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Smartphones: How much is too much?

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

When we think of addiction, substances like alcohol or opiates are commonly the first to come to mind. The American Science of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. Behaviors can become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences. The DSM also recognizes gambling, internet, gaming, and sex as behavioral addictions. Now more than ever, we have incredibly easy access to these temptations.

The internet has become constantly available to us through our smartphone. Smartphones have undeniably had a large sociological impact since their introduction. From increasing productivity, convenience and connectivity, the smartphone (in conjunction with the internet) has created a new way to interact with the world around us. On the flip side of this convenience, problematic smartphone use has emerged because of constant internet access.

The factors that define addiction include abstinence, lack of control, tolerance, abuse, and interference with other activities. Behavioral addiction and smartphone overuse have the similarity of triggering a very rewarding chemical in our brain, dopamine. Psychology Today summarizes dopamine as a chemical that is a part of the reward circuit. The release of dopamine registers an intense experience as “important” and creates memories of the pleasurable event. Dopamine tells us to do the important event again because of how happy it made us feel last time, despite how good or bad the important event might have been. Our smartphones, that behave much like a small computer, give us access to many variables that could stimulate our reward centers.

Research conducted by Dr. Kimberly Young, a psychologist and internet addiction researcher, identified the particular variables that make online use addictive. She created the ACE model, an acronym for accessibility, control, and excitement. These factors help explain compulsive online behavior. Accessibility has increased exponentially with almost any service available due to the smartphone. Control refers to how easy it is for a person to control their online activities. Most people have control of their own device, meaning their behavior can go unnoticed. Excitement represents the emotional rush of winning. In gaming and gambling, there are literal potential winnings. Socializing via apps, forums or chat rooms can also provide rewarding levels of excitement. Dr. Young also found that there are several types of internet addiction like cybersex, net compulsions (like gambling or auctions), information seeking and cyber relationships.

Smartphones have given us constant access to these forms of entertainment that can quickly snowball. Scientists are researching how to improve measurement of problematic smartphone and internet usage to allow us to assess and treat this modern-day problem. Luckily, there are many effective tools and strategies to curb technology overuse. Addressing the problem in personal counseling is possible through methods like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. A specific intervention of CBT-IA (Internet Addiction) has been created to treat these problematic behaviors.

If you want to practice better technology habits, there are a few tips to get you started on putting your phone down and stepping back into the present moment.

1. Eliminate triggers

Our phones will buzz and beep for a variety of reasons. Turn your unimportant phone notifications off. You do not need to see every facebook or Instagram notification. These are easy triggers that get you to pick up your phone and give it your undivided attention. Disabling notifications for everything besides texts and phone calls can keep you from picking up your phone.

2. Set it down

Part of the appeal of the smartphone is the mobility. We can bring our phone everywhere with us, including the couch, kitchen table, bathroom and car. Set your phone down in a designated area when you need to disconnect. Leave your phone in your bag, set it on a charging station, whatever you need to do to put some physical distance between you and your phone. If you need to still be available to be contacted, make sure your ringer is on.

3. Take distracting apps off your phone screen

Free social media apps are designed to keep us hooked. When the app is free, you are the product! Social media apps collect your personal browsing habits in order to fine tune advertisements and content to keep your attention. With most people having multiple social media accounts, it’s easy to endlessly scroll through hours of content. Putting these apps in a folder and keeping your utility apps in the front can help reduce opening your social media apps automatically.

4. Create a schedule

To control your scrolling, set an alarm to specify when you can check your phone. You can wean yourself off with an alarm for every fifteen minutes. When it goes off, you can check your notifications and messages for one minute. Then you can gradually increase the time between checks.

5. Enlist the help of more apps

Specific applications exist in order to help curb your smartphone usage. Apps like AppDetox and Flips offer solutions to help hide distracting apps, schedule down time and reminders to stay on task.

6. The ‘Holy Grail’ solution

Delete the applications! This might seem obvious, but deleting the apps that distract you or keep you connected can help you unplug/disconnect. As a drastic measure, going back down to a “dumb phone” can also help you to regain control of your time.

It’s hard to imagine a time without smartphones, but this device has only become central to society in the last ten years. We are allowed to say no to the expectation of constantly being available. Technology is going to continue to advance around us. By setting good technology habits now, we can set our minds and health up for success as tech continues to advance.

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