7 Scary Things You Never Knew About Cell Phone Addiction
Quick question: Are you reading these words on a phone? If the answer is yes, you're certainly in good company. According to research from the media analytics company comScore, the average American adult spent approximately 2 hours and 51 minutes on their smartphone every single day in 2017. Tally up the hours we're projected to spend on social media apps over a lifetime and the sum comes to a whopping 5 years and 4 months. (To put that in perspective, it's 36% more time than any of us spend eating and drinking.) In other words, if you've ever questioned whether that twitchy feeling you get every time you scroll Instagram is a sign of actual addiction, you can officially stop wondering.
They say recovery starts with acknowledging your problem, so here goes: I have a slew of bad cell-phone habits—and not a clue where to begin to change them. Which is why I was equal parts thrilled and terrified when an advance copy of the new book How To Break Up With Your Phone ($13, amazon.com), by award-winning health journalist Catherine Price, recently landed in my mailbox.
A slim, insight-packed volume that's both a primer on the toll smartphone overuse can take on our mental and physical health, and a practical manual for a 30-day reset designed to put you on a path to moderation, this is a book whose message couldn't feel more timely, or more urgent. (No, really: after finishing the whole thing in one horrified sitting, I immediately pre-ordered 3 more copies for friends and family.)
Price has nailed her research: Nearly every page of her book contains a startling number or nugget designed to deliver a serious wake-up call. So, if you're still not convinced the message applies to you, here are seven alarming facts—and a few easy suggestions—that might convince you it's time to stop mindlessly swiping once and for all.
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1. There's a test for cell phone addiction
If you've ever been on Facebook, you know that online quizzes are pretty much human catnip. Here's one that might actually be worth spending a few minutes of your life on: the Smartphone Compulsion Test, developed by David Greenfield, PhD, of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. According to Greenfield, a "yes" answer to more than 5 out of the 15 questions indicates that a person likely has a problematic relationship with their mobile device. Try it for yourself—but be prepared. As Price herself admits, these days it seems like "the only way to score below a 5 on this test is to not have a smartphone."
2. "Phubbing" is a thing
You know that annoying habit your friend has of casually checking her texts while you're talking? Well, it's so common, there's now an actual name for it: phubbing, as in phone-snubbing. You'd never do that, right?!
3. Social media apps are designed to hook you
Do you find yourself mindlessly reaching for your phone? Or refreshing your social media feeds, even when you just checked them minutes ago? Don't beat yourself up about your lack of willpower. The truth is, nearly every app on your phone has been expertly engineered to produce those very responses by designers skilled in manipulating brain chemistry to elicit addictive behaviors.
Case in point: "Instagram," Price explains, "has created code that deliberately holds back on showing users new 'likes' so that it can deliver a bunch of them in a sudden rush at the most effective moment possible—meaning the moment at which seeing new likes will discourage you from closing the app."
4. Smartphones and slot machines have something in common
You know it well: that frisson of anticipation you feel whenever you pick up your phone. (Will there be a flirty text from that guy from the party? Or a message about a big new project from your boss?!) Well, psychologists have a term for that irresistible feeling of unpredictability: intermittent rewards. And guess what other common devices encourage addictive behaviors by preying on that sense that something exciting could happen at any moment? Slot machines. In fact, says Price, smartphones are basically slot machines we keep in our pockets.
5. Our phones are altering our brains
Do you feel like you can't concentrate anymore? Has your ability to remember things you've read gotten dramatically worse since you started doing the lion's share of your reading online? It's not your imagination. According to Price, when we read digital media, the cluttered landscape of links and ads and the short bursts of attention that are required by scrolling and swiping and tweeting result in a contradiction in terms: "an intensely focused state of distraction." And while that distraction seems like it should be temporary, its effects are actually chillingly long-term. "This type of frequent, focused distraction," she explains, "isn't just capable of creating long-lasting changes in our brains; it is particularly good at doing so."
6. Apps are selling the most valuable thing we have
Yes, social media can be fun—but Price points out that it's important to remember that those apps are about more than just sharing selfies. "Have you ever wondered why social media apps are all free?" she asks. "It's because we are not actually the customers and the social media platform itself is not the product. Instead, the customers are advertisers. And the product being sold is our attention….This is a really big deal, because our attention is the most valuable thing we have. When we decide what to pay attention to in the moment, we are making a broader decision about how we want to spend our lives."
7. There's a good reason tech innovators don't let their kids have devices
When you're a parent, reckoning with your own negative cell-phone behaviors feels bad—but watching the same habits infect your kids is even worse. That's probably why, as Price points out, when it comes to their personal lives, many of the leading innovators in digital technology have chosen to shield their own families from the devices for as long as possible. Consider this: Steve Jobs didn't let his kids use the iPad. And Bill and Melinda Gates did not let their children have phones until they were 14.
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Fear not: there is still some good news—namely, that we all have a chance to reverse course, to correct our addictive behaviors, and to find a relationship with our phones that feels productive and positive, not toxic. Where to start? Price lays the plan out comprehensively in the book, of course—but if you're itching for some immediate action, there are plenty of baby steps you can take right now.
First things first, go into your settings and disable your phone's notifications. (Yes, all of them.) Next, download a tracking app, like Moment, that can help give you a reality check about just how much of your waking life you're actually spending staring at that little screen. Finally, banish your phone from your bedroom and buy yourself an actual alarm clock—like this one, or this one, or this one.
And remember: tomorrow is a whole new day.