By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Tribune Newspapers
8:02 PM EST, February 13, 2013
Cellphones, for many people, have morphed into an extra appendage, always within reach except for that time you accidentally left it at home and suffered a minor panic attack.
Our constant connectedness has its benefits — it's hard to imagine a time when some useless trivia dispute, without a smartphone's instantaneous Google search, would simply go unresolved. But when people can't get through dinner without responding to their phone's pings, or they avoid vacations for fear of being somewhere without cell reception, or they so restlessly check their Facebook and Twitter feeds that they walk blindly into traffic — it may be a sign that the white-knuckled grip people have on their phones is actually the phones' grip on them.
Some experts caution about the hazards of cellphone overload.
Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, a Stanford University psychiatrist and the author of "Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the e-Personality," said people "lose the ability to be in the moment" when they're bombarded by messages they feel compelled to react to. He gets patients showing signs of distractibility and attention deficit disorder who wonder if their compulsive phone-checking is to blame.
"It's hard to go from updating your status to reading 'War and Peace'," Aboujaoude said.
Daniel Sieberg, a former science and technology reporter, wrote the book "The Digital Diet: The 4-Step Plan To Break Your Tech Addiction and Regain Balance in Your Life" after his reliance on gadgets hurt his relationships with his friends and family and left him feeling distracted, disconnected and isolated. Now the leader of media outreach at Google, Sieberg said he's more grounded and productive since becoming intentional about his digital consumption.
People need to recognize the good and bad of cellphones and make conscious choices about when and how much they use their devices, said Nancy Baym, author of "Personal Connections in the Digital Age" and a principal researcher at Microsoft Research.
Baym co-authored a study that found cellphones made people feel closer to their closest friends, but also made them feel "trapped," or as if they were "on a leash," because there's an expectation of constantly being available and announcing your whereabouts. A frank discussion with your friends about what role your phone plays in your life could help.
Even the most tech-savvy folks practice moderation.
Duke University professor Cathy Davidson, who is on the board of Mozilla, the software company behind Firefox, said her peers will take a full month off from technology when they go on vacation, not just unplugging from their machines but also advising people that correspondence sent during that time will not be acknowledged.
"The point of technology is that you should control it; it shouldn't control you," said Davidson, author of "Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Learn."
Think you can handle it?
If not 20 seconds pass before you itch to take another look at your phone, you may benefit from a digital diet. Here are 15 exercises to help you practice phone restraint.
Charge your phone outside of your bedroom so you don't plunge into the digital stream as soon as you open your eyes, said Daniel Sieberg, author of "The Digital Diet."
Don't check your work email until you get to work. Remember when work was the only place you could check it? The company survived then, and it will continue to survive.
Keep your phone off the table during meals so that you're not interrupted or tempted to fiddle with it, Sieberg said.
Play "phone stack" when dining with friends to give everyone a financial incentive to focus on the flesh-and-blood humans in front of them. Here's how: Everyone puts their phones on the table, face down, stacked one on top of the other. The first person to grab his/her phone has to pick up the whole tab.
Experience something first, post about it later, Sieberg said. Interrupting the activity you're engaged in to tweet or post photos of said activity distracts from your enjoyment of the experience — especially when you then keep checking to see if anyone has commented. Wait until later to post. It will still have happened.
When you compose your out-of-office reply for a vacation, say that any correspondence sent during that time will self-destruct; if it's important, people will just have to contact you upon your return.
Leave your phone behind when you go on a walk or to the gym or take a lunch break or any other time you don't really need it. Recognize the fact that you have survived without it upon your return.
Log out of Facebook every time you close the page, suggests Nancy Baym, author of "Personal Connections in the Digital Age." Just having the extra step of logging on each time you pull up Facebook can make you reconsider whether it's really what you want to do.
Establish "tech breaks," during which you spend a minute or two catching up on your virtual social connections before turning your phone on silent and placing it face down, suggests research psychologist Larry Rosen. Wait 15 minutes before you allow yourself to look at your phone again (set an alarm). As you become accustomed to letting it sit, lengthen the time between tech breaks.
Take 10 minutes out of each hour or two to put away your technology and do something that neuroscientists have found calms the brain, Rosen said. Look at nature, listen to music, exercise, talk live to a friend, meditate.
Abstain from automatically whipping out your phone any moment you find yourself alone. Instead, take in the scene around you. Strike up a conversation with a stranger. Think deep thoughts.
Only look at your phone when you're not engaged in another task — not while you're walking, not while you're driving, not while you're paying for your coffee, not while you're in the middle of a conversation.
Put your phone in the trunk while you drive.
Keep your phone on silent. When you happen to look at it later, you can see what you missed. iPhone users can also use the new "Do Not Disturb" feature that quiets incoming calls or messages for a designated period of time while allowing certain "favorite" contacts to ring through.
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