Ping. Ring. Buzz. These sounds delivered from electronics fill our days and nights, repeatedly notifying us that there is something we must pay attention to right away.
But constant notifications create pressure to respond immediately and get things done on demand. Turns out, it’s taking a toll on our mental health.
“The delineation between work and leisure life doesn’t exist anymore. And the ability to reach out and get things in seconds interrupts the developing skills of patience and endurance,” Deborah Serani, professor at Adelphi University and author of Living with Depression, tells Yahoo Life.
Unlike previous generations, Dr. Jacques Ambrose, neurointerventional psychiatrist and senior medical director at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life that the ubiquity of smart devices has significantly increased the intensity and frequency of these notifications.
“The modalities in which these pings can manifest have also dramatically increased,” he says. “For example, in prior generations, we may have had interruptions from phone calls on a landline device. In today’s era, we have pings coming from multiple places, including phone calls, text messages and direct messaging from a variety of apps and social media platforms.”
The magnitude of today’s notifications isn't affecting only adults. One report found that teenagers receive about 240 phone app notifications per day. Not surprisingly, the average American checks a phone about 144 times daily, while 75% reach for their phones within five minutes of receiving a notification.
What happens to your brain when you hear a ping?
The brain goes through a series of complex neural processes from a simple alert noise, says Ambrose. “Different areas of the brain, such as the auditory cortex and inferior frontal gyrus, may activate to accomplish the selective attention necessary for us to focus on the ping we hear,” he says.
Because people are exposed to regular notifications from smart devices, Ambrose says that, over time, our brains have learned to “recognize” the sound and respond more robustly.
“Additionally, given the unpredictable nature of the notifications, the brain’s reward system” — known as the ventral striatum — “may also be activated, which can further reinforce the connection between our reactions and the notification,” Ambrose says.
Serani refers to the clinical term "positive conditioned stimulus response." In other words, when a certain experience is anticipated, and then it occurs, this causes a feeling of excitement. “When our phone or computer notify us, a surge of dopamine, the feel-good hormone in our reward circuitry, floods our brain,” she explains.
Over time, the ping can become more powerful than the reward itself. “Research suggests dopamine levels in the brain can be twice as high when you anticipate the reward as when you actually receive it. In other words, just hearing the notification can be more pleasurable than the text, email or tweet,” Serani says.
How do notifications affect mental health?
Frequent notifications from devices, however, can adversely affect mental health and concentration. Ambrose explains that when the brain shifts focus to the notifications, the brief interruptions can disrupt the performance of current tasks and increase the overall mental workload.
“In addition, the constant notifications throughout the day have been associated with increased reports of feeling anxious and activation of our body’s physiological stress responses, such as the release of the stress hormone, known as cortisol,” he says.
Notifications are so pervasive that our brains can even conjure them up. For instance, if you have the sensation your cellphone is ringing when it’s not or if you hear a ping from a text that sends you into a frenzy to see whose phone it is, Serani says this is referred to as ringxiety, a term coined by Dr. David Laramie at California’s School of Professional Psychology.
For children and adolescents, constant noises and notifications may be even more disruptive and can negatively affect cognition and their ability to pay attention, Ambrose adds. He points to medical societies, such as the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which recommend limiting screen time for young children.
Receiving notifications near and during bedtime for both adults and adolescents can also negatively affect the quality and duration of sleep, which can affect mental health, notes Ambrose.
7 ways to better manage notifications
While notifications are here to stay, there are ways to keep them from dominating your life. Experts suggest following these tips:
Set aside time to check — and ignore — notifications. Ambrose suggests allowing “work notifications to occur during work hours, and/or have a separate phone for work purposes that can be left at work” so you’re not responding to work pings at home. However, for work and activities that require concentration, set a designated “Do Not Disturb” time block on your phone and computer. This also applies to times when you want some peace, such as during lunch breaks. On the flip side, consider having a set time of day to look at personal email, go through photos, pay bills electronically and check apps.
Shut off tech during meals and at night. Serani recommends turning off your phone entirely during meals at home or when you’re out at a restaurant. Also, power down from technology every night at the same time to make it routine, she says.
Place your devices out of sight. When at home, “put your phone in a consistent place …preferably not where you will be eating, watching TV or doing other activities,” says Serani. Also, try to avoid charging your phone or computer in your bedroom while you sleep. Research shows that having easy access to your phone and using it right before bed or in bed can lead to insufficient or poor-quality sleep.
Downsize your apps. Getting rid of apps you don’t use anymore and limiting apps in general on your phone can reduce the volume of notifications you receive. You can also turn off notifications for certain apps.
Go tech-free occasionally. Challenge yourself, such as on Saturday or Sunday, to have a technology-free day every week.
Work on being less accessible. Although it’s hard not to grab your phone the minute it pings, a response doesn’t always need to be immediate. “Remind yourself that being in the moment truly requires your mind, body and soul to be present in real, uninterrupted, undistracted time,” says Serani.
Seek help, if needed. When the urge to use digital technology becomes hard to control and you find yourself constantly reaching for your phone, Serani says consider talking to a mental health professional who can help you understand your dependency and ways to manage it.