Call it dependency or a full-blown addiction, but how we're (over)using iPhones and smartphones is taking a serious psychological toll
We all know the girl who texts through dinner dates, compulsively checks Instagram to see what all her friends are eating at other restaurants, or ends every argument with a Google search—she's one of those people so tied to their cell phones that it's never out of arm's reach. But what if that friend is... you? Smartphone addiction may have sounded like a punchline at first, but experts caution it is a real and growing problem. In fact, nomophobia, or the fear of being without your mobile devices, is now recognized as a serious enough affliction to warrant checking into a rehab facility! (Find out How One Woman Overcame Her Exercise Addiction.)
One such place is reStart, an addiction recovery center in Redmond, WA, which offers a specialized treatment program for the mobile fixation, comparing smartphone addiction to compulsive shopping and other behavioral addictions. And they're not alone in their concern. A study out of Baylor University found that female college students spend an average of ten hours a day interacting with their cell phones—mainly surfing the internet and sending 100-plus texts a day. That's also far more time than they reported spending with friends. Even more startling, 60 percent of people surveyed confessed to feeling addicted to their devices.
"That's astounding," said lead researcher James Roberts, Ph.D. "As cellphone functions increase, addictions to this seemingly indispensable piece of technology becomes an increasingly realistic possibility."
The reason that smartphones are so addicting is because they trigger the release of serotonin and dopamine—the "feel good chemicals" in our brains—providing instant gratification just like addictive substances do, says therapist and addiction expert Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D. (Put down the phone and try The 10 Habits of Happy People instead.)
And he says that this particular type of addiction can be a sign of deeper problems. "Obsessive and compulsive smartphone use is a symptom of underlying behavioral health and personality issues," he explains. "What happens is that people who are suffering from issues like depression, anxiety, trauma, and socially-challenging personalities self-medicate by reaching for things outside of themselves to manage their internal discomfort. Because technology plays such an integral part of our lives, smartphones easily become their object of choice."
But what appears to be a solution at first actually amplifies their problems in the long run. "They choose reaching for their phones over healing connections with important people," Hokemeyer explains. Doing so, though, can hurt your career and personal life, not to mention cause you to miss out on all the fun things happening in real life. (Find out how Your Cell Phone Is Ruining Your Downtime.)
Love your phone but not sure if the relationship is actually unhealthy? If you feel happier when you're typing and swiping (or completely freak out if it's not near you), use it for hours at a time, are checking it at inappropriate times (like while you're driving or in a meeting), miss work or social obligations because you're lost in your digital world, or if important people in your life have complained about your phone use, then Hokemeyer says your interest might actually be a clinical addiction.
"If you think you have an issue, there's a high probability that you do," he explains. "Addictive behaviors are shrouded in a host of intellectual and emotional defense mechanisms that tell us nothing is wrong and that our use is no big deal." But if it's interfering with your life then it is definitely a big deal.
Thankfully, Hokemeyer doesn't recommend checking yourself straight into rehab (yet). Instead, he advises setting up some rules for your phone use. First, set clear and firm boundaries by turning off your phone (actually off! not just out of arm's reach) at a predetermined time each night until a set time in the morning (he recommends starting with 11 p.m. and 8 a.m.). Next, keep a log where you track the amount of time you spend on your phone or tablet to help you face reality. Then, set an alarm to remind yourself to put it down for 15 to 30 minutes at a time every few hours. Lastly, he recommends developing a consciousness around your thoughts and feelings. Pay attention to your primary emotions and note how you choose to escape them or deal with them. (Also, try these 8 Steps for Doing a Digital Detox Without FOMO.)
Being addicted to your smartphone may sound silly, but phones are a basic necessity these days—so we all need to learn how to use them effectively without letting them take over our lives. "Smartphones can be the ultimate frenemy," Hokemeyer says, adding that we need to deal with them the same way we'd deal with a friend who doesn't always have our best interests at heart: by setting firm boundaries, exhibiting patience, and not letting them make us forget what truly matters most to us.