We keep our friends close, but our phones closer. 71% of American adults sleep with or next to their smartphones at night. We are constantly “on.” Constantly connected. It sometimes feels as though we are required to be reachable. 45% of teens reported that they are almost constantly online and 62% of millennials spend six or more hours on a smartphone per day. Even though smartphones did not become the norm until about 2012 (when smartphone sales exceeded “dumb phone” sales in the U.S.), they have impacted our lives in a big way. Less than a decade later, we are now living in an age where our day-to-day lives consist of overconsumption and Nomophobia. We have habituated ourselves to our digital devices, especially our smartphones. Many of the daily tasks we perform rely on them, and many of the conveniences we have grown accustomed to would not exist without them.
Although smartphones can be seen as providing a net good, there exist potential ramifications of our dependency on these digital devices. The findings of a study conducted in 2017 suggest that “users perceive smartphones as their extended selves and get attached to the devices.” It is as if losing our phones is tantamount to losing a limb. The term nomophobia perfectly sums it up: the fear of being without a smartphone and the feelings of anxiety that come with not knowing where your phone is. As smartphone penetration continues to rise, its accompanying potential public health problems lie no further than the horizon.
When processed foods (e.g. TV dinners) were first introduced in the United States, the major selling point was that it’ll save people (primarily housewives) time… and time it does save. Processed foods are quick, easy, and convenient. They satisfy all sorts of cravings — from midnight snacks to quick dinners after a long day at work. They’re also ubiquitous. Sound familiar? Both the smartphone and junk food have improved our quality of life in certain aspects. Both can be enjoyable and helpful in reasonable doses. Both can easily be over-consumed. In fact, our smartphones are designed not unlike our snacks to leave us craving more. The nascent stages of the above research shows there are negative effects that come from smartphone overuse. If over-consumption of processed foods have been linked to high rates of obesity, diabetes, other diseases, and increases the risk of cancer, what’s to say about smartphone overuse?
Text-Neck, FOMO, and Less Sex
Most of us – whether we are conscious of it or not, whether we want to admit it or not – are constantly check our phones just for the sake of checking it. To be exact, most people check their phone about every 15 minutes, even if they have no notifications or alerts, according to Larry Rosen, author of The Distracted Mind. When we don’t check it as often as we think we should, we start feeling FOMO – the “fear of missing out.” Rosen’s research has shown that people’s levels of anxiety increase from the FOMO. As a result, the compulsion to constantly check-in interferes with their ability to focus. Furthermore, another shows that it takes an average 23 minutes for someone to get back on task after getting distracted. Even a quick peek at newest Instagram comments will lose you almost half an hour of productivity, if not more, by the time you get back to up what you were doing prior.
Addiction doesn’t discriminate, but it does compound. Gen-Z, people born between 1995-2010, is the generation most at risk for becoming addicted to digital devices, i.e. developing an unhealthy relationship on them. They grew up as digital natives, surrounded by technology, at a very young age. As toddlers, many are given tablets. In one study, researchers found that by age two, 90% of children have “moderate ability” to use tablets. By the time they reach middle school, having a smartphone is practically a given. In Pew Research’s 2018 Teens, Social Media, and Technology report, they found that “smartphone ownership is nearly universal among teens of different genders, races and ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
In Jean Twenge’s 2017 book, iGen, investigations among the linkage of smartphone usage, social media, and teens’ monumental shift in attitudes and behaviors are explored. Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011 and Twenge believes that “it’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades.” Her research uncovers the change in teens can be vastly prescribed to the smartphone. For example, teens are now less likely to hang out with friends and they are also less likely to have a part-time job. Across a range of other behaviors – drinking, dating, having sex – 18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-olds used to, and 15-year-olds more like 13-year-olds. Smartphones seem to retrogress our youth. How will this manifest in adulthood?
Overuse of a smartphone has been linked to numerous physical and mental issues. It may even affect your social life and relationships with the ones around you. (See above.) Some of the side effects are manifest in almost instantaneously, while others at a more insidious rate. Physical side effects include text-neck, strained eyes, increased risk for carpal tunnel, text claw, or weight gain due to being sedentary and ultimately less active. Psychological side effects include anxiety, depression, inability to focus, sleep disorders developed from blue light exposure, or stress. In one study, young adults experienced withdrawal-like symptoms. During a study where subjects were completing two word search puzzles, their heart rates increased when forbidden to answer their ringing cell phones. The same participants also self-reported feelings of anxiety and unpleasantness. Even though smartphone addiction is not an officially accepted condition or disorder, preliminary research and studies have resulted in findings that suggest it should be.
