Op-ed: Defying the temptation of notifications


Any bing from my phone induces dread because it may be yet another addition to my never-ending to-do list. / Illustration by Ally Rzesa

By Hannah Ebanks

Recently I’ve had the urge to throw my phone in the trash. It started toward the end of the summer, when breaking news alerts constantly reminded me that the outside world wasn’t the same as my lazy vacation. Since school started, my number of daily notifications has skyrocketed due to my busy schedule. Now, any bing from my phone induces dread because it may be yet another addition to my never-ending to-do list.

The latest iPhone software update added the Screen Time feature, which tracks how much time a user spends on apps and also allows them to set time restrictions. Because of this, I realized how much time I waste on social media. Last week, for example, my total screen time was 32 hours and 18 of those hours were spent on social networks. I received around 241 notifications per day. My most used app is Twitter, which consumes approximately 48 minutes of my day.

As a journalism student, it’s easy to come up with excuses: I must keep up with a 24-hour news cycle and I have an obligation to know what is happening in the world at all times. However, most of my feed is filled with non-news, and my intention to only spend five minutes catching up on the news then turns into 15 minutes of reading the replies on the latest “Thoughts of Dog” post. The feeling of being “in the know” is hard to resist. But ultimately, squandering so much time on Twitter isn’t productive.

Since I’m usually on my phone, I feel as if I need to be accessible all the time. I hate having any notifications and will do whatever is necessary to get rid of them, so I usually respond to messages within minutes. Now, I feel pressured to be reliable, and answer messages right away, even if they aren’t urgent. I rarely turn my phone on Do Not Disturb because I’m afraid I could miss an important notification, message, or call.  

In the New York Times article, “How Tiny Red Dots Took Over Your Life,”  John Hermann writes, “What’s so powerful about the dots is that until we investigate them, they could signify anything: a career-altering email; a reminder that Winter Sales End Soon; a match, a date, a ‘we need to talk.’”

If my phone is charging on the other side of my room and I hear a notification, I have trouble diverting my thoughts from it. Sometimes I try my best to wait, but that bing is usually followed by another and another and, before I know it, I’m on my feet to cross the room and check my phone.

So, in a way, it does feel as if the “red dots” are taking over my life. Both my school and social life are tied to social media, especially Facebook. Upon my arrival at Emerson, I remember my orientation leaders mentioning that Facebook groups were “the heart of Emerson culture.” At the time I didn’t fully comprehend it, but now I do. Currently, I’m in more than 20 Facebook groups associated with Emerson, but I only participate in a third of them.

After my first Screen Time report, I started trying different strategies to reduce my urge to constantly check my phone. I make note of apps unnecessarily taking up a lot of my time. I have unsubscribed from mailing lists, and I’ve limited notifications to only my most used apps. I haven’t implemented time limits yet, but in the past weeks I’ve noticed my overall screen time decreasing. When on a deadline, I put my phone on vibrate, hide it far from my reach, and notify people that I won’t be available for a few hours.

I realize I am terrible at multitasking. I can’t focus on a task while scrolling through notifications on my phone. But I’m improving. I’m keeping track of how much time I spend on social media, and I’m more careful about constantly being on my phone. I finish a task before responding to anything or anyone. As a result, the notifications that do require my attention are less overwhelming. Although the notion of completely disconnecting is unrealistic, limiting my time on my phone is one step toward improving my mental health.