The other morning I found myself getting really agitated. Not because my three-year-old was whining or because I was behind on a deadline—no, I was antsy because there were no new posts in my Facebook feed. I had been constantly checking my phone during a rare stretch of free time and found myself jonesing for another “hit” of digital input. Dislike. I want digital technologies to take stress and brain strain out of my life, not add more. You, too? Here's how psychology and neuroscience experts say we can use tech to improve our mental health rather than allowing its ubiquity to mess with our minds.
#1 Stare at some nature on-screen. It's pretty well established that being in nature is invigorating for mind and body. Even just seeing nature out of a window has been found to help people in hospitals heal better from surgery. “What recent studies are showing us is that if you don't have access to the outdoors but need to boost your mood or drop your level of stress, you can get a quick fix by looking at digital nature—a movie or photos,” says Jenny Fremlin, a media psychologist and app developer in Douglas, Alaska. There are a ton of free “nature” wallpapers for your phone or computer desktop out there; plenty are probably built into your computer or smartphone's operating system, and National Geographic has some beauties at photography.nationalgeographic.com.
#2 Trade in your Scrabble app for Call of Duty. The idea that doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku can keep your mind sharp as you age has been mostly debunked. What can improve cognition? First-person shooter video games such as Halo or Modern Warfare. Seminal studies by cognitive neuroscientist Daphné Bavelier of the University of Geneva and her colleagues have found that playing fast-paced action games can improve vision, increase attention, sharpen multitasking abilities and speed decision making. “As a brain scientist, I'm most surprised by the fact that players don't just become better at playing video games—it translates to other skills that we don't typically think would be related,” Bavelier says. “Video games have been totally trivialized, but they clearly have effects that are not trivial.” For increasing attention and vision, Bavelier has found that the best regimen is about 35 to 50 minutes a day. If you're like me and blasting bloody holes in virtual enemy soldiers isn't really your thing, stay tuned: Bavelier and other researchers are hard at work developing nonviolent games that challenge the same brain pathways.
#3 Realize phone fun is like a drug. Seventy-one percent of all social networking takes place on mobile phones these days, as does 86 percent of gaming and 90 percent of instant messaging, according to the analytics experts at ComScore. And there's a good reason why so many of us are constantly tapping on our cell-phone screens. Research suggests that using social media, video games and other digital technologies may provide a druglike hit of pleasure for users, says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London, who studies media and consumer preferences. “Studies show there is a firing up of dopamine-related neurotransmitters. That means your brain is experiencing the interaction as highly pleasurable and responds with an intense need to do it,” Chamorro-Premuzic says.
#4 Practice purposeful moderation. Mobile technology is like anything else, it seems: fine in moderation. “If you are habitually checking e-mail or picking up your phone looking for alerts that haven't sounded, you'll feel drained,” Fremlin says. “Pay attention to what you're doing, how it affects you and how it relates to other things in your life. Make your technology use and online interactions purposeful.” To keep myself in that moderate zone, I've moved Facebook off my phone's home screen. It now takes a swipe and two taps to fire it up, and so far that's enough of a barrier to slow down the mindless checking. If I find myself jonesing again, I'll lay down the law and make Facebook a once- or twice-a-day treat.