If you’ve ever felt naked without your smartphone, you’re not alone.
Americans check their phones 80 times a day on average – or every 12 minutes, according to a study by technology insurance provider Asurion released in November.
The average person was prepared to go a maximum of four hours without checking their phone, the study found.
Research like this has contributed to an increasing amount of concern around the topic of smartphone addiction.
Stanford University psychiatrist Dr Anna Lembke says while many users will not develop a problem, it’s important to know the signs of problematic smartphone use.
The topic of smartphone addiction has received an increasing amount of attention in recent years as doctors, researchers and users question the degree to which they use devices
‘Technology addiction is a growing issue in my clinic and definitely a pressing concern for all of us right now,’ she said.
While there is not a large amount of research available on smartphone addiction, Dr Lembke says that data isn’t the only thing that can indicate a problem.
‘There’s no way to actually tell how widespread an issue it is especially since smartphone technology is relatively new,’ she said.
‘With this topic you pretty much just have to open your eyes and look around you to notice that this is a growing problem.’
When identifying addiction, clinicians look at three different components: control, compulsion, and continued use despite consequences.
Dr Lembke emphasized that addiction is a spectrum and severity is based on a combination of each of the ‘three C’s’.
‘There are absolutely mild, moderate and extreme forms,’ she said.
There are, however, a set of specific behaviors that are seen as indicators for potential smartphone addiction.
Smartphone addiction red flags
1. Using the phone longer than you planned to
In the case of smartphone addiction, Dr Lembke says, the element of control comes into play when a person puts a limit to the amount of time they’ll be on their phone and consistently exceeds it.
Examples of this include pressing snooze on your alarm in the morning because you’ve got one more social network to check or running late for a meeting because you got caught up checking emails.
2. Using it in inappropriate settings like while driving or going to the bathroom
‘We’ve all seen people using phones while driving or in other situations that are just obviously unreasonable,’ she said.
‘Before there were physical barriers to where you used technology, but now these mobile devices are 24/7 in my bed, in my car, always just right there,’ she said.
Dr Lembke suggests that portability is a main reason that smartphones are more addictive than other technology.
Just because you can bring your phone with you everywhere doesn’t mean that you should.
3. Giving up other activities because you’re on your phone
Ditching the gym because you have to catch up with your Twitter timeline?
Dr Lembke says when phone use begins to take over time allotted for other activities, it’s considered a red flag for addiction.
‘Our “work hard play hard” culture can make people feel as if they can’t possibly be unplugged because they’ll miss something important, and that’s how they justify excessive use,’ she said.
4. Feeling anxious when not on your phone
A key component of the compulsion factor of addiction is feeling uncomfortable or anxious when not on one’s phone.
‘Some people get so they’re worried they’re missing something that they’ll pull out the phone while in a meeting or even while having an emotional one-on-one conversation,’ Dr Lembke said.
5. Negatively impacting your relationships
Ever tried to have a conversation with someone who won’t look up from their phone and make eye contact with you?
Excessive phone usage can negatively impact personal relationships because it can make others feel as if they aren’t as important as whatever is going on in their device.
‘An example would be if your partner asks you to put down the phone and spend more time with them or with the kids but you ignore that request,’ Dr Lembke said.
6. You use your phone as a security blanket in uncomfortable situations
When in an awkward or tense social situation, it can often be enticing to turn to your phone as an escape from the discomfort.
However, this kind of behavior is a common indicator that you may be a little too attached.
Key ways to detox from your device
Dr Lembke says there are many ways that people can combat smartphone addiction and be more mindful about their use.
1. Take a ‘drug holiday’
One of Dr Lembke’s favorite methods is what she calls a ‘drug holiday,’ which involves blocking out a period of time every week without any smartphone use at all.
‘Taking a break allows the brain to reset and gives you a chance to recognize that the world won’t end just because you’re not on your phone,’ she said.
She recommends a 24 hour break, but says that any considerable break is helpful when trying to detox.
