Your dinging, buzzing, vibrating phone is stressing you out – but so is its silence

Tingling skin and a higher heart rate are just two of the reactions that can be produced when people hear a mobile device make a noise, but even when it’s quiet, phantom phone calls and ‘ringxiety’ continue to play on our obsession

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 April, 2017, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 April, 2017, 5:27pm

Many of us find the constant dings, rings, buzzes and beeps that come from our computers and mobile 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 mobile digital device makes a noise, it produces mental and physical reactions in people, says Larry Rosen, a psychology professor emeritus at California State University 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 says. “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 says. The average person checks their mobile 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,” Rosen says. “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, says David Laramie, a Beverly Hills psychologist who coined the term “ringxiety”.

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

The reasons for the obsession are manifold, according to experts. When people could only communicate by land line, messages appeared on answering machines, with no expectation for a prompt response. Now, a mobile phone is a constant companion that takes in thousands of emails as well as updates from social media networks including Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.

“It’s wonderful, powerful technology, but it’s really seductive, and you need to be deliberate about how you use it,” Laramie says.

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Many people can’t escape their technology because they rely on it for work, says Whitson Gordon, editor-in-chief of tech website How-To Geek. Gordon works remotely from his Los Angeles-area home, and says he used to panic over every sound his devices made, fearing it was an urgent question from a colleague when usually it was just a mundane notification from an app.

One way to alleviate that stress, Gordon says, is to prioritise alerts into categories. Your colleagues, for example, could have a different ringtone than your friends. Phones also have options to silence certain contacts or to mute chat conversations temporarily.

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Another solution, Rosen says, is to put yourself on a schedule, such as allowing yourself to check your phone for a few minutes every hour on the hour.