My Strange Addiction: Confessions of a Stereotypical Gen Y

My Strange Addiction: Confessions of a Stereotypical Gen Y

Recently, I lived my own version of the hit TLC show and it wasn’t pretty.

Last week, I was downloading the latest software on my smartphone and it just stopped working. I frantically began to take the battery in and out of my phone repeatedly in hopes that miraculously the strategy would eventually work. I then pressed every button on my phone several times thinking that might work too. Throughout the day, I asked everyone around me if they knew what to do or had any suggestions. Oh, by the way, I was at work and had plenty of things I could and should be doing…but I had a one-track mind…this was a crisis.

After work, I sped to my nearest cell phone service store hoping they would have a solution. Tears welled in my eyes as the service rep said “I’m sorry, this sometimes just happens, there’s nothing we can do.” You would think my best friend had just died. They couldn’t give me a phone in the store (of course not, that would be way too easy). Instead I was informed that I would be receiving my warranty replacement phone in the mail in two to three days.

TWO TO THREE DAYS?! WITH NO CELL PHONE?! I did what any rational person would do….sobbed in the middle of the store. They had no compassion. I left the store, phoneless and alone.

The next few days without my cell phone were completely unproductive. I was obsessed with the fact that I did not have a cell phone. I found myself habitually reaching into my pocket or purse to grab my phone several times a day, to no avail. It’s not that I had any particular phone call to make, but I just had this compulsion to check. I felt lost, uninformed, and overall just plain bored. I never realized how much I mindlessly checked my phone until I didn’t have one.

I’ll save the rest of the details of my sob story, but three days later I got my phone. It was a great day.

In hindsight, this sounds ridiculous and I’m a little embarrassed over my behavior. This episode made me realize how much technology, smartphones, laptops, and all the instantaneous virtual social connections we have access to can truly be habit forming and potentially addictive.

A new study released in the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing examines the habitual behavior of smartphone users. The article finds that many smartphone users have developed what they call “checking habits.” These are automated behaviors where the phone is quickly opened to check the standby screen or content in a specific application, such as repetitive checks of e-mail, text messages, or Facebook. The habits are often triggered by boredom or a need to stay informed and stimulated (a common attribute of Gen Y!). The smartphone is perfect for fulfilling this perceived need for stimulation as the phones have the ability to provide quick access to rewards like social networking, communications, and news.

Researchers in this particular study found that smartphones are used by some people as much as 2.7 hours per day. On average, subjects in this study checked their phones 34 times a day. The checks typically lasted less than 30 seconds and were often done within 10 minutes of each other.

The strongest habitual patterns were related to the use of the internet in various forms, such as checking e-mails, Facebook, update feeds, and news headlines. Research subjects described their use of e-mail as a way of achieving an awareness that nothing important was missed, as opposed to actively writing messages to others. Users of update feeds and news headlines appreciated the easy access to quick information and the ability to stay in touch with the world. Frequent Facebook users described their usage as an escape from boredom and to keep up with what others were doing throughout the day.

Technically, you have to be careful when calling this excessive and habitual cell phone checking an “addiction.” Addiction is defined by many psychiatrists as compulsive behaviors that exist despite serious negative consequences for personal, social, or occupational function. In other words, addiction and habits are part of the same continuum but addiction is a complete loss of control and is detrimental to one’s own personal and social functioning while a habit is much less severe. This study actually found that most frequent smartphone checkers perceive their habit as non-problematic and at the worst it is considered an annoyance. However, many do recognize that their obsession with constant virtual social connections is time-consuming and may detract from real life interactions.

As interesting as this all is, what does any of this have to do with Gen Y health?

1. Increased risk of nonsocial behavior: Connecting with people via cell phones and the internet is not the same thing as one-on-one conversations. People often interrupt family meals or social time to take a call or text. Not only does this annoy the people around you, but a lack of true social support systems can lead to depression.

2. Driving accidents: In 2010, the National Safety Council found that 28% of traffic accidents occurred when people were talking on a cellphone or sending text messages while driving. 1.4 million traffic accidents annually are caused by cellphone conversations and 200,000 are blamed on text messaging. The compulsion to check a smartphone doesn’t go away just because someone is behind the wheel.

3. Decreased concentration: Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neurologist at UCSF describes to CNN news that “whenever you take a break from what you’re doing to unnecessarily check your e-mail, studies show, it’s hard to go back to your original task. You really pay a price,” he says.

4. Potential for withdrawal and physical effects: Although still very controversial, the psychologist in this CBS news story describes how the new emergence of cell phone “addiction” not only causes people to disconnect from reality but can also cause withdrawal symptoms when people are without their phones, such as anxiety, insomnia, and depression. He states that the withdrawal from the addiction causes an increase of the stress hormone cortisol in the body which may have detrimental effects.

So, are you a habitual smartphone checker? Here are a few tips to cut down on use and break the habit:

Acknowledge the problem 

Ok fine, this sounds a little AA, but you may be able to curb your checking behaviors by simply being aware of how much you actually check your phone.

Have smartphone-free times and places

If you are out to dinner with friends, seriously, stash away the cell phone. We have all been at a dinner where there are six cell phones sitting on the table. What’s the point? You have real human interaction going on, take advantage of it.

Also, if you are trying to have a serious study or work session, it’s a good idea to put the phone away. Award yourself every hour or two with a quick check. It’s a lot more productive than checking every 10 minutes.

Stash the phone away in your glove compartment or in your backseat while driving. This will decrease your urge to pick up the phone and text or check an e-mail. If you have to talk while driving, there are a lot of hands-free devices that can be purchased and used to decrease your driving risk, although hands-free doesn’t mean distraction-free.

It may also be a good idea to keep the phone out of the bedroom. Many people stay awake at night checking e-mails on their phone, texting, or browsing the internet. This stimulation makes falling asleep more difficult, and lack of sleep is certainly detrimental to your health (check out my radio show from 7/29!).




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