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The Digital Pacifier: How unchecked smartphone use decays resilience

How often do you catch yourself scrolling through a newsfeed while waiting in line? Do you turn to your phone in an awkward social situation? Have mobile games become a means of procrastination?


For the first time in history, we have a source of instant gratification in our pocket at all times. Given the fact that humans are wired to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, it's no surprise that uncomfortable emotions have become a cue for mindless scrolling. Our phones are digital pacifiers that we use to soothe discomfort.


In moderation, using your phone as a break is nothing to worry about, but it can be a slippery slope. If you reach for a digital pacifier too often, it becomes a self-reinforcing habit that can decay your resilience and ultimately stunt your growth.


Avoiding discomfort is a self-reinforcing habit

By fleeing discomfort in the short term, you inevitably set yourself up for more discomfort in the long term:

  • Procrastinating on an assignment adds more stress as the deadline approaches

  • Avoiding a difficult conversation with a friend will only strain your relationship further

  • Not processing your emotions will add more anxiety in the future

When that additional discomfort arrives, you have already conditioned yourself to seek

refuge in your phone. This creates a cycle of avoidance and procrastination.

This cycle accelerates as it repeats. Not only do the consequences of avoidance add more discomfort, your tolerance for discomfort starts to decay. Eventually, sitting alone with your thoughts can become uncomfortable enough to send you down a rabbit hole.


The Value of Discomfort

We live in a world that we are poorly designed for. The structure of the brain hasn't changed since we were hunter-gatherers, but our environment is radically different than it was in the Stone Age. Civilization has outpaced evolution, and our biology has effectively missed an update.


Most aspects of life that matter to us, such as health and success, are developed by making short-term sacrifices that are rewarded in the future. Living a happy, successful life in the 21st century relies on prioritizing delayed gratification.


Unfortunately, seeking short-term pleasure rather than long-term gain is in our DNA. Our ancestors were focused on survival and reproduction, not building a career. Evolution designed us to seek instant gratification - to prioritize surviving today over thriving tomorrow.


This discrepancy between the demands of society and the cravings of our biology means there is no way to be comfortable all the time. We need to decide between short-term pleasure and long-term satisfaction.

Choosing the path of delayed gratification entails pushing through a period of discomfort while resisting a never-ending supply of dopamine hits from junk food, entertainment, and digital distraction:

  • Learning requires pushing beyond your limits, failing, and trying again

  • Developing fitness requires hours of strenuous training

  • Maturing socially and emotionally requires difficult conversations with yourself and with others

In all meaningful aspects of life, growth requires discomfort.


Resilience - The key to growth

Although discomfort is a crucial ingredient of development, it won't lead to growth on its own. For it to drive progress, we need to be able to overcome it.


The ability to tolerate discomfort may best be encapsulated by the term resilience*. Defined as "your ability to overcome stress, change, or challenges," studies have shown that resilience, and the closely related construct of grit, are better predictors of lifetime success than GPA, good looks, or physical health. If things that push us out of our comfort zones are the seeds of development, resilience and grit are the water and sunlight necessary for growth to occur.

Importantly, resilience is a malleable psychological trait. This means that your ability to push through discomfort and overcome stress can be developed or diminished by your daily actions.


When we face a problem head-on and actively find a solution (active coping), we trigger "an upward spiral of psychological growth" that enhances our capacity to stay focused on a goal (perseverance) and our belief in our ability to take action (self-efficacy) (Gregory & Rutledge, 2016). No matter how small the win, overcoming a challenge increases our capacity to overcome future challenges.

Alternatively, when we ignore a problem or flee from it through distraction (avoidant coping), we chip away at our self-efficacy and, therefore, our resilience. Although there are many ways to escape discomfort, smartphones' pervasiveness and social acceptance make them the most accessible method of avoidance.


Think of your resilience as a bank account that determines your tolerance for discomfort and, therefore, your capacity for growth. Each time you overcome discomfort, you make a deposit; each time you run from it, you withdraw.


Next time you find yourself reaching for your phone without a purpose, ask yourself what is driving you to do so. Each time you identify and accept discomfort, you make an investment in your resilience.


Avoiding the digital pacifier

Relying on willpower to limit your use of the digital pacifier is ineffective, especially if the habit is already ingrained. Fortunately, there are three practices you can implement to reduce your dependency on your phone and increase your tolerance for discomfort.


1) Reconfigure your devices to support intentional use

We often turn to the digital pacifier unconsciously, navigating to our distracting app of choice with no intention whatsoever. By making the apps we use to escape discomfort more difficult to access, we allow ourselves to recognize that we are reaching for the digital pacifier and stop ourselves before we've been sucked into a rabbit hole.


Here are some simple ways to do this:

  1. Delete social media apps from your phone and use them through a browser; not only does this force you to actively search for the website, but it also adds friction to the user experience, making the platforms less addictive

  2. Install One Sec - a tool that forces you to take a 5-10 second pause before opening a distracting app

  3. Download Forest - a timer app that gamifies staying off your phone while trying to focus

  4. Use Freedom - a content blocker that disables websites of your choosing; this is a perfect way to ensure you won't use a digital pacifier while trying to get work done on your laptop.

2) Develop a mindfulness practice

It's no surprise that becoming mindful is one of the most effective ways to combat mindless scrolling. Defined as "the ability to be present and aware of what you are doing," mindfulness is a quality of mind that proves helpful in many areas of life.


There are several methods of cultivating mindfulness, most notably meditation. The simple act of sitting in silence and focusing on the breath can be a powerful practice. In addition to helping you avoid social media rabbit holes, there are numerous well-documented cognitive and psychological benefits to meditating regularly. There are several apps with guided meditations which make it easy to get started. I recommend giving headspace a try!


However, meditation isn't the only way to develop your capacity to be present. Simply noticing the boredom that arises when you are stuck in line and deciding to embrace it can be powerful. Additionally, leaving your phone at home and going on a walk, doing yoga, journaling, and drawing are all great ways to disconnect from the internet and reconnect with the present.


3) Seek Discomfort

Remember that your tolerance for discomfort can be trained. By actively seeking opportunities to push yourself out of your comfort zone, you develop your resilience and diminish your tendency for avoidance.


There are several ways to seek discomfort, whether it's picking up a new hobby, signing up for a challenging race, trying to learn a language, or pushing yourself onto a dance floor. The method you choose matters less than your consistency. Just try to make it a habit!



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Notes:

  1. Resilience is a complex concept with varying definitions. It's often used in reference to emotional trauma and psychological distress, neither of which are what I mean by "discomfort" in this article.

References

Gregory, E. M., & Rutledge, P. (2016). Exploring Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Well-Being. ABC-Clio Praeger



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