Social Media: The Base of the Iceberg
Smartphone addiction is a blanket statement for what is really drawing us in. Although the devices are what people hold so near and dear, it’s actually the apps within the smartphone that makes them so addictive. Social media apps in particular are highly addictive due to the way they were intentionally designed. In recent months, tech titans such as Facebook and Google have come under fire for building products that seek to change user behavior by tapping into deep-seated human needs. Design features such as “endless scroll” and the “like” button are all meant to keep users constantly seeking for more. You are drawn into a “ludic loop” – repeated cycles of uncertainty, anticipation, or feedback. Variable rewards such as the notifications and “likes” have no predetermined schedule so you desire to frequently go back and check to see if something new has happened. When you see that new comment or “like,” your brain gets a shot of dopamine. The action of checking your phone for new notifications rewards you with satisfaction and reassurance. Jaron Lanier, a technologist credited with creating virtual reality, has said that what may have started out as “cute” evolved into “behavioral modification.”
Pull to Refresh: Changing Your Brain
The behavior that these social media apps have instilled in us is often compared to gambling. Gambling is so addictive because it alters the reward circuitry in your brain. In the beginning, you’re constantly getting hit with shots of dopamine. But over time, your brain has adapted to the influx of constant dopamine and will produce less. It becomes less responsive to its effects, requiring you to do more and more to get the same reward. Research has shown that gambling addiction and drug addiction are far more similar than some may think. While you are not necessarily ingesting a substance into your body, the way your brain changes over time from gambling is the ultimately the same as forming a drug addiction.
Gambling was only classified as an addiction in American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in the revised version released in 2013. Prior to this classification, gambling was only recognized as an impulse-control disorder because researchers believed gambling is “a behavior primarily motivated by the need to relieve anxiety rather than a craving for intense pleasure.” Gambling created a new category in the 2013 release of the DSM, “Addiction and Related Disorders,” and is still the only disorder in this category. Interestingly, internet gaming addiction was included as a condition that required more formal research, suggesting the possibility of inclusion in future editions of the DSM. However, in December of last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced they will include gaming disorder in the 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).
Updates to these organizations’ manuals and classifications come few and far between so it may take the DSM a few more years before they may even catch up. However, the recent acknowledgement of various addictions by these influential organizations show promise for the future of smartphone addiction. Although it has not been officially recognized by the scientific community as an addiction, steps can be taken to make sure the general population is well-informed and educated about the potential side effects of extreme smartphone use and dependence. More research can and should be done in order for us to better understand what it means to live in a digital age.
Institutional Call for Action
In the beginning of this year, two big Apple’s investors, JANA Partners and Calstrs, wrote a public letter to the company asking them to take action in researching how their products affect children. The investors believe it is Apple’s responsibility to provide parents more tools and resources to better manage and understand their children’s smartphone usage. The letter does not necessarily say children should not be given smartphones, but that children should be using their devices in “an optimal manner.” The two shareholders explain that they worked closely with child development experts and found the evidence too compelling to ignore. The average American teen gets his/her first smartphone at age 10 and spends more than 4.5 hours a day on it – excluding texting and talking. Nearly 80% of teens check their phones hourly, and more than half report feeling addicted to their devices.
A few months later, May and June, Google and Apple, respectively, announced new features to be included within their upcoming operating system (OS) release. Google’s Android P, expected to release sometime next month, will be the first Android OS version that includes Digital Wellbeing features. Digital Wellbeing is Google’s initiative to help consumers better understand their tech consumption and provide better ways for them to take back control from tech. The suite of features include, but are not limited to, an app usage dashboard, break reminders, and personalized notifications and alerts. Apple’s iOS 12, expected to release fall 2018, also includes similar features under the company’s Digital Health initiative. iPhone users will be able to limit app usage, monitor their phone usage through Screen Time, and schedule “downtimes.”
This move by Apple and Google, two of the world’s largest tech companies, should be enough confirmation that smartphone addiction could truly become a societal problem – if it isn’t already. Even though this may not cure or even mitigate people’s attachment and dependency on their phones, it is a good start. As with any addiction (officially recognized or not), the first step is awareness and early acknowledgement. Most people are unaware of how much they actually use their phone. In a study conducted by British psychologists, they show that young adults use their phones roughly twice as much as they estimate that they do. All the little minutes here and there eventually add up. The “just one more” cat video will turn into six. In what feels like a blink of an eye, your phone battery drops from 78% to 53%. Who among us can be absolved of guilt from such behavior?
Smartphone addiction is still a contentious topic, there enough evidence to encourage us to dig deeper. It is not only currently impacting us, but will impact our future generations to come. The preliminary research and findings demonstrate there is reason to be cautious about our smartphone use. It has both physical and psychological negative side effects, and particularly affects the younger population. The similarities between attention grabbing tech products and coin-sucking slot machines are a little too close for comfort. Major tech companies and their investors are calling attention to it by making business decisions around it. Whether or not smartphone addiction is a public health issue is still up for debate, but that does not mean we should play the waiting game until something happens. Any form of addiction comes with withdrawal and withdrawal is not without repercussion. Let us question our habits, lest they become dogma.