Our culture has changed immensely as a result of the smartphone. We can get reassurance for every doubt just by texting our friends. We can feel approval by getting “likes” on our Instagram post or Facebook status. But heavy reliance on devices is responsible for a shift in how we regulate our emotions. A byproduct of this instant communication is a diminished ability to sit with uncertainty.
Intolerance to uncertainty has been shown to underlie a range of psychological difficulties. Psychologists could consider a person’s over-reliance on their phones as a “safety seeking behaviour” which reduces anxiety in the moment. But over time, safety behaviours actually feed anxiety because they prevent people from realising their fear has no basis once the situation has actually unfolded, or that it is something they’re able to cope with.
This is particularly problematic for children whose ability to build resilience may be disrupted by such behaviours. Unfortunately some apps, such as Messenger or the “read” message setting of the iPhone, tell the sender whether the other person is online or has read their message.
We need to retrain ourselves, and our teenagers, to stand up to such clear manipulation of their FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and fear of rejection. Learning to face uncertainty is essential to managing our mental health.
Uncertainty is good for us
Research exploring groups of people with mental illness has documented individuals suffering from a range of mental illnesses are less able to sit with uncertainty compared to those who do not have these diagnoses. And the more a person is intolerant to uncertainty, the more they are likely to be diagnosed with a greater number of mental health conditions. This has been observed in adults. Our unpublished research has found the same association exists for children.
Gambling, app notifications and emojis play on this mechanism. Imagine the slight buzz you get when you receive a warm text from a friend you particularly like. Phone notifications take advantage of this sense of anticipation. They interfere with our concentration and pull our attention back to the device.
By contrast, uncertainty in areas of personal importance, such as being afraid that we might not keep a job, imagining that we are disliked by someone that we like, or fearing that we have failed an exam destabilises many of us. It leads to a desire to eliminate the uncertainty quickly, a second hook that can pull us back to leaning on the device. Smart phones and social media apps mean we can easily contact other people to obtain reassurance when facing a worrying situation instead of coping with it ourselves.
So when the situation unfolds, the person may believe some of their ability to cope was due to the reassurance they may have received, rather than developing self reliance. They also start to believe they “need” to have their phone with them to cope.
Being more comfortable with uncertainty improves a person’s ability to cope with worry and is closely associated with improvement for those experiencing anxiety. When treating anxiety, psychologists encourage clients to sit with not knowing the outcome of a particular situation and learning to wait to see if what they are afraid of will eventuate.
We ask clients to move towards embracing the situation in their normal lives without obtaining reassurance from their close friends and family. By sitting with uncertainty, a person gradually learns to distract themselves, let go of trying to control situations and realises they can survive the distress of “not knowing” in the situation.
It is normal for a person to experience some arousal when there is doubt around something important for them.
Using phones to push the worry onto another person prevents self management from occurring. Often, we don’t realise that after a little while (and sometimes a lot of distraction), the unpleasant feeling will go away. Keep in mind the old adage that “no news is good news” and resist the tendency to message first.
If something unpleasant happens, it is healthy to talk to someone and reflect on a situation that upsets us, especially if it is really important. However, to have this as the first option to manage every doubt is not healthy. Psychologists will tell you worry leads to more worry – and talking about a worry repeatedly does not alter the outcome.
Being able to wait and let go of the desire to control each situation is a major key to overcoming anxiety.
Helping children with uncertainty
And to help children build resilience, we need to show them we can sit with our own uncertainty. Have times when the phone is switched completely off during the day and evening. Leave it at home deliberately. Slowly build this up.
If you have a partner who doesn’t stop looking at their device, encourage them to join you. Set an example for new family habits when you visit others. Set up days for your children which are phone free. We all need to show ourselves that we are fine without our phones.
Dr Danielle Einstein is Director of Distinct Psychology. Danielle writes programs and conducts research into how dislike of uncertainty can be reduced and how self compassion can be increased to promote resilience in Years 7 to 9 of secondary school.