In his poem The Age of Anxiety, W. H. Auden narrates a long and meandering conversation between four strangers in a New York bar, set against a world in change. Not a lot really happens, but the title itself has been borrowed and reused time and time again because, no matter the decade, it's always felt fitting. So I won't call 2018 the age of anxiety; it's our age of anxiety, attended by different fears, angsts and concerns than those surrounding Auden in 1947. One of which is an increasingly unhealthy relationship with technology and the internet, which I think we're only just starting to understand.
I've covered wearable technology for several years now, and as much as the landscape has changed, the "wearables are doomed" thinkpieces have continued as sure as clockwork. I'm sure they'll endure a while longer, yet as these devices have become more capable as health and fitness trackers, wearables have found an undeniable stickiness.
But lately I've been considering the less positive relationship between wearables - specifically smartwatches - and my mental health. As we've begun to grapple with the negative effects of being perma-connected, wearable tech is playing a part. It's not that these tiny computers on our wrist are inherently anxiety-inducing, but they do offer another door to our increasingly connected world: tweets, texts, emails, Slack notifications, minute-by-minute updates from a ceaseless news cycle. And ah yes, the meme hunters are at it again, and you simply must see their latest creation. It's their best yet.
Without proper management, this portal can become toxic.
Part of the smartwatch sales pitch is that these devices can reduce the time we spend looking at our phones - "Be more present!" - but it's a strange notion. I can choose to not look at my phone, but the constant tap tap tapping on my wrist is inescapable. The world is no longer just at my fingertips, but strapped to my wrist, hounding me for my attention 24/7.
As we start to understand the negative health effects that smartphones are giving rise to, blame is being laid at the door of companies like Apple. We're all aware that we're tied to these devices round the clock, but we're only now starting to understand the ways techno-saturation is affecting our behaviors, our relationships, our mental health. Every time I meet friends for dinner, it's only seconds before smartphones are out of pockets and placed down; table stakes for the get-together. As I've been assessing my relationship with my gadgets, I've got into a habit of putting my phone face-down, on silent, whenever it's out in these types of situations - and it definitely keeps me from checking it as much.
In the same way that my eye will be drawn to my phone when the screen comes alive, feeling my watch vibrate will make me want to twist my wrist and check the latest update. When I don't - the tap, tap tapping keeps going - I start getting anxious about what's piling up. Whereas I can ignore my phone when the screen is turned away, it's much harder to do when I'm being harassed by endless physical nudges by a gadget so closely attached to me.
The phantom menace
Ever felt like you've heard your phone go off, but you really didn't? There's a word for this - "Ringxiety" - which was coined over a decade ago by psychologist David Laramie, who wanted a word to describe the phenomenon, having observed it in his own behavior. Do a search for "phantom taps" and "Apple Watch" and you'll see similar hallucinations among smartwatch users. I've experienced it myself. So I phoned up Laramie to ask him just how widespread these types of symptoms are among his patients.
Almost once a week one of my patients says 'I deleted a few apps and man, I feel better'
"I'm not a luddite," said Laramie. "I'm quite fond of technology myself and have a wearable, but it happens almost once a week that one of my patients in my therapy practice says 'I deleted a few apps' or 'I deleted a number of contacts from Facebook' or 'I removed some people from Instagram and man, I feel better'. Or 'I put the phone in the desk for the weekend and God, it was such a nice day'. It's really common that people say that, and it really is in my experience quite common. There's quite a bit of distress associated not just with social media but the always-on, always-connected nature of modern tech."
But as Laramie says, this is all more evolutionary than new. You can easily dig up literature from the 90s concerned with the web's impact on human behavior - a time when the internet's perimeter walls were more observable. "When I did my research in 2005, phones were still sort of dumb," said Laramie.
"And back then I found there were high rates of people being very connected to their phone, and there being some problematic aspects to that. So this necessity of the technology has just grown, and yeah there are side effects from that."
After speaking to Laramie I went and did what he suggested. I deleted about two thirds of the apps on my phone; I unfollowed a bunch of people on Twitter who I didn't know, but whose daily drama I somehow found myself engrossed in simply because it was there happening in front of me. I then sat down and went through the notification settings on my phone and smartwatch and asked myself, "What do I really need to know?". I had to be brutal.
My time using wearables is split mostly between the Apple Watch, Google's Wear OS and Fitbit's smartwatches, due to the nature of my job. Apple does a decent job of letting you filter notifications using the companion smartphone app. I knew there were some things I definitely wanted my Apple Watch to tell me about. Phone calls. Text messages. Calendar notifications (there have been enough occasions where my watch saved me from missing a meeting to justify keeping this one). But there are more things that I don't need. Instagram notifications. Facebook. A reminder to stand up once an hour (I actually turned this one off long ago).
To this day I'm certain anyone who has all their emails going to their smartwatch is a sadomasochist, so that's another app I've long had blocked. But I did stem the flow of news notifications popping up on my phone and blocked them from my watch outright. Yes, Time magazine, maybe baby boomers did break America - but it can wait. On the other hand, some features like breathing reminders could actually be helpful for people who suffer from anxiety or are more prone to stress.
I'm certain anyone who has their emails going to their smartwatch is a sadomasochist
The problem is that right now these controls aren't granular enough on any smartwatch. Take WhatsApp, which still doesn't have an official Apple Watch app, and simply mirrors your phone notifications. Anyone who's in a WhatsApp group will know that when the chat gets going, it gets going. At which point my wrist is endlessly vibrating as if I've just violated house arrest. I can mute WhatsApp conversations outright, but what if I only want to do so on my wrist? That's not an option, but in an ideal world I'd be able to filter what's going to the Watch and what isn't. Same for Facebook Messenger, another of my most-used apps.
The Wear OS approach is more heavy-handed; every app is allowed to send through every notification by default unless I block it outright. At least with watchOS I can customize this in some cases (specifying certain inboxes in Mail, for example) without changing what appears on my phone.
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One ostensibly minor but effective change I made on the Apple Watch was killing the little red dot that shows up at the top of the screen to tell me I have unread notifications. The notifications tray itself is still there, filling up with un-dismissed alerts throughout the day, but abolishing the dot removed a lingering reminder that I have business to attend to every time I check the watch face. If I didn't acknowledge it when I felt it, it can wait. Again, it's helped.
I made these changes a few weeks ago, and my smartwatch experience has been markedly better since. I have more control over what I'm seeing and less concern over buzzing notifications through the day.
They told us smartwatches would make us more present with the people around us, and I believe that is true to an extent, but only when we're exercising control over the relationship we have with these devices. Smartwatches aren't a complete cure for our smartphone anxieties, but with some finessing I think there's a healthy relationship to be had.