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Your (not so) Healthy Smartphone Addiction

Thursday, May 5, 2016

I have a love hate relationship with my smartphone.  Love that I can facetime or skype my adult children who live out of state.  Love that I can text my hubby a simple question or “I love you” message in the middle of the day.  Love the maps, weather, and camera apps.  BUT… Hate that I check my email way too often.  Hate that I waste time on Facebook (even when I have pledged not to look at it for a week).  Hate that I sometimes feel like a Pavlovian dog, trained to check my phone the second the little bell goes off.   I am not alone in my misgivings with the wonderful world of technology.  Who could have imagined 20 years ago, that technology would be such a blessing and curse all in one package.   It provides a world of information and communication at our finger tips; however, it can also produce anxiety, angst, and addiction.  Researchers are now delving deep into the use of smartphones, the effects, and possible ramifications for the human race.  

This research is timely as the use of smartphones and our desire to be with them has sky rocketed in just the past few years.  According to the Pew Research Center:

68% of U.S. adults have a smartphone, up from 35% in 2011.  

86% of those ages 18-29 have a smartphone, as do 83% of those ages 30-49 and 87% of those living in households earning $75,000 and up annually.

67% of users check their smartphone for calls, text messages, and social media activity even when the phone is not ringing.

44% of smartphone owners sleep with their phones next to their bed to make sure they don’t miss any text messages, calls, or social media alerts.

29% of users admit that they cannot imagine their lives without smartphones.  

These statistics are particularly relevant for the millennials.  Pew reports younger adults are constantly connected: Fully 36% of 18- to 29-year-olds go online (via smartphones) almost constantly and 50% go online multiple times per day. And many suffer from FoMO, that is Fear of Missing Out – a psychological effect now being studied here in the states and across the pond. FoMO produces anxiety and can lead to addiction and other serious psychological problems.

Email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Candy Crush, Skype, and other sites, make smartphone use very attractive.  But as your mama said, there can be too much of a good thing.  Researchers in the U.S. and U.K. have now published several studies showing the addictive qualities of smartphone use and the detrimental psychological effects.  Dr. Saheer Hussain from the University of Derby co-authored a study that looked at smartphone addiction and its related psychological characteristics.  The study revealed that 13% of participants were classified as being addicted, with the average user spending 3.6 hours per day on the device.   Dr. Hussain explains, “Higher scores of narcissism (excessive interest or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance) and levels of neuroticism (negative personality traits including moodiness, jealousy, envy, and loneliness) were linked to smartphone addiction.”  

But much like not everyone who drinks alcohol becomes an alcoholic, not everyone who uses a smartphone will become addicted.  The majority of people, however, do report that mobile devices are affecting their relationships. Pew Research Center cites 89% said they used their phone during their most recent time with others, and 86% report that someone else in the group used their cellphone during the gathering.  As a result, 82% of adults say that when people use their phones in these settings it hurts the conversation.  Calls, texts, and social media alerts obviously divert your attention away from the live human being sitting in front of you.  The intended or unintended message is – well, you are not as important as this call (text, alert).  A 2012 University of Essex study found evidence that mobile phones have negative effects on closeness, connection, and conversation quality.  The researchers found that “the mere presence of mobile phones inhibited the development of interpersonal closeness and trust, and reduced the extent to which individuals felt empathy and understanding from their partners.”  Bottom line, just having a cell phone sitting next to your dinner plate sends a message and actually affects your ability to effectively listen and care for the person you are with.

The research on phone use, psychological well-being, and interpersonal relationships is relatively new.  The overwhelming evidence, however, indicates that excessive use is not healthy.  Recommendations from researchers vary from suggesting a warning a label on cell phones to simple calls for limitations and restraint.   Psychcentral.com and Psychology Today offer the following advice:

Create special no-phone zones.  Disallow smartphone use in certain rooms such as the kitchen, bedroom, or dining room.

Set special times for smartphone use.  For children and teens, institute certain times for phone use, such as two hours after school. For adults, create a shut down time.

Reclaim family time.  No smartphones at the table should be the rule for mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, and kiddos alike.  This includes silent mode and “I am just going to check it real quick.”  Family dinners, birthdays, and holidays should be smartphone free, with perhaps the exception of taking a few pics. Enjoy the people in front of you.

No driving or texting.  According to the a May 2015 National Safety Council Report, cell-phone related crashes have increased for the third straight year and now account for 27% of all crashes.  NYS law dictates no texting and driving.

Try a technology fast.  Go for a day or more without a computer, tablet, or phone.

Put your phone away at night.  Place your phone at least 15 feet away from you when you sleep (even if you use it as your wake up alarm).

Block off times for real, in front of your face people.  Schedule in time every day to spend with people free from technology.  This might be going for a cellphone free walk with a friend, working out without being plugged in, or playing a board game and leaving the smartphone in another room.  

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at Noyes Health in Dansville.  If you have questions or suggestions for future articles she can be reached at lwichtowski@noyeshealth.org or 585-335-4327.  

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