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Are You Addicted To Your Smartphone?

Published: July 30, 2011

We’ve all been there. You are having dinner with a friend, engaged in what you feel is a compelling conversation. You feel the vibration on the table as your friend’s phone receives a text. Without a second thought she picks up the phone mid sentence, and furtively glances at it while pretending to stow it away. As the conversation goes on, you can’t help but be annoyed by her incessant glances down at her lap, constat distraction, and “what were you saying?” statements. Whether it is text messages, emails, Twitter or Facebook, we all have friends whose obsession with checking their smartphone is getting on our last nerve. If you don’t have any friends like this, then perhaps you need to take a look at your own smartphone checking habits.

We are becoming a nation obsessed, or rather possessed, by our smartphones. This overwhelmingly obvious conclusion has recently been quantified by a study in the Journal of Personal and Ubiquitous Computing.

The study authors found that habitual smartphone users develop what they have termed as “checking habits.” These habits generally consist of checking one’s phone for less that 30 seconds at a time, in approximately 10 minute intervals. The study noted that the subjects checked their phones, on average, 34 times per day. Researchers determined that these “checking habits” were compulsory, with participants checking their phones unconsciously, rather than out of necessity.

Loren Frank, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, breaks down this unconscious compulsion.

Consider the act of receiving an email, text message, or Facebook notification. In general, it conveys a sense of self importance, and feels good. Our brains then begin to associate the act of checking our email, with the rewarding pleasurable sensation of receiving an e-mail. The distinction between checking our phones for messages, and actually receiving the messages is lost, super ceded by the occasional reward of an actual text or email.

I am reminded of a study done in rats where they were rewarded with an injection of cocaine whenever they pushed a lever in their cage. As the researchers scaled back the frequency with which the cocaine was delivered, the rats didn’t scale back their pushing of the lever. In fact, the rats became so addicted to the pleasurable reward of cocaine that they would continually press the lever despite the fact that no cocaine would be injected to their systems. The act of pressing the lever had been associated with the pleasurable response, and the rats became compulsive about pushing the lever.

Its funny how, despite our incredible advances in technology, we can’t seem to escape our basic biology.

Of course, habitual phone checking isn’t as inherently dangerous as habitual cocaine usage, but is does have some negative effects.

In addition to annoying our friends, Dr. Adam Gazzley of UCSF reminds us that whenever we (consciously or unconsciously) divert our attention away from our task at hand to check our smartphone, our concentration suffers. While some people might consider themselves multitasking professionals, studies have shown that multitasking WILL affect a person’s efficiency and performance, no matter how well practiced they might be.

Elizabeth Cohen, Senior Medical Correspondent for CNN, lays out some self checks that you can make on yourself, to see if you might fall into the category of a “habitual checker.”

How to know if you are a habitual checker:

1. You check your e-mail more than you need to.

Sometimes you’re in the middle of an intense project at work and you really do need to check your e-mail constantly. But be honest with yourself — if that’s not the case, your constant checking might be a habit, not a conscious choice.

2. You’re annoying other people.

If you’re ticking off the people closest to you, it’s time to take a look at your smartphone habits.
“If you hear ‘put the phone away’ more than once a day, you probably have a problem,” says Lisa Merlo, a psychologist at the University of Florida.

3. The thought of not checking makes you break out in a cold sweat.

Try this experiment: Put your phone away for an hour. If you get itchy during that time, you might be a habitual checker.

In addition, Cohen lays out the foundation of some steps with which a person might take, in order to find a bit of balance in their lives when it comes to their Smartphone usage. The first step, according to Cohen, is to admit you have a problem. I think that this is important for people to realize. Some people might actually think that habitually checking their smartphone is helping them excel at their job, or be the most popular person on Facebook. Realistically, you are only hurting yourself. Online friends can never be a replacement for face time with real people. Constantly checking your social network while simultaneously annoying your actual friends might end up significantly damaging the relationships that matter. In addition, overworking yourself by constantly checking you email could lead to a whole host of stress-related ailments. In fact, exposure to bright lights (such as those from your smartphone) in the late evening can lead to restlessness and insomnia, and sleep-deprivation can significantly harm your work performance. So while you may think that continually being on your phone might lead to personal and professional success, you are really just sabotaging yourself for short term gratification.