By Timothy Caulfield

Connecting phones, stress, and COVID misinformation

We often allow our phones to work their way into every corner of our lives.

Published 25/01/2021
A 2015 study from the US found that for most of us, our smart phone is the most important thing on our minds when we wake.

Not coffee, a robe or, even, our significant other. It is no surprise, then, that 61 percent of us check our smart phones within five minutes of waking. For Millennials, that number is 66%. We are checking our phones constantly.

My guess, you are doing it on the toilet.

If you believe 2016 market research, 75 percent of people check their phone while sitting on the throne. A 2018 study found that people check their phones eighty times a day while on vacation. (Sigh. That’s me!) On average, we spend over four hours a day staring at these devices. That’s one hundred and twenty hours a month. Which would be equivalent to a pretty serious part-time job.

And we often allow our phones to work their way into every corner of our lives. Ninety-five percent of people admit to taking their phones out at social situations.

A shocking one in ten admit to checking their smart phones during sex!

We all now know that this constant phone checking is a bad idea. But there are many reasons we can’t stop doing it. Research suggests, for example, that the individuals who feel most anxious without their phones – a condition called nomophobia – are the individuals who perceive their phones as an extended self.

To some degree we all feel this way. Smart phones are both our personal link to the outside world and a repository of the memories that help define who we are. When our phones aren’t near, we feel like something significant is missing.

But there is a growing body of evidence that tells us that the constant bombardment of information that flows from our phones is stressing us out.

And this is particularly so in the context of the pandemic. Studies have shown that the constant exposure to the chaotic information environment – including the predominantly negative news about the pandemic – can have an adverse impact on our mental health.

Not only is social media and the chaotic information environment increasing our levels of stress. It may also be contributing to the spread of misinformation. As noted by Yan Su of Washington State University, the lead author of a recent study on point, “the more you use social media, the more likely you become worried about COVID-19 [and] this in turn can trigger a higher level of worry which leads to further belief in misinformation.”

Indeed, the fact that we are stressed out might be adversely impacting our ability to critically assess the accuracy of the content that we are seeing on our phones.

One of my research collaborators, experimental psychologist Gordon Pennycook from the University of Regina, has suggested that fear and stress caused by the bombardment of information about the pandemic – including conspiracy theories and misinformation – could “distract people from judging the accuracy of content they may read online.”

There are several things we can do to limit the adverse impact of doom scrolling and pandemic noise.

First, research has shown that simply nudging people to pause before they share content on social media can reduce the spread of misinformation. Social media can be a frenetic information space.

It doesn’t invite reflection, so remind yourself to slowdown and reflect! Indeed, even pausing to simply consider the accuracy of a headline can improve the quality of information shared online.

Second, we need to take control of our information ecosystem.

A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine on the impact of the pandemic on our mental health noted that the constant exposure to “media reports can be emotionally disturbing” and, as a result, “contact with pandemic-related news should be monitored and limited.”

So, put down the phone! At a minimum, try to carve out times during the day when you are phone-free and removed from the chaotic information environment that is stressing us all out.

Doing so will not only be good for your own wellbeing, but it might also help slow the spread of misinformation.

Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta and author of the new book “Relax: A User’s Guide to Life in the Age of Anxiety” (Faber, 2021).