2. Keep physical boundaries
Creating rules for where phone use is acceptable is another simple way to combat obsessive behavior.
Examples of places that are better as no-phone zones include at the dinner table and by the bed at night.
‘One of the simplest ways to detox is just to remove yourself from the problem. It’s similar to how alcoholics know that keeping alcohol out of the house is the simplest way to avoid drinking and learn moderation,’ Dr Lembke said.
3. Use the grayscale phone setting
A more unique method that Dr Lembke’s patients have used is turning the smartphone screen to grayscale so it’s less enticing.
‘The colors have a surprising impact on the desire to be using the phone,’ she said.
Former Design Ethicist at Google Tristan Harris swears by the grayscale method to combat addiction, comparing the temptation behind the bright buttons to slot machines.
Turning your screen to grayscale will make photo-centric apps like Snapchat and Instagram considerably less engaging and easier to close out of.
On iOS, grayscale can be enabled by going to Settings -> General -> Accessibility -> Display Accommodations -> Color Filters and clicking ‘Grayscale’.
Turning the phone’s display to grayscale can make scrolling through time-wasting apps considerably less enticing, specifically with photo-centric ones like Instagram and Snapchat
4. Turn off notifications
Another simple method is to turn off notifications that might tempt users to check their phones.
According to Dr David Greenfield, a psychologist and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, alerts and notifications play a key role in problematic smartphone use.
Dr Greenfield, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut, says the compulsive need to be checking one’s smartphone can be traced back to basic brain chemistry.
Each time a phone pings or dings to alert that it’s received a new message, the brain releases dopamine, a pleasure chemical related to getting a reward.
‘That ping is telling us there is some type of reward there, waiting for us,’ Greenfield told NPR. ‘Smartphone notifications have turned us all into Pavlov’s dogs.’
He’s referring to century-old research by Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov, who used a bell to condition a group of dogs into expecting food when they heard the chime.
After pairing the bell with the food enough times, the dogs associated the bell itself with getting fed and began salivating before receiving the food.
When it comes to smartphones, when a notification sound is paired with a new text, tweet, Facebook post or other form of social communication, the bell itself triggers the dopamine before the message is even seen, adding to the addictive nature of smartphones.
5. Get over the FOMO
FOMO, or fear of missing out, involves an irrational feeling that you’re missing something when you’re not at an event or in the case of smartphone addiction, not on your device.
Harris suggests a simple fix for people who suffer from FOMO – or what he called FOMSI – fear of missing something important: put it into perspective.
‘If we zoom into that fear, we’ll discover that it’s unbounded: we’ll always miss something important at any point when we stop using something,’ he writes on his website.
6. Replace the habit
A common way to break a bad habit for a good one is to replace it with a new one. This same method can be applied to changing smartphone use patterns.
Adam Alter, a professor of marketing at NYU and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, told The Week: ‘What you want to do is you want to find a behavior that is a stand-in for the behavior that you don’t want to be doing.
‘You replace the bad thing that you shouldn’t be doing with something good that you should be doing.’
Examples of beneficial replacement behaviors reading a book or magazine, spending uninterrupted time with family and friends, going for a walk or picking up a new hobby like drawing or cooking.
The Battery tab in iOS Settings shows which apps are using the most battery life and helps pinpoint what you might want to get rid of to reduce time spent on your phone
7. Get rid of unnecessary apps
Just because your phone has enough storage capacity for a large number of apps doesn’t mean you have to use all of it.
Combing through your applications and identifying the ones that are most distracting or least important can help cut down on the number of justifications you have to pick up your phone.
Specific examples include apps like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest that have a desktop function and are thus not essential to have on your phone.
8. Pinpoint apps that are taking up the most of your time
Figuring out which apps you’re using most can help identify which ones might be most beneficial to get rid of.
On iOS, an easy way to check usage is by looking at the Battery subsection in Settings and seeing which ones are taking up most of your charge.
Specific apps such as BreakFree and StayOnTask are also available that show you which apps you use most and let you put limits on the time you use them.