29 October 2018

Is Smartphone Addiction Dumbing Us Down?

Stan Beer, co-founder of IT Wire, thinks smartphones are regressive – he says we’re becoming increasingly addicted to them and in the process, we’re losing valuable skills. Smartphone addiction is one of the new digital addictions of the 21st century – but how do you know if you’re hooked?

“A few weeks ago I left the house and while driving realised I had forgotten my smartphone,” Beer writes. “It was not a good feeling – I felt disadvantaged and disconnected. Yet as a younger man I happily travelled around the world with just my wristwatch and a backpack. What has happened to us since those days? The short answer is that the smartphone has become a drug of addiction and, like all addicts, we have become hopelessly dependent.”

How Is Smartphone Addiction Changing Human Behaviour?

Feelings of fear, lack or even despair, as described by Beer, are very common in smartphone addiction. People often experience irritation, anxiety or even panic, if they forget or misplace their phone. If they run out of battery and cannot charge up straight away, fear of missing out can kick in. People can begin to believe that life is less interesting, meaningful or relevant in the real world, as compared to their digital world. There’s a sense of having to stay connected, at any cost – it’s an addiction to being permanently available. It gets harder to switch off and relax. The mind can race or flash with images – and it’s especially noticeable and uncomfortable when you’re away from your mobile phone. In extreme cases, it can lead to anger, violence or relationship breakdown. People are often mugged for their smartphones. Digital addictions including gaming have been cited in divorce cases.

Writing and community skills are changing too with our reliance on smartphone technology. It’s much less common today to handwrite correspondence or assignments for work or college. Text messages are often as brief as possible with abbreviations and symbols replacing full words. Billions of exchanges every day now take place via smartphones instead of face to face (or not at all). The bombardment of communications, many of which we don’t need or read, can be baffling and overwhelming. With smartphone addiction, the emphasis is often on the number of messages or posts, the sheer volume of clicks or new information – rather than the quality of interactions.

Problem-solving skills are also evolving (or regressing as Beer believes) with smartphones. Beer writes: “While I was driving without my smartphone I thought that it was fortunate that I knew where I was going because if I was venturing into a strange part of town I would be lost without the turn by turn voice instructions from Google Maps. In my younger days, of course, I would never have been lost because I would have planned my route in advance using my hard copy street directory that I always kept in the car.”

By extension, turning to search engines on mobiles, to answer our every question, may glean quick and brilliant solutions – but does it change our ability to think through problems for ourselves? Are we trading our best creative insights for stock answers online? Are we becoming more impatient to know everything now and less able to process complex or detailed information ourselves?

But do all of these changes mean a poorer experience of being human? Are we losing ourselves in our fascination with phones? That’s up to each of us to answer for ourselves. You might love your life online – creating personal connections or professional opportunities, interacting with people you admire or learn from or sell to. Or you might feel shame, guilt, anger or self-hatred, simply by scrolling down posts on Instagram – and yet, you can’t stop yourself going back for more.

How Do I know if I Have a Smartphone Addiction?

In his article, Beer points to some advice from anti-smartphones campaigner and actor Denzel Washington. “If you don’t think you’re addicted, see if you can turn it off for a week.”

This is a great place to start – a period of time where you abstain entirely from using your smartphone. If a week feels too long, then you could start by switching off your smartphone for just one day. Ideally, leave your phone at home while you go out. Do something you enjoy like meeting up with friends. See how it makes you feel to be separated from your phone. Is it easy and enjoyable? Perhaps even liberating? Are you more focused on the people you’re with or the activity you’re doing? Or are you constantly wondering about your online world? Do you feel cut off? Do thoughts or images crowd into your mind, connected to your smartphone use? Do you feel uncomfortable or distressed without instant access to your apps, messages and games?

What Does Recovery from Smartphone Addiction Look Like?

Like with other process addictions, including food, sex or shopping, recovery from smartphone addiction can be about developing healthier patterns rather than completely abstaining. Recovery for a food addict is about learning new behaviours around eating, which promote physical and mental wellbeing. A sex addict may decide that anonymous sex is part of their harmful addictive pattern – so they’ll commit to stopping that entirely, instead of practising intimacy in their relationships. A compulsive shopper may find it impossible to control spending on a credit card – so in recovery, they use cash instead and they discuss their emotions around spending with peers.

With smartphones, you can define your own digital detox. Try setting some healthy limits around your usage – then you can see if you’re able to stick to it. If you keep breaking your own boundaries, you may need to seek extra help from an addiction counsellor, therapist or support group.

Of course, there is also the option with smartphones to abstain entirely. Very simple technology is available to keep you connected to friends, family and colleagues – but limit or cut out access to infinite digital data. It might be worth a try if your smartphone usage is seriously affecting your health, relationships or general quality of life.

Confidential advice about addiction treatment is available from UKAT advisors – including counselling and rehab options for digital addictions. Get in touch if you need help.

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