In today's digital age, it's hard to ignore the ubiquity of smartphones and the allure of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Mobile screen time has become so ingrained in our lifestyles that we often become anxious when devices are out of reach.
A 2015 study found that 94% of participants reported feeling troubled when they didn’t have their phone with them, 80% felt jealous when someone else held their phone, and 70% expected to feel depressed, panicked, and helpless if their phone was lost or stolen. One shocking survey shared by NPR suggests 46% of people would rather have a broken bone than a broken phone.
Why are people so addicted to their phones? One often-taunted explanation is that mobile phone usage hacks your dopamine release system. For instance, connecting with an old high school friend, receiving likes for your online activity, or doom-scrolling through hundreds of memes all release dopamine. The neurotransmitter then prompts you to seek the dopamine-rewarding activity time and time again.
Many public health experts argue that our relationship with smartphones isn't healthy, damaging our mental health. There are certainly reasons to believe this, but there may also be instances when mobile devices can help us regulate our emotions.
In a new study, researchers from the University of Melbourne, Stanford University, and University College London have shed light on this previously overlooked factor influencing our digital habits: emotion regulation.
Emotion regulation: the hidden drive behind digital technology use
Emotion regulation, the process of modifying one's emotions to adapt to various situations, plays a vital role in our overall well-being.
Emotions are a fundamental aspect of navigating life's complexities. They provide valuable guidance and help us adapt to the challenges we encounter. Yet, there are instances when we experience emotions we'd rather not feel. In such cases, we attempt to modify our emotional state to something more favorable or suitable for the situation at hand.
For example, people might intensify their anger before a competition or suppress joy to maintain focus on work. Others regulate their emotions by focusing on their breathing, through distractions, connecting with other people, or even drinking alcohol.
But Dr. Greg Wadley from the University of Melbourne explains that digital devices now serve as a means to manage emotions such as stress, anxiety, boredom, and the need for social connectedness. This trend has been constantly increasing and was amplified by pandemic lockdowns.
"Although emotions are essential to help us navigate the ever-changing, complex and challenging situations we face in everyday life, sometimes people experience emotions they prefer not to have," Dr. Wadley said.
"When this happens, we may try to change the emotion to one that feels better, or more suited to the current context. For example, people may increase their anger to prepare for competition, or suppress joy to focus on work. People also help each other manage emotions by sharing good news or providing reassurance after an emotional encounter."
The complex relationship between emotion and technology
For their new study, Wadley and colleagues recruited 23 adult volunteers who used a diary to record the day-to-day interactions between their emotions and technology use. The findings suggest that digital tools and strategies are becoming increasingly popular for managing emotions. And while they were instances in which the participants confessed to unhealthy patterns of digital usage, there were also instances in which digital devices provided solace by regulating negative emotions such as anxiety.
Understanding the intricate interplay between our emotions and technology can significantly benefit society as a whole. Researchers argue that obsessive technology use often stems from repeated attempts to regulate negative emotions. But it's also true that in some cases digital devices can help use regulate negative emotions and cope better with uncomfortable situations. A balance needs to be struck.
While restricting access to technology, such as implementing screen-time limits, is a common response to excessive use, it fails to address the underlying issue effectively. The authors of the new study suggest that the key lies in adopting better strategies rather than complete abstinence.
In fact, recognizing the importance of emotional well-being, European researchers have recently proposed the inclusion of "digital emotional intelligence" in digital skills education.
Digital technologies offer convenient tools for navigating the emotional ups and downs of daily life. By recognizing the role of digital emotion regulation and the need for healthier strategies, we can strike a balance between enjoying the advantages of technology and fostering our emotional well-being. Education and resources that promote healthy emotion regulation skills can empower individuals to find alternative ways to manage their emotions effectively, ultimately leading to a healthier relationship with their devices.
The findings appeared at the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.