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Health & Balance

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Addicted to Your Smartphone? Here's What to Do

Why smartphones hook us in, plus tips on reclaiming your time and concentration.

Hook or Habit? continued...

A true addiction entails a growing tolerance to a substance (think drugs or alcohol) so you need more to get "high," uncomfortable symptoms during withdrawal, and a harmful impact on your life, Greenfield says.

Computer technologies can be addictive, he says, because they're "psychoactive." That is, they alter mood and often trigger enjoyable feelings.

Email, in particular, gives us satisfaction due to what psychologists call "variable ratio reinforcement." That is, we never know when we'll get a satisfying email, so we keep checking, over and over again. "It's like slot machines," Greenfield says. "We're seeking that pleasurable hit."

Smartphones, of course, allow us to seek rewards (including videos, Twitter feeds, and news updates, in addition to email) anytime and anywhere. Is such behavior unhealthy?

That really depends on whether it's disrupting your work or family life, Greenfield says.

Such a disruption could be small -- like ignoring your friend over lunch to post a Facebook status about how much you're enjoying lunch with your friend.

Or it could be big -- like tuning out an distressed spouse or colleagues in a meeting to check email, or feeling increasingly stressed by the fact that everyone else seems to be on call 24/7, so we perhaps we should be, too.

Other researchers are seeing clear signs of dysfunction, if not an "addiction."

According to a 2011 study published in the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, people aren't addicted to smartphones themselves as much as they are addicted to "checking habits" that develop with phone use -- including repeatedly (and very quickly) checking for news updates, emails, or social media connections.

That study found that certain environmental triggers -- like being bored or listening to a lecture -- trigger the habits. And while the average user checks his or her smartphone 35 times a day -- for about 30 seconds each time, when the information rewards are greater (e.g., having contact info linked to the contact's whereabouts), users check even more often.

The Interrupted Life

Besides creating a compulsion, smartphones pose other dangers to our mental life, says Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

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