Go out in public these days, and chances are you’ll notice the majority of people around you are either holding, looking down at, or speaking on a smartphone.
You may have noticed that some people can’t even sit through a movie or a meal without checking their phone several times. They check at stoplights, and while in line at the grocery store or while waiting to buy coffee (have you ever noticed that nearly everyone in line at the coffee shop is staring down at their device?).
Maybe YOU are one of those people.
Smartphones are commonplace these days. 64% of American adults now own a smartphone of some kind, up from 35% in the spring of 2011, according to the Pew Research Center.
In many ways, these mobile devices benefit us. We use them for positive reasons, including job searches, online banking, looking up information about health conditions and government services, searching for housing, and for reading educational content and news while we are on the go. For some, a smartphone is the only device they own that allows them access to the digital realm.
But too much of a good thing can be, well…not so good.
Studies have shown that the use and prevalence of cell phones may provoke feelings of anxiety, social anxiety, and emotional insecurity. Knowing that so many of us are connected or within reach at all times sounds like it would make us feel more secure, but it actually creates new expectations.
Also, differences in communication styles and how we make contact can create a whole new set of stressors, especially for those with social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or depression.
In a sampling study, Pew research found that fully 93% of 18-29 year old smartphone owners used their phone at least once to avoid being bored, with respondents in this age group reporting that they did so in average of 5.4 surveys over the one-week study period.
And, 47% of young smartphone owners used their phone to avoid interacting with the people around them at least once during the study period, roughly three times the proportion of older smartphone owners who did so.
Pew research also found that while smartphones generally make users feel “happy” and “productive,” the devices do not always inspire positive feelings: 57% of smartphone owners reported feeling “distracted” thanks to their phone, and 36% reported that their phone made them feel “frustrated.” Younger smartphone users tend to experience a wider range of these emotions than older users, and are more likely to report experiencing negative emotions including “distracted” and “angry.”
For some, a separation anxiety of sorts arises when they are separated from their mobile device. Gallup has conducted polls to study attachment to cell phones, and their surveys found that nearly half of American smartphone users said they can’t imagine life without their device, and that being separated from it causes them stress and anxiety:
Four in five smartphone users keep their phone close throughout the day, nearly as many check it at least hourly, and three in five sleep near it. And more than one-third of U.S. workers report checking their work email frequently during nonworking hours. Thus, it is not surprising that 42% of all smartphone users say losing their device and not replacing it for a day would make them somewhat (32%) or very (10%) anxious. Another 30% say they would be “not very anxious,” leaving just 29% who would not be anxious at all.
Young women were more likely to admit they would be anxious if they had to go without their smartphone for a day:
Nearly six in 10 women under 30 say this would make them very or somewhat anxious, as do 51% of women 30 to 49 years of age. The rate is closer to 40% for men under 50 and is a third or less among senior men and women.
Recent studies have connected our addiction to being connected to increasing levels of anxiety, stress, and distraction.
Research from the University of Missouri has found that cell phone separation can have serious psychological and physiological effects on iPhone users, including poor performance on cognitive tests. The researchers say these findings suggest that iPhone users should avoid parting with their phones during daily situations that involve a great deal of attention, such as taking tests, sitting in conferences or meetings, or completing important work assignments, as it could result in poorer cognitive performance on those tasks.
Dr. Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, has been studying reactions to technology for over 25 years. In his research, he’s found that if there’s a phone around (even if it’s someone else’s phone), its presence tends to make people anxious and perform more poorly on tasks.
In his work, Dr. Rosen refers to these wireless mobile devices as WMDs. He has found that young people tend to be the heaviest users, and that the repercussions are serious:
Technology tends to “overact” our brains, draining us of unfettered, daydreaming-type creativity, he says. Today’s average college student, a member of the first generation to really grow up digitally native, now focuses and attends to one thing for about three to five minutes before feeling the need to switch their attention to something else.
He says, “It makes us very tired. It makes us very miserable. It overloads our brains. … It is not good for us.”
If you or a loved one has “smartphone addiction,” what should you do? Dr. Rosen doesn’t recommend quitting cold turkey or taking your children’s WMDs away – he told Time that isn’t a long-term realistic solution:
“The real world comes back and crashes in,” he says of kids whose parents separate them from their devices. “And then they realize they have 400 emails, they have 30 text messages and they’ve got 100 posts from Facebook friends that they have to go back and like and comment on. So taking the phone away or restricting them is only going to create more anxiety and not really solve the problem.”
Instead, Dr. Rosen suggests gradually reducing time spent using WMDs. He suggests publicly announcing that you are going to wean off your devices a bit so you don’t feel stressed about not responding to calls, texts, emails, and Facebook posts as soon as they come in. Many people expect you to be “on” or available at all times, and can that increase anxiety levels. Try starting with 30 minute smartphone breaks, and increase the time away in increments.
Dr. Rosen points out that “A lot of it is self-induced anxiety.”
So put your phones down, get outside and run around, go to an amusement park, see a movie, or do other activities that are nearly impossible to do with your phone in your hand. Institute a gadget-free policy during mealtimes: make them WMD-free.
Unplug once in a while and enjoy what is going on around you. The cyber-world can wait. It isn’t going anywhere.