It’s Monday morning and you’re running late to an appointment. You grab your bag or briefcase, get yourself out the door and are en route to your destination when you realize you left something at home – your smartphone, of all things. The result of this moment of forgetfulness is a day that will likely remind you of how convenient smartphones have become. And if you’re like the majority (66%) of adults in this UK survey, you may even experience “nomophobia,” or feelings of anxiety and fear that are caused by separation from you mobile phone. The root of this increasingly common feeling, the study found, is a fear of being unable to communicate with loved ones and generally being “disconnected.” And this could be a sign of smartphone addiction.
This modern phenomenon is just another illustration of how intertwined with technology our lives have become. Just three decades ago, mobile phones were clunky bricks of hardware with only the most utilitarian abilities, and were typically only owned by CEOs and other elites. But it was only a matter of time until the invention of the mobile phone would catapult us all into an era of constant connection. This single revolutionary device now provides us with endless information, conveniences, and distractions, always within our each. Now that we go about our days with such powerful tools in our back pockets, many of us can’t imagine living without them. Yet, we’ve all heard that saying about getting to much of a thing, and technology is no exception.
Along with nomophobia, two other terms surrounding smartphone use are now on the rise: “smartphone addiction” and more broadly, “technology addiction.” Though these two phrases are often not taken seriously, evidence is proving that they are not only real but increasingly common in our tech-hungry society.
How is it that we can develop smartphone addiction or become dependent on being connected to tablets, computers and other wireless technology? We must consider how texting, social media, gaming, and internet use chemically affect our brains. The instant gratification that these tools provide causes our neurons to release dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with motivation and pleasure-seeking. Sugar and other addictive drugs work their influence on us in the same way – by stimulating the reward center in our brains, thus encouraging us repeat whatever activity causes that good feeling. With wireless technology becoming more accessible than ever, we have conditioned ourselves to constantly crave that next rush of pleasure in the form of a text, friend request, or web-surfing session.
Like any other addiction, smartphone addiction or using any technology excessively can wreak havoc on our lives.
Below are eight specific ways we can be negatively affected by smartphone addiction.
1) Learning and Focus
Smartphones and other internet-connected devices give us access to a world of mental stimulation. Even the casual technology user can find this to be distracting, but those who experience technology addiction may feel compelled to use their devices at inappropriate times or while busy with other important tasks. This is especially common among younger users. A 2015 survey of 675 American university students found that approximately 97% of students use digital devices in classes for non-academic reasons, and that on average, 21% of students’ class time is used in this way. The main reasons these students cited for using their devices: to stay connected and to fight boredom.
Though students with a technology habit may have more fun in class, it comes at the price of reduced focus and productivity. A study of 210 university students in Seoul found that those who showed more signs of smartphone addiction were poorer at self-regulating their learning process and had lower levels of flow (effortless attention) while studying. Self-regulated learning is largely determined by the individual student’s internal motivation, self-awareness, planning, and discipline. With laptops and smartphones close at hand, students’ motivation to stay focused on lessons now has powerful competition, one that provides an instant reward versus the long-term investment of paying attention to their less-interesting lecture material.
Another reason that technology use interferes with learning: no matter how much we like to think we can keep our minds trained on a handful of things at once, multitasking is not actually possible for the brain to do effectively. When we split our focus among two or more complex tasks, we don’t process and store information as nearly as well as someone whose attention is undivided. As a result, students who frequently “multitask” in class may not clearly recall what they have learned, may have more trouble adapting learned material to new situations, and are likely to make more mistakes on schoolwork. Students aren’t the only ones susceptible to reduced learning – anyone who frequently is distracted by their device will be less engaged in other tasks at hand.
2) Emotional State
There is mounting evidence that excessive smartphone and internet use may have unhealthy effects on our mood and sleeping habits. A 2014 study of Turkish university students found a connection between high levels of smartphone use and increased anxiety levels, daytime dysfunction and symptoms of depression. Poorer sleep quality and the tendency to stay awake later were also frequently reported by the high-use group. Sleep and mood help regulate one another, so having issues with one increases chances of the other following behind. In 2011, another study found a positive correlation between internet addiction and loneliness, depression, and low self-esteem.
There’s a few reasons that frequent technology use could be making us anxious or depressed. Nomophobia, of course, is one of these – now that we are accustomed to the connection smartphones provide, many of us feel uncomfortable without it. We worry that an emergency may take place and our loved ones won’t be able to reach us. We don’t like being unable to log into facebook. We worry that we’ll miss something important.
On the other hand, never being far from our phones can lead to its own set of stressors. Now that smartphones give us 24/7 access to social media, it’s more difficult than even to truly unplug. Social media makes it easier to compare our lives to those of our peers, leading us to feel insecure about ourselves, and perhaps even envy or resent those who we perceive as better off. We may base our sense of self-worth on getting approval through social media. A higher degree of connection, paradoxically, can also make us feel excluded when we see posts about events we weren’t invited to or missed out on. Social media can easily become a forum for cyberbullying, as many people find it easier to abuse others behind the protection of a digital screen.
