“Hi there! You have been randomly selected as a winner of our draw! All we need is your credit card number-”
“For fuck sakes.”
Have you ever answered a robocall at four in the morning? You hear the ungodly buzzing of your device – turned on vibrate, so as “not to wake anyone” – and you’re sure it must be a family member in crisis, or a work email that can’t be missed. Instead, you are greeted by the disorienting sound of a fog horn and the robotic voice of the latest phishing scam as they tell you, “the Captain’s calling!,” and start wooing you with free cruise trips, with one catch. They need your social insurance number.
The next day, you’re at work. You laugh with your colleagues about the Captain, and you realize the same thing happened to all of them as well, at some point. There’s a certain comradery in the shared psychological torture. That night you can’t get to sleep, and you wonder, “why am I so damn restless?!”
Hopefully, this exact scenario hasn’t happened to you, but I’d be willing to bet you have answered a phone call in bed at all sorts of hours in the morning. It’s a habit many (and probably most) of us do in our technologically driven society. While most of us realize that getting up numerous times a night isn’t allowing for the most restful sleep, many people often do not realize the deeper psychological consequences of bad phone hygiene.
In broad strokes, anxiety can be defined as a, “fear of uncertainty.” Which makes sense. Anxiety can be accompanied by several symptoms – concentration difficulties, fatigue, irritability, restlessness, and muscle tension. These symptoms are caused by an increase in the part of our nervous system that controls adrenaline, called our sympathetic nervous system. This is the part of the nervous system that allows us to react to uncertainty. In prehistoric times, the benefit from these functions is obvious. You want to be angry, on edge, and have tight muscles (and definitely do not want to be asleep) when the sabretooth tiger is attacking you. Today, these symptoms often cause us discomfort.
Smart phones are wonderful things. They allow access to hordes of information at any given time, and have allowed us to connect with each other on an unprecedented level. They have also allowed us to, unlike ever before, take work home to an entirely different degree. The expectation in many offices today is that emails should be answered immediately, regardless of the time of day (and even if you’re on vacation). In other words, smart phones, while wonderful, represent the endless possibility of something significant happening – a family death, a big deal, the Captain – at any given time, which requires our response. And we sleep with it. Ew.
Our smart phone addiction has contributed to a baseline feeling of uncertainty that in many of us turns on the adrenaline nervous system, and causes us the symptoms of anxiety. Bad phone hygiene, such as sleeping with your phone, and not setting limits insofar as when you will answer your phone, contributes greatly to the symptoms of anxiety, not just on the night of that inappropriate call, but for many nights to come.
Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto in Toronto, Canada.