Why does digital messaging cause so much anxiety?

Pings rule your brain, and you might have GODO. This is how to win back your freedom.

Pings rule your brain, and you might have GODO. This is how to win back your freedom.

Photo by Kyle Loftus on Unsplash.

In Downton Abbey, the servants' bell is the fastest way to summon your tea. Pull a string upstairs, a bell rings downstairs. Your maid or valet appears to attend your needs. Digital communication was supposed to put a string in our hands that would allow us to reach anyone in the world we might want to contact. Yet the same technologies have put ringing, flashing, vibrating bells in our homes, at our workstations, in our pockets. Most of us even take them to bed.

Like the downstairs-dwelling help, we drop everything when it rings. A recent study found that workers responded instantly to 41% of e-mail notifications and to 71% of instant message notifications. Even when not prompted by incoming interruptions, people check their phones constantly, causing distraction and anxiety. Our connectedness has become such a problem that Google and Apple are both releasing apps to help promote "digital wellness". We sheep have become such a danger to ourselves, even the wolves are worried.

Larry D. Rosen, psychologist and co-author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, is  a leading expert on the effects of technology on our brains. I asked him to explain the effects of constant instant messaging on our mental well-being, how other people got so much dominion over our time and attention, and how we can reclaim some focus and calm in a connected world.

Digital messaging and anxiety

The main problem with digital messaging, according to Rosen, is that it is a major source of anxiety and stress. Sending texts makes us anxious because we are sometimes made to wait for a response. Why haven't we heard back? Do they not like us? Did we say something wrong? This is a well-complained-about and scientifically-backed fact.

It is also stressful to receive a message. Just hearing a notification, if our phone is out of reach, causes a big spike in brain chemicals associated with stress. Psychologist Nancy Cheever publicly demonstrated as much on Anderson Cooper, hooking him up to a computer with electrodes and tracking his heart rate and perspiration while secretly sending him texts to his phone, causing his notifications to go off and his skin conductance to spike. The mere sound of the bell soaks our brain in cortisol and alpha-amylase until we can attend to the master's call. As Rosen puts it, "We have created a weird monster here. We are like Pavlov's dogs in the sense that we get a beep and we get a visceral feeling. I would describe it as my heart skips a beat."

Should we turn off our notifications, put our devices in a drawer, and shut off our social apps on our computers? Take the clapper out of the bell? According to Rosen, even this won't help. Once we are used to constant connection, even not checking your phone can get the cortisol pumping. The second you put down your phone from checking your notifications "the clock starts ticking. What's ticking is the biochemistry of your brain… at some point it becomes uncomfortable and your brain says 'I gotta check in'." Sending receiving and even ignoring messages all cause anxiety which, in addition to feeling bad, spoils our concentration and disrupts our sleep.

GODO not FOMO

How has the humble ping won such power over us? How has instant messaging gripped on our brains? One common theory focuses on the neurochemical rewards provided by social media. Specifically, many believe that we become dependent on our devices because using them provides a little hit of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. Another theory is that FOMO causes people to reach for their phones. People are afraid they they are missing out on some fun or interesting opportunity, and this fear drives excessive digital communication.

It's true that the pleasure of digital communication can reinforce our behaviour, but dopamine isn't what's making us anxious. Rosen thinks our comms-anxiety has a lot more to do with social norms and our worries about breaking them. Whether we like it or not, just participating on a social platform creates a sense of obligation.  "You have a responsibility to keep up with those because you kind of 'promised' you were going to do that." The anxiety-generating question is not "what am I missing out on?", it's "who am I disappointing/insulting/letting down at this very moment?" Splashing stress hormones around our skulls is our brain's way of reminding us: you have a responsibility to answer these people, to be there when they call. Rosen told me only half of all smartphone interruptions are prompted by notifications. The other half are people interrupting themselves to relieve a gnawing sense that they might be ignoring someone. It's not the fear of missing out, it's the Guilt of Disappointing Others.

But we're not obliged to answer our texts! There is no such law! No sane person has ever promised to answer every notification immediately. We can check and answer when we like. We are free, after all.

If you believe that, you've probably never engaged in a non-contractual relationship with a human being. You don't need an act of parliament or even an explicit promise to create expectations and norms. Our behaviour and the messages that it carries is plenty. Joining a social network or giving out our contact information is a signal that we can be reached that way, which can be amplified by our subsequent actions. This can be totally unintentional. We may not even notice norms before we start worrying about breaking them or expectations before we disappoint them. If I answer your messages immediately the first few times, it means something when I don't. And I know it means something. That's what's causing my anxiety.

Don't kill the messenger

We have a problem. Our brain chemistry is utterly at the mercy of anyone with an Internet connection and our contact info. In Rosen's words: "We've ceded control to everyone in the world. And not just our friends and our family. We've got  to take control back." How?

One strategy is to kill the messenger: disconnect; do a digital detox; switch to a "dumb phone". Just find a way to put yourself beyond ping range. Don't bother, says Rosen, it won't work. When connected people unplug, they become more anxious, not less. Worse, cutting off would mean giving up the massive benefits of digital communication. If you make yourself only reachable by landline or messenger pigeon, nobody will reach you, and you'll lose all the opportunities and connections that digital connectivity affords.

Strategies for reducing anxiety in general - regular exercise, mindfulness meditation - can help, but Rosen advises also focussing specifically on the bond between digital comms and our brain. He recommends only checking your notifications on a regular schedule, say every 30 minutes. It's not long. You won't lose any major benefits by doing this. In between these regular checks, you should turn notifications on your phone off, put the device out of sight, and close any desktop applications that might carry outside interruptions. Don't just minimize them. If you only minimize, their come-hither eyes will leer at you from the bottom of your screen. To reinforce your new regimen, try to notice how much more work you are getting done and how much less anxious you feel. The combination of behaviour and reinforcement is the only thing that will forge new links in your brain.

To Rosen, one of the key elements of this strategy is to shout it from the digital mountaintop. Inform everyone, across all platforms, of your new approach to communications. Let them know that you will get to their messages in good time. If you must, tell them one way that they can reach you in case of emergency. Making your move away from instant availability public helps because when you know that they know that you're not ignoring them, you won't worry as much about being out of touch. By explaining your behaviour, you are readjusting others' expectations and renegotiating the terms of your implicit social contract. Even if these obligations exist largely in your mind, telling others will help your brain let you off the hook.

Ultimately, the apps aren't causing the anxiety. It's the social norms that govern when we should answer and what it means when we don't. And because these technologies are so new, the norms are still flexible, and are still adapting to the different social signals in the system. This includes the signals sent by your own behaviour. When you answer messages immediately, you relieve that person's anxiety in the short term but reinforce the norm of instant response. When you fault someone for not answering you quickly enough, you do even worse. When you refuse the tyranny of instant comms, you loosen the norm's hold over everyone. Let those messages sit in your inbox for awhile. You'll be doing all of us a favour.


Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.