We all know the stereotype of the socially awkward computer geek who rarely ventures into the outside world. Though most of us don’t immerse ourselves online in such an extreme way, even more moderate users can experience negative social effects. As more and more interaction takes place via wireless connections, our face-to-face interactions often are reduced. This can lead to a lack of depth in our relationships and increased feelings of isolation and loneliness. It’s now easy to replace physical company with a virtual forum of “likes” and status updates, which is far less fulfilling for us emotionally.
Those who have difficulty staying off their smartphones even while spending time with their partners or friends may damage their relationships as a result. A 2014 poll found that about 75% of women believe that smartphone use interferes with their love life and reduces the amount of time spent with their significant other. Being in a conversation with your partner only to see them start typing out a text mid-sentence is likely to make you feel like they aren’t fully in the moment with you, and who wants to be in a relationship where this is the status quo?
There is also concern that smartphone addiction is stunting the social skills and empathy of younger users. The large amount of attention that they give to their devices could replace time that would be spent learning how to be fully present for others, how to read social cues, and understanding the value of other people. A 2010 study conducted by the University of Michigan found that today’s students are around 40% less empathetic than students of of the 1980s and 90s. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that replacing human contact with machines causes us to have a hard time relating to others.
4) Physical Health
Aside from mental health and interpersonal concerns, smartphone addiction can also harm our physical health. Those who use computers heavily may experience headaches, blurry vision, weight loss or weight gain, carpal tunnel syndrome, muscle atrophy, and neck or back pain. Smartphone users may experience similar symptoms, particularly text-neck and tendonitis. Aside from these acute effects, the sedentary lifestyle of those who use computers for long periods of time each day can also encourage the development of more chronic diseases.
Smartphone addiction as well as addiction to other technoloy inherently comes with increased EMF exposure, which can also cause physical ailments like nausea, fatigue, headaches, ringing in the ears, and skin tingling or rashes. Exposure could also lead to long-term consequences, like reproductive harm, changes to DNA, and increased cancer risk.
5) Brain Structure
Frequent use of digital devices is changing more than our habits: it is also rewiring our brains. A 2012 compilation of studies on internet and gaming addiction describes differences in brain structure of heavy users. Loss or reduction of grey matter in numerous parts of the brain was commonly found. Affected functions span a wide range: planning and decision making, impulse suppression, emotional processing, cognitive control, and development of empathy. Several of these changes were similar to those found in the brains of substance abuse addicts.
Other research has indicated that our increasingly common reliance on GPS navigation may be causing the hippocampus (which deals with short-term, long-term, and spatial memory) to shrink. Just like other muscles in our bodies, when we don’t use our brains to carry out certain tasks, they gradually lose the ability to do them when it’s necessary.
6) A Gateway to Other Technology Addiction
For those who experience internet addiction in particular, online activities with high addiction potential may serve to strengthen the habit. On the web, countless shopping portals, gambling sites, immersive games, and cybersex communities are all just clicks away, accessible 24/7 in the privacy of our homes. These addictions can harm us in many ways. They drain our finances, cause arguments with our significant others, eat up our time and generally can give our lives an unhealthy focus. They also can be quite difficult to overcome.
7) Distraction While Driving
We all recognize that texting while driving puts us and others in unnecessary danger. Yet, when that notification pops up on our screens, an alarming amount of us make the choice to read the message. According to a survey conducted by AT&T, 49% of adults commuting to work admitted to texting while driving even though 98% admit knowing it isn’t safe to do so. The National Security Council estimated that at least 1 in 4 traffic crashes involved drivers distracted by their cell phones.
People who are addicted to their smartphone will likely feel compelled to use their phones while driving, even if the risks involved are steep. These users might be so used to doing so that they feel they can multitask sufficiently while driving. As discussed earlier, this simply is not possible, and being fully present on the road could mean the difference between life and death.
8) Discomfort with Being Alone
A more subtle but important side-effect of smartphone addiction and using technology to excess is that by doing so, we may lose the ability to be alone and present with our thoughts. Technology gives us the luxury of never having a boring moment if we don’t want to. Now, we can escape from the world around us by choosing to continuously consume information and media, play games, or text others. Instead of dealing with uncomfortable situations or feelings, we look to our devices (perhaps even unconsciously) as the ultimate distraction. There is nothing wrong with using our smartphones or tablets as entertainment, but this should never become a coping mechanism we can’t do without – otherwise, we’re robbing ourselves of the ability to find peace within ourselves through life’s stressful moments.
With the prevalence of technology in our lives today, we can’t argue the fact that we have created so many positive uses for it. The ability to access information from all corners of the earth has undeniably enriched our lives, and soon we as a species will not recall what life was like before it. As with any other habit or thing we consume, a little moderation goes a long way towards preserving a sense of balance and well-being in our relationship with technology in our lives.