just about the single best step you can take towards reversing poor memory, distractedness and symptoms of depression by improving your sleep. (Backlit blue light screens, in particular, suppress melatonin production, wreaking havoc on your circadian system).

Regardless of your approach, think twice before taking your next digital hit. Think about it: the study of how our digital devices affect our minds and bodies is still in its infancy, and we’ve already discovered many disquieting truths about our seemingly innocent cellphones. Until we know exactly what it is that we hold in our hands, smart (and sparse) usage is key if we hope to overcome technology-induced anxiety.