When you find yourself at loose ends, do you reflexively reach for your phone? It’s a common habit, and seemingly harmless. But experts say turning to technology to cure boredom, loneliness, and insecurity risks robbing ourselves of the opportunity to build more creativity and real connection into our lives.
“Technology is our favorite tool for pain avoidance,” says Christina Crook, the Toronto-based author of The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World and host of the JOMOcast podcast. “It’s this nervous habit we have to keep our negative emotions at bay, or to put our positive emotions on overdrive.”
In fact, the way we experience our feelings is shifting under the influence of social-media platforms and the devices we use to access them, according to historian Susan Matt, PhD, and technology scholar Luke Fernandez, PhD, who describe a “new American emotional style” in their book Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings About Technology, from the Telegraph to Twitter.
Digital tools have reshaped our relationship with our feelings and even our sense of self. We think of boredom and loneliness, in particular, as problems we need to solve. Why struggle with either condition when an entire universe of digital media is just a click away?
“Our culture has made it harder to bear that experience of being alone. The very words we use to describe being alone make it a pathology,” Matt says, noting the unreasonable expectation of connecting to all our friends around the globe at the swipe of a finger.
“What springs up is the gap between the number of friends and contacts you have and the number you want. Because we have these extravagant expectations and hopes for constant connection, we can never be satisfied.”
Fortunately, we’re not doomed to suffer from these negative meta-feelings. We can learn to better handle them and make informed choices about how and when we use technology. Try these strategies to help manage your emotions while navigating your digital life.
We often rely on our devices to rescue us from moments of solitude, because that empty space brings to mind difficult parts of our lives. Instead of resisting or avoiding those emotions, lean in to them.
“You start to confront things you need to think about: your relationship with your parents or your children, or why you’re not happy at work, or numbers in your savings account — things that do need your attention more than Instagram,” says Manoush Zomorodi, creator of the podcasts ZigZag and Note to Self, author of Bored and Brilliant, and host of NPR’s TED Radio Hour.
We need and deserve to experience the full range of emotions, she adds. “That’s what being a human is.”
When we stop trying to avoid the negative, we begin to develop our emotional literacy, explains Marc Brackett, PhD, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
“Our emotions have to go somewhere, so we can learn to use them wisely, which is what we call emotional intelligence,” says Brackett, author of Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive. If we suppress our emotions, “it’s going to build up and build up and explode or implode, or you’re going to want to eat your feelings or drink your feelings.”
You may be tempted to pick up your device whenever you experience a flicker of boredom, insecurity, or sadness — feelings we’ve all been conditioned to think of as shameful or unacceptable.
“It’s normal to feel these emotions sometimes, because they’re universal. Everyone feels anxious or lonely or bored sometimes,” says New York University marketing professor Adam Alter, PhD, author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.
Once you allow yourself to experience uncomfortable emotions more frequently, you’ll begin to learn how to deal with them. Notice your reactions and consider their source. Maybe you grew up in a family that considered fear a weakness, so you feel ashamed by your anxiety. Ask yourself how you’re coping with that. Is it working for you?
“Ask yourself at the end of each day, ‘What, today, was the most life-giving and what was the most life-taking?’” Crook suggests. “You’ll begin to orient your mind toward the life-giving.”
Some people find that meditation, yoga, and quiet walks help them feel more balanced and centered. Others need Zumba class or a dance party in the kitchen to release stress. Or perhaps journaling, talking to friends, or therapy helps you work through anger or pain.
Explore various strategies, then assess their effects. This process, Brackett says, makes you “an emotion scientist.”
“Your body doesn’t function well unless you eat healthy. The same thing applies to your emotional life,” he explains. “It’s hard to apply helpful strategies unless you learn them and practice them and evaluate them and refine them.”
When you start to collect data, the results may surprise you. We are astonishingly inept at forecasting how we’ll feel after doing many things.
For example, Brackett’s students tracked their mood before and after their social-media posts. “What many students found is that they thought they would feel more attractive and happier after posting a doctored picture,” he says, “but in the end, they actually felt worse.”
As you develop a new emotional relationship to technology, notice why you tend to reach for your devices: Is it to numb out? To entertain yourself? That’s not always bad. The key is to choose how and when you engage with technology rather than simply using it to avoid being alone with your thoughts.
“I’ve started to build this muscle of not reaching for my phone the minute I feel stressed out or angry or sad,” Crook says. “I’m going to be with that for a minute and let myself feel that bit of pain and then decide what would be nourishing.”
Set a goal before you pick up your device. Are you going to relax for 20 minutes with cat videos? Set a timer so it doesn’t turn into two hours. Maybe you want to find a certain piece of information or connect with a friend. Keep that intention at the forefront.
Practices like these, Crook notes, have been shown to improve your retention and synthesis of the information.
She also recommends streamlining your apps and pruning your social-network contacts. Put apps in folders with creative names, like “waste of time,” to encourage yourself to pause before opening. Delete extra files and seldom-used apps. Unfollow people whose content you don’t enjoy.
“It’s like cleaning your apartment,” she says. “If you left pizza boxes everywhere, it wouldn’t be a very fun place to live.”
When you do notice that you’ve been sucked into a Reddit rabbit hole or a TikTok tunnel, don’t feel guilty. Instead, remind yourself that you’ve been effectively targeted by multibillion-dollar companies trying to profit from your attention, Fernandez suggests.
That perspective “may provide the motivations for taking those self-help steps more easily,” such as intentionally making your phone less appealing and less addictive. (For specific tips on breaking your cellphone habit, see “18 Ways to Break Your Cellphone Habit“.)
It’s not just about controlling your device, Crook notes. It’s also important to create the conditions that will allow real-life engagement to flourish.
“The power is in remembering that you’re still in control,” she explains. You can choose to spend the afternoon with a paintbrush and canvas, or a Netflix marathon. It’s your call — but putting the easel in the middle of your living room makes creativity more likely.
One effective substitute for the endorphin rush of technology: connecting to something larger than yourself. Fernandez and Matt recommend seeking awe, that feeling of smallness next to a rushing waterfall or the first opening bud of spring. Experiencing the grandness and majesty of the universe helps temper the pride and vanity that social media can encourage.
Crook calls it a “healthy self-forgetfulness,” when we step away from technology and remember that the world turns without us there to click and comment and like. “That’s an important thing to remember regularly.”
This article originally appeared as “Choose Your Reactions” in the June 2021 issue of Experience Life.