Nomophobia is a 21st-century term for the fear of not being able to use your cell phone or other smart device. Our smartphones take our photos, put us in touch with family and friends, store our music and facilitate work on the go. They manage our diaries, provide access to almost limitless knowledge on the Internet, and keep us entertained. However, research is starting to show actual brain changes in people who use their smart phones for several hours each day. Some of the latest evidence comes from a study revealed at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago. This study indicates that cell phone addiction may