The endless notifications, the rolling instant messages and the boundless bombardment of email may feel like a part of life, but psychologists say we’re hooked to our phones and have turned into manic information addicts.
It feels good, right? No harm in keeping your iPhone tightly gripped in your right hand in case you want to check your calendar, the weather, or who liked your latest Instagram photo. But psychologists warn, it becomes dark, when that want turns into a need.
“We tend to always have our phones so what that means is that it’s a kind of a silent creepy addiction that sneaks in there. We all need it and we don’t even realize the addiction, nor does it negatively interfere with our life really, until the point that we don’t have it,” says psychology professor Steve Joordens of the University of Toronto.
When we are away from our phones, we crave them and feel like we’re missing out. It’s almost like you’ve lost this dear friend of yours, and you have to get together with them right away, Joordens says. He argues that phone dependency is the most widespread addiction.
“If you kind of think of it like alcohol, imagine having to have a bottle with you at all times, just in case. That’s almost where we are at.”
A recent study by the University of Missouri says cellphone separation anxiety is real. Researchers asked a group of 40 participants in possession of their iPhones to complete a word search puzzle while their heart rate and blood pressure were being measured.
Then researchers took their iPhones away, saying they caused “bluetooth interfere.” The participants were then asked to complete the puzzle again while their phones were in another room ringing.
What researchers found is that participants’ heart rate and blood pressure increased significantly, while their cognitive ability to complete the puzzle decreased. When they were not with their phone, researchers said there was a”significant” uptick in anxiety.
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But what exactly does having a phone addiction mean? You can think of your cellphone as being a “one-armed-bandit” that you might see at a casino. Just like gambling, your phone gives you rewards, or occasional wins, says Joordens.
“There are some famous stories in gambling of people who literally urinate in their seat because they feel like that win is just about to come, and they can’t bear the thought of leaving to go to the washroom.”
That’s where some of us are at, explained Joordens. We can’t bear being separated from our phones. Gamblers will constantly pull down the handle on a slot machine. Phone addicts will constantly check their device, except the reward isn’t money. The reward on your phone is social: always updating and checking how many likes you got that triggers your dopamine levels.
“That unpredictability of a reward is very addicting. You start chasing that reward and start looking for it,” Joordens says. You’ll rotate between checking email, Facebook, Instagram, or whatever app you use that connects you with other people.
A way to find out if you’re addicted to your phone is to go a couple of days or a week without it, Joordens explained. If you feel anxious, out of the loop, and are constantly thinking about when you can check your phone, then chances are, you are addicted.
“What people often describe in those situations is that the first period is very difficult because they literally crave the phone. But invariably, they claim that at one point, there’s freedom. Some of them described it like it’s literally lifting their head up and seeing the world around them.”
What we often don’t realize is that although the phone brings a lot of nice things in your life like convenience and connectivity, it draws you away from things like nature and human interaction, Joordens explained. Life should be more balanced.
“I certainly think, now and then, we need a breather. Sometimes when you disconnect from your phone, you see the effect it’s having,” Joordens says.
The first thing to do is to assess if and how addicted you are to your phone by putting it off limits once in a while, he added. If you’re able to have a digital vacation from your device, then you’re in the clear, but it you can’t get through it, then you have to ask yourself, “How big of a role do I want this to play in my life?”
“The first step in changing your life in any way is to be able to attend to yourself, attend to your behaviours and attend to your thoughts. And so by putting the phone away, it gives you a little bit of that.”