Day two of the (ISC)2 Security Congress kicked off with a session moderated by Patrick Craven, Director of the Center for Cyber Safety and Education, who highlighted the risks to young people online. Notably, the panel discussed the ways in which technology can sometimes fail to keep families safe online and offered resources to help educate children and parents.

I don’t think it was coincidental that the session was followed by Catherine Price, Science Journalist and author of How to Break Up with Your Phone. The reality is that it is not only children but also adults who have some damaging habits and unhealthy relationships with technology.

Price asked everyone in the audience to take out their phones and look at the home screen, noting the notifications that are waiting. These badges within the applications and email notifications actually work like slot machines and produce dopamine that “hijack our bodies.” Because the notifications trigger dopamine, every time we look at our phones, we are establishing habits that are not good for us because we are falsely training ourselves to think that checking our phones is something worth doing.

So, Price challenged the audience to turn off their phones. While many did, several did not, including the gentleman next to me. “I asked you to turn off your phones for two reasons,” Price said. “First, to establish etiquette for our time together. I’m pretty sure no one is taking out a cigarette right now because as a society we have decided that is not acceptable behavior. We haven’t done that with our phones yet.”

Powering off the phones was also an invitation to be present for this one hour we had together. “Just notice how you feel. Do you have any discomfort? All you did was put away your phone. It’s just a phone,” Price joked, adding that she understood many people were likely feeling very anxious.

In part, that anxious feeling comes from a fear of missing out (FOMO), but unpredictability is also a big dopamine trigger. “You never know what is going to be on your phone, and that anticipation, the very feeling of a notification or hearing the sound of an alert is irresistible,” said Price.

In her research, Price discovered that the average person spends four hours a day on their phone. “That is time not spending truly engrossed in projects or relationships that bring us joy, but it’s also time we can’t get back. It’s even time that is changing our brains.”

Still many of us are splitting time between our phone and our lives and what we are actually doing within the phone. We are trying to multi-task, but it’s not humanly possible. “Try it. Go ahead. Try to think of two different thoughts at the same time. It’s not possible to do two things that are cognitively demanding at the same time. It’s a lie,” Price said.

Instead, most of us are merely task switching, which in fact has a direct impact on our productivity, decision-making, performance and creativity.  

“That is something that’s very relevant for this audience. Your careers are the definition of creative. You see insights and connections between things that are not obvious and are constantly anticipating things that haven’t happened,” Price said.

Instead, we largely exist with a constant sense of crisis, which is not good for our health. “Human beings haven’t evolved to understand the difference between existential threats and emails. Our bodies don’t know the difference. The release of cortisol is great for running away from a lion, but it’s not so great if you are just looking at email.”

In closing, Price offered simple ways to take back control of our lives, noting that putting down your phone may even help you live longer.

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