I listened to a wife complain that she felt unimportant. Her husband was inattentive and a poor listener. He was addicted to his phone, causing him to be distracted when she talked or shared activities such as a meal. He admitted that he spent an inordinate amount of time on his cell phone which he used to connect with others who shared his hobby. As they talked, I had to admit that my own smartphone use has become excessive. I’m not alone in my dependence on texting, emailing, gaming, and facebook or other social media use. Is it an addiction?
Excessive and problematic smartphone use is not officially an addiction. It is not listed in the DSM 5 alongside gambling and substance use disorders. But it has some properties of an addiction. The hallmarks of addiction are an inability to stop once you start, and continued use in spite of negative consequences. Many people either can’t put them down or frequently check updates. They may suffer negative consequences such as relationship or work productivity problems.
Other criteria for addiction which could be applied to smartphones are excessive amounts of time and energy spent in the endeavor; socially inappropriate or physically dangerous use (such as texting while driving); the use disrupts relationships; and they suffer symptoms of withdrawal such as distress in its absence. In the extreme, these indicate a problem.
So why are we hooked? Smartphone use alters our mood and creates enjoyable feelings. We never know when we’ll get an important email, or a facebook response, or whether it’s our turn to make a scrabble play, therefore, we keep checking. The uncertainty of a reward (pleasurable feeling) keeps us hooked. We are continuously rewarded by these feelings which reinforce our behavior. And environmental triggers such as boredom cause us to stay engaged. These things create a compulsion to use our smartphones.
We pay a cost for this compulsion. It creates short attention spans and it diminishes our ability to think deeply. So what should we do? Turn off the alerts and sounds in order to avoid becoming a Pavlov’s dog who unconsciously salivates at the bell. We don’t have to respond to every notice of a new email or text. Limit the hours of use, such as just prior to work or immediately after. Turn it off during certain activities such as driving, eating a meal or while in the presence of others. Gradually wean yourself off the phone – don’t allow yourself access to the phone for 15 minutes, then 30 minutes, then one hour, increasing the length of time. You might find that your concentration is improved, you feel more relaxed and you are more productive. These become your new rewards.