Is Furiously Appsturbating Keeping You up at Night? Here’s How to Tap Out

Photo: Getty Images/ PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou
It’s 3 a.m., dark, and even though it’s gross, I can’t help doing it: I pick up my phone, I open my apps. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. Instagram, Facebook. Instagram again. LinkedIn, u up?

I put down my phone and bask in that temporal feeling of satisfaction—until it gradually trails off and I remember that I’m very alone in bed. Oh, the relentless cycle of appsturbating; if only it could end with sleep instead of another lonely scroll down Instagram.

I’m not cute enough to invent that terminology, by the way. “Appsturbating” was born, like all good things are, deep in the caverns of Twitter. It’s what you do when you open and close the same three (or six, I don't know the size of your...rotation) apps on your smartphone. The impossible-to-fight compulsion can strike on your commute, when a deadline is looming, during a commercial break, or until you fall asleep at night.

So why do we do it? Is it driven by a constant need to be entertained or a sick perversion to see how your college roommate’s wedding planning is coming along? Hell, it would make sense if it boils down to making sure that nobody is having fun without you (and with the performative aspect of posting, it always seems like they are).

According to Larry D. Rosen, PhD, co-author of The Distracted Mind and author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming its Hold On Us, our inability to tap out is rooted in anxiety. “We've found that once someone checks in [online], anxiety starts to build,” Dr. Rosen says. “That anxiety can be FOMO or nomophobia or just reacting to constant notifications, but as it builds, it creates uncomfortable feelings.”

It’s a low-key terrifying realization that there's something in our brain that's pushing us to open the apps and close the apps over and over again, and yet it could have legitimate adverse health effects.

Wait, nomophobia? For those in the crowd that had to Google it, too, nomophobia is the “irrational fear of being without your mobile phone or being unable to use your phone for some reason, such as the absence of a signal or running out of minutes or battery power,” Dr. Rosen says. Very grateful to put a name to the monster who incites an anxiety attack whenever I drop below 76 percent battery.

Dr. Rosen goes on to say that we get some sort of momentary gratification by keeping constant tabs on our apps. “Checking in reduces those chemicals and those feelings, and then the process starts all over again,” he explains.

It’s a low-key terrifying realization that there's something in our brain that's pushing us to open the apps and close the apps over and over again, and yet it could have legitimate adverse health effects. A 2017 study by the University of California showed that there’s a correlation between bedtime smartphone users and a poor night’s rest. Appsturbating, with all it’s anxiety-building and glaring light, is not helping.

The thing is, most people think it would be, you know, swell to have a healthier relationship with social media but can’t go cold turkey from technology. Is there a way of breaking this cycle without throwing an $800 device in the river?

“Yes! But it has to be gradual,” Dr. Rosen says. “You start by turning off all notifications and checking in for a minute or two, and then set an alarm for 15 minutes. When the alarm goes off, check again, and keep repeating until it becomes easy to avoid checking in for 15 minutes. Then, increase it to 20 or 30 minutes or more. If you can get to 30 to 60 minutes, that’s a success.”

Upon typing “success,” a little voice whispers in my ear, “Time to check your phone." I feel something vibrate on my Starbucks communal table and there’s that urge. I open my purse. I close it. I fight it.

I know that anything that happens in the microcosm of that 4.7-inch screen doesn’t need my immediate attention. But I still can’t help wondering about the inhabitants of my social networks, the ones vacationing in Iceland, holding court at their engagement party. I wonder how many times between snapping photos their fingers grazed the cold squares of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter out of fear they—the ones scaling glaciers and cheers-ing to everlasting love—were missing something integral.

After all, everybody does it. It’s just that nobody talks about it.

Once you've mastered the art of the 60-minute break, it may be time to go full digital detox—science says you'll be happier for it. And here's how read receipts are messing with your mind.

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