I'll admit it: I check my smartphone compulsively. And the more I use it, the more often the urge to look at it hits me.
In the orthodontist's office. Walking my kids to school. In meetings. Even while making breakfast. Sometimes it is in my hand before I even know what I'm searching for. Sometimes I tap the screen absent mindedly -- looking at my email, a local blogger, my calendar, and Twitter.
I'm not the only one struggling with this very modern compulsion. According to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center, 46% of all American adults now own a smartphone -- up a whopping 25% from 2011.
And smartphone use can get very heavy. In a study of 1,600 managers and professionals, Leslie Perlow, PhD, the Konosuke Matsushita professor of leadership at the Harvard Business School, found that:
- 70% said they check their smartphone within an hour of getting up.
- 56% check their phone within an hour of going to sleep.
- 48% check over the weekend, including on Friday and Saturday nights.
- 51% check continuously during vacation.
- 44% said they would experience "a great deal of anxiety" if they lost their phone and couldn't replace it for a week.
"The amount of time that people are spending with the new technology, the apparent preoccupation, raises the question 'why?'" says Peter DeLisi, academic dean of the information technology leadership program at Santa Clara University in California. "When you start seeing that people have to text when they're driving, even though they clearly know that they're endangering their lives and the lives of others, we really have to ask what is so compelling about this new medium?"
Hook or Habit?
Whether smartphones really "hook" users into dependency remains unclear.
But "we already know that the Internet and certain forms of computer use are addictive," says David Greenfield, PhD, a West Hartford, Conn., psychologist and author of Virtual Addiction: Help for Netheads, Cyber Freaks, and Those Who Love Them.
"And while we're not seeing actual smartphone addictions now," Greenfield says, "the potential is certainly there."
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 their 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.
"The smartphone, through its small size, ease of use, proliferation of free or cheap apps, and constant connectivity, changes our relationship with computers in a way that goes well beyond what we experienced with laptops," he says. That's because people keep their smartphones near them "from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to bed, and throughout that time the devices provide an almost continuous stream of messages and alerts as well as easy access to a myriad of compelling information sources.
"By design," he says, "it's an environment of almost constant interruptions and distractions. The smartphone, more than any other gadget, steals from us the opportunity to maintain our attention, to engage in contemplation and reflection, or even to be alone with our thoughts."
Carr, who writes extensively in The Shallows about the way that computer technology in general may be diminishing our ability to concentrate and think deeply, does not have a smartphone.
"One thing my research made clear is that human beings have a deep, primitive desire to know everything that's going on around them," he says.
"That instinct probably helped us survive when we were cavemen and cavewomen. I'm sure one of the main reasons people tend to be so compulsive in their use of smartphones is that they can't stand the idea that there may be a new bit of information out there that they haven't seen. I know that I'm not strong enough to resist that temptation, so I've decided to shun the device altogether."
Managing Your Smartphone Use
Can't give up your phone altogether? Experts suggest these steps to control your usage:
- Be conscious of the situations and emotions that make you want to check your phone. Is it boredom? Loneliness? Anxiety? Maybe something else would soothe you.
- Be strong when your phone beeps or rings. You don't always have to answer it. In fact, you can avoid temptation by turning off the alert signals.
- Be disciplined about not using your device in certain situations (such as when you're with children, driving, or in a meeting) or at certain hours ( for instance, between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.). "You'll be surprised and pleased to rediscover the pleasures of being in control of your attention," Carr says.
One group of business people at The Boston Group, a consulting firm, discovered just that when they participated in an experiment run by Perlow.
As described in her book, Sleeping with Your Smartphone, the group found that taking regular "predictable time off" (PTO) from their PDAs resulted in increased efficiency and collaboration, heightened job satisfaction, and better work-life balance.
Four years after her initial experiment, Perlow reports, 86% of the consulting staff in the firm's Northeast offices -- including Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. -- were on teams engaged in similar PTO experiments.
To manage my own smartphone well, more smartly, I weaned myself away from it.
I started by not checking it for 15 minutes at a time, then 30, then 60 (unless I was dealing with an urgent situation).
I decided to avoid using the web browser on the smartphone unless I truly needed information (such as an address or phone number).
And I swore off using social media on it entirely. I also made a firm commitment to not text, email, or surf the web on my smartphone while driving.
The result? Even after a few days of this self-discipline, I found that I was concentrating better, more aware of my surroundings, and more relaxed -- and I was more aware of when I was looking for something specific, as opposed to just looking for some kind of connection.