Our Addiction to Smartphones

by Nasimeh Yazdani, M.D.

As some of you know, I have been away for three weeks visiting family in Iran.  I left my iPhone 6 on the plane ride there and never received it back.  The shock of loosing my phone left me in a daze for the next 24 hours, wondering if I’ll ever lay my hands on it again.  My eyes craved the light emitted from the magical screen.  My thoughts fixated on the Instagram, Twitter and Facebook updates that I was sorely missing.  Reluctant to adjust to life without a smart phone, I grabbed other’s phones and tried to get online to quench my thirst for data.  It just wasn’t the same. My phone was a part of me, a reflection of Nasime Yazdani, that no other device could replicate.  I had lost a major part of my life— and with that loss, a realization came; I had a smartphone addiction.  I wondered how many other people are afflicted with this condition,  a simple Google search revealed that I was not alone. According to the article Addicted to Your Smartphone? Here’s What to Do, Dr. Perlow of Harvard Business School, surveyed 1600 managers and professionals, and found that the compulsion to use their smartphones throughout the day is shockingly high.
The stats: 70% of people check their smartphones within an hour of getting up, 56% check within an hour of going to sleep, 51% check continuously during a vacation, and 44% said they would experience “a great deal of anxiety” if they lost their phone and couldn’t replace it for a week.  Another study found that smartphone usage had more than doubled in a 2-year span between 2011 and 2013.  The addiction has grown so much, that we are seeing a phenomenon called phantom smartphone buzzing, a feeling of thinking our phone is vibrating when it isn’t.  The obsessive-compulsive nature of checking our smartphones and staying on for extended periods of time, has now been linked to dopamine surge from the ventral segmental area of the midbrain—the brain’s pleasure center.   Similar to how cocaine, nicotine, or heroine stimulate dopamine release, smartphone addiction primarily creates a pleasure seeking experience.  Similarly, when the behavior reaches harmful level, such that it interferes with social relationships, like ignoring your friends at lunch while you post on FB how much you’re enjoying lunch with them, or work efficiency, then you must make the decision to put a stop to it.  Or in my case, unintentionally leave your phone on the plane and be forced to stop.
After three weeks of nonuse, I definitely noticed the compulsion change.  It became less severe and persistent.  I also noticed that checking my phone for social media updates, and my emails was less pleasurable.  The anxiety had settled and overall, my focus and attention grew deeper.  I planted roots in real conversations rich with love and laughter, not photos with a one sentence label.  I now only check my email once a day, and definitely never use my phone while driving.  You too can start to make similar changes in your smartphone usage, and during your next annual physical, report to me the positive difference it has made on your life.

Helpful Tips for Limiting Daily Smartphone Use

1. Set a time limit on your usage : Try setting a 1 hour limit for social media and unproductive communication. You can even track your phone use by downloading apps like Moment. You can set thresholds and you’ll be notified when you go over.
2. Avoid obsessive browsing : Yes, that bed spread you want on crateandbarrel.com will still be there tomorrow. Come back to it during your designated use time. 
3. Never text or use your phone while driving : Turn it off when you get in your car or place it on ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode so you can still use the navigation if needed. 
4. Engage with those around you instead of ignoring them : Make an effort to have interpersonal conversations with people when you’re with them. Put your phone in your purse or in your pocket, or better yet, leave it in a different room entirely. 
5. Don’t lose sleep over it : Turn your phone off 1 hour before bedtime so you don’t become distracted with your phone’s happenings. 
6. Pick a different activity: Whenever you feel that familiar impulse to check your phone, pull out a book you’ve been meaning to read, you’ll be surprised how quickly you can get through a book if you keep this up. 
7. Positive Self-Reinforcement : Reward yourself with an activity or your favorite food when you have successfully followed these tips. 
8. Focus on the here-and-now : Center yourself in the present moment and take in your surroundings. You can miss so much, including your own thoughts and reactions when your head is buried in your phone. 
9. Take a phone-free vacation: Spend at least one weekend away without wifi or cell service so you have no choice but to focus on other things.