There’s a good chance that, right now – this very minute – you’re within arm’s reach of your smartphone. Most of us never get too far away from our devices these days just in case it makes one of those little noises we’re all used to. You know the ones. They let us know that someone is trying to communicate with us either through a text message, an email, a notification or sometimes even an actual phone call. Still, a great many of us don’t wait for those sounds to appear. We check our phones frequently just to be sure we haven’t missed something. It’s a full-on compulsion for some people, and some studies suggest it’s an outright addiction that’s just as serious as addictions to drugs or alcohol.
Blount Memorial nephrologist Dr. Mohammad Shafi says one reason computer technologies are so addictive is because they’re psychoactive. “Computer technology has the power to alter our mood and often can trigger enjoyable feelings,” Shafi said. “Email, in particular, gives us satisfaction due to what psychologists call ‘variable ratio reinforcement.’ We never know when we'll get a satisfying email, so we keep checking, over and over again. Some equate this to playing a slot machine. We keep playing because we’re trying to get that pleasurable ‘hit,’” he explained. “The question is whether such behavior is unhealthy, and it really can be if it is disrupting your life, work or family relationships. Such a disruption may lead to ignoring your friends or your own family in favor of writing or reading a social media post,” he added.
“Many researchers are seeing clear signs of dysfunction, if not ‘addiction,’” Shafi explained. “According to a 2011 study published in the journal ‘Personal and Ubiquitous Computing,’ people aren't addicted to the smartphones themselves so much as they are addicted to ‘checking habits’ that develop with phone use, which can include repeatedly and rapidly checking for news updates, emails or social media connections. In a piece called ‘The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,’ author Nicholas Carr suggests smartphones pose dangers to our mental life beyond just creating a compulsion. He believes that, through its small size, its ease of use, the proliferation of free or cheap apps, and its ability to be constantly connected, the smartphone changes our relationship with computers in a way that goes well beyond what we experienced with laptops because people keep their smartphones near them from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to bed,” Shafi said. “Carr writes that smartphones ‘are a form of constant interruption and distraction, which steals from us the opportunity to maintain our attention, to engage in contemplation and reflection, or even to be alone with our thoughts.’ These days, people tend to be so compulsive in their use of smartphones that they can't stand the idea that there may be a new bit of information out there that they haven't seen. Their willpower is not strong enough to resist that temptation,” he added.
So, what can be done about smartphone addiction? Shafi suggests there are steps you can take to manage your phone-checking habits. “First, you want to be conscious of the situations and emotions that make you want to check your phone, and whether you’re checking it due to feelings of anxiety or loneliness,” Shafi said. “Also, try to be strong when your phone beeps or rings. You don’t always have to answer it right away. Try turning off some alerts to avoid the constant temptation to check your phone. Next, be disciplined about not using your device in certain situations, such as when you’re driving, in a meeting or with family. Try setting periods of time for yourself where you’re not checking emails or surfing the Internet,” he explained. “Maybe check your email only twice a day, instead of every five minutes. After a few days of self-discipline, you’ll find that you’re able to concentrate better, are less anxious and are more aware of your surroundings,” he added.