mental health

Could ‘Do Not Disturb’ Mode Help Cure Our Anxiety?

By cutting off the constant buzz, many are creating healthier relationships with their phones.

by Douglas Greenwood
20 October 2019, 8:00am

Image via Getty Images

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

Every day, there’s a constant barrage of information that filters through our phones. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, email, Snapchat and WhatsApp group chat notifications never seem to stop, meaning we spend much of our time either trying to shut our phones up, or keeping on top of the endless conversations they draw us into. Unsurprisingly, the constant feedback loop is stressing us out.

Studies conducted in schools in America point to an epidemic of notification-based anxiety for teenagers today. One teacher in South Carolina reported that one of her pupils received almost 150 Snapchat notifications in the space of an hour. It’s no wonder people get addicted to them, though. A Harvard study into the relationship between dopamine and smartphone use: “Smartphones have provided us with a virtually unlimited supply of social stimuli, both positive and negative,” its author Trevor Haynes says. “Every notification, whether it’s a text message, a 'like' on Instagram or a Facebook notification, has the potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx.”

Without fine-tuning which of these notifications make it to our lock screens or not (FOMO has taught us that’s a bad idea anyway), we’re yet to find a proper way of establishing the difference in urgency of a friend in need from the mundanity of a Snapchat selfie -- everything seems to get the same two-buzz treatment. So where does it stop? And how do we find a way to ensure our phones don’t stage a full-blown assault on our senses forever by coercively giving us a dose of dopamine every time they go off?

More and more of us are -- by necessity -- embracing Do Not Disturb, the feature that rejects all phone calls and turns all notifications to silent, essentially reducing the pang of anxiety that stems from those buzzes. It was originally introduced by Apple on the iPhone back in 2012 as part of an update for iOS 6. Its intended use is for nighttimes only: a way of keeping your phone on without a call or text message waking you up. But an increasing number of young people are starting to keep it on throughout the day as a way of weaning themselves off of technology, spending more time in the real world.

"The frequent pings and vibrations from our phones cause disruptions by demanding our attention. This can interfere with our ability to focus on getting our work done, and also disrupt our ability to interact in a social situation. This can make us less productive and more stressed.”

23-year-old Liz has been an on-and-off DND user for much of 2019, but a few weeks ago she officially switched it on for good. “Seeing the little crescent moon in the top right of my phone screen is so normal now that it’d be really weird if it turned off,” she tells i-D. “It was the bombardment of notifications [that got to me].” In some cases, she’s turned off notifications altogether. “Being in lots of group chats -- especially the work ones -- gave me so much anxiety. Even when I was at home after finishing work, I’d still receive 30+ WhatsApp messages for hours. It just made it hard to switch off.”

24-year-old Scott from Larkhall, just outside Glasgow, has had the same experience with his phone. He decided to turn his phone onto Do Not Disturb and hasn’t looked back since. “I was in quite a bad place mentally,” he says. “I knew I needed to take control of many areas of my life and my phone was a big part. It demands you to look at it.”

The issues with us obsessing over notifications is, right now, two-fold: “The frequent pings and vibrations from our phones cause disruptions by demanding our attention,” Anna Cox, a professor of Human-Computer Interaction at UCL tells i-D. “This can interfere with our ability to focus on getting our work done, and also disrupt our ability to interact in a social situation. This can make us less productive and more stressed.” Anna also points out something interesting: that our addiction to interaction through our phones means that, even with notifications turned off, we’re still struggling to wean ourselves off of our phones. “Even when we turn off notifications, people frequently self-interrupt their work,” she says. “Switching off your notifications can reduce the number of times you pick up your phone and disrupt your work.”

Still, as a temporary solution or a stepping stone to lowering your screen time, young people we’ve spoken to can testify to DND’s mind-calming powers. “I have anxiety and it’s really helped me,” Liz insists, “especially when your mind’s already working so fast all the time. I can control what I can respond to.” Scott, who's still in the early stages of using it, agrees. “[Our phones have] become such integral parts of our lives nowadays, people aren’t aware that you can actually switch off from it all, and do what you want,” he says. “I would always reply instantly because I was told I had something to reply to, whereas now, I can be doing something and forget about my phone because it doesn’t light up or vibrate, and then I go to it in my own time. That’s had quite a profound effect on my mental health.”

Even in small doses it helps. Jason is a DJ in New York City. He’s opted to keep his Do Not Disturb function on from the moment he goes to sleep until he leaves home the next day. Instead of being bombarded by texts and emails in his downtime, he starts the day in a calmer space. “I’m typically an over-thinker and get wrapped up in random or negative thoughts based on social media,” he says. “That potentially affects my anxiety -- especially right before bed or when waking up to start the day.”

The biggest thing stopping us from all plunging into the world of Do Not Disturb full-time is a fear of missing something important, but if you try it out -- say, for 24-hours or so -- you’ll soon realise that the things you once considered unmissable can pass you by with few real life repercussions. Our relationships hinge on being accessible and open, and with read receipts and little green dots confirming that we’re ‘online’ hanging over us, it almost feels like we have an obligation to respond to anyone who makes contact within a specific and tight timeframe. But the power of shutting off your phone’s flashy attention-seeking traits is underrated, and we wholeheartedly recommend that you try it. When that double buzz disappears, the dopamine rush is attached to something more meaningful instead.