This story is part of the series smart life
How to silence your phone's noisy, unrelenting alerts
A recent study shows there are tangible negative impacts of having your phone notifications on all the time. Sometimes silence is golden. USA TODAY
Does your laptop, smartphone or tablet ding, buzz, vibrate, click or whistle every time you get an IM, email, news alert, Facebook message, etc.? Are there any other humans around you? If so: Do us all a favor and TURN YOUR NOTIFICATIONS OFF.
Yes, I’m yelling.
A few weeks ago, I was on a flight from California to New York. Middle seat. Packed plane. The minute Wi-Fi was enabled, the man sitting next to me started getting notifications from his instant messenger, or IM.
I was on deadline, cranking to finish a story in the 11th hour. I had my best high-tech ear plugs in, and my neighbor's notifications still drove me crazy. It dinged like a front counter bell (you know those really loud ones meant to get immediate attention?) every few seconds. I had a similar situation happen with a young person working with me in an open office area recently, too. I mentioned that it was really distracting. She said she didn't even notice it — though I saw that it constantly broke her concentration and that she looked at her smartphone every time anything flashed/buzzed on it.
I wondered then and I still wonder now — am I being too sensitive? Should I say something or sit seething in the ding-ping-buzz interrupted silence? Is this a generational thing? “Etiquette is always generational,” Dr. Sherry Pagoto says. She’s a licensed clinical psychologist, professor, and founder of the UMass Center for mHealth and Social Media. “While a person over 25 years old may find it rude that a companion is checking notifications in their presence, a person under 25 years old might not at all.”
Whether it’s generally “okay” to be checking the constant flood of beeps and buzzes also depends greatly on the setting. A Pew Research study showed that nearly 80% of U.S. adults are totally fine with someone being glued to their phone while walking down the street (wait — really?), but it’s not okay in other situations. At a restaurant, for example, just 38% of people are okay with your phone making a noise, and just 5% think it’s appropriate to be checking your phone during meetings, at a movie theater, or any other place where most abide by “quiet” rules.
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But so what, right? Is the mild inconvenience of hearing smartphone pings really hurting anything?
It turns out that it's more than just annoying to everyone within earshot — it can have a serious impact on productivity. Another study published by the American Psychological Association showed that even just the sound of a notification, or the dull buzz of a vibrating smartphone alert, has a huge negative impact on your performance and concentration throughout the day. “Technology has produced so many novel ways of communicating so quickly we haven’t quite had time to figure out how best to manage it. We are in this period where we are bombarded by communications and information,” Pagoto adds.
Okay, back to my struggle with deciding whether or not to say something to that stranger on the plane, whose gadget sounds were driving me bonkers. Was I being too sensitive? How could I say something without sounding hostile or angry?
“If seated on an airplane next to someone receiving messages with the resulting – and irritating – notifications, I would [tell them] that all those multi-note beeps are beginning to drive me crazy,” says Rebecca Black, etiquette guru and Principal of Etiquette Now in California. “Me being me, I would follow with a joke about that trip to crazy town as a short one. Most often, my fellow row mate would laugh, apologize and turn off his/her notifications.”
Black says that bringing the issue up in a lighthearted fashion often produces the best results, even if your first instinct is to scream for silence at the top of your lungs. “Even though others’ phone notifications/ringtones can, and often do, attract our attention in a negative fashion, it would be ill-mannered to attempt to demand silence,” Black advises. “Verbally blaming others for their noise pollution is counterproductive. Whereas owning our feelings and sharing them with that offender is better received.”
Oh boy. That sounds so...mature. Can I do that in real life? I never said anything to that man on the plane. And to my colleague? She agreed to turn turn all of her notifications off at the office. I’ve also discovered that sometimes, people don’t know how to turn off the many sounds that are on their gadgets by default. (Ahem, Mom…)
On iPhones and iPads, go into your Settings, scroll down and tap “Notifications.” There, you should see a list of all of the noisy offenders, including Calendar, Facebook, Games, Mail, Messages, and every other potentially annoying distraction. The only default to turn them all off at once is to enable “Do Not Disturb.” Otherwise, you have to go through one by one and turn off Allow Notifications and make sure the Sounds switch is off too.
Wrestling your notification settings on Android can be slightly different depending on your device, but for the vast majority of them, it’s a similar process. Start by heading into your Settings app and tapping Notifications there too (might be called Sound and notification). You should see a list of your apps, and you can manage the alert settings for each app by tapping on them, the same way you do for iOS. You have the option of blocking all notifications, or showing them silently. Both are great for curbing endless beeps and boops.
In the end, we all have to consider that sometimes we’re the culprit behind the digital noise-pollution too. I can’t imagine that you might not like my Bob Marley inspired ringtone, “Don’t worry, ‘bout a thing…‘cause everything little thing, is gonna be alright...” (Ironic, I know.) But if that ringtone makes you want to scratch your ears off, I hope you’ll say something to me about it. Politely, of course.
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech contributor and host of USA TODAY's digital video show TECH NOW. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferJolly.