Cellphones dial up our anxiety

Doug Ross, 31, wakes every morning to a screen full of notifications.

He receives updates from news apps, chats from coworkers and emails from East Coast clients, all beckoning to be answered before the workday even starts. Working during the day as a consultant for the software company Adobe, the alerts pour in on a near-constant basis. He usually answers within seconds.

“I never have it away from my person,” said Ross, a Sacramento, Calif., resident, about his phone. “That gives me anxiety. It bothers me, because I know what is going to be on the phone when I get back to it, or what I’m going to miss.”

Many people find the constant dings, rings, buzzes and beeps that come from their computers and cell phones impossible to ignore. Experts say it’s a sign of our dependency on technology, which validates and entertains us while also cutting into our productivity and altering our attention span for the worse.

When a cellphone, laptop computer or smartwatch makes a noise, it produces mental and physical reactions in people, said Larry Rosen, a psychology professor emeritus at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and author of “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World.” Their heart rates increase. Their skin tingles. They grow increasingly antsy with every minute they don’t look at the screen.

“We’ve trained ourselves, almost like Pavlov’s dogs, to figuratively salivate over what that vibration might mean,” Rosen said. “If you don’t address the vibrating phone or the beeping text, the signals in your brain that cause anxiety are going to continue to dominate, and you’re going to continue feeling uncomfortable until you take care of them.”

The reaction is so ingrained that it kicks in even without a prompt, Rosen said. The average person checks their cell phone about 60 times per day, or nearly four times each waking hour, whether they hear a sound or not, according to one of his recent studies. That adds up to a total of 220 minutes per day.

“Almost exactly half of the check-ins have no alerts or notifications,” he said. “It’s your brain telling you to check in. It’s your brain telling you ‘I don’t know if anyone new is following me.’ ”

Sometimes, people even hear “phantom rings,” where they think their phone is going off but it isn’t, said David Laramie, a Beverly Hills psychologist who coined the term “ringxiety.”

Laramie said the mind is always anticipating alerts and people often imagine them to fill a void.

Ross said he sometimes feels a buzzing in his right pocket when he knows his phone is in his left.

“It’s definitely a real thing,” he said of the phantom rings.

The reasons for the obsession are manifold, experts said. When people could only communicate by land line, messages appeared on answering machines, with no expectation for a prompt response. Now, a cell phone is a constant companion that takes in thousands of emails as well as updates from social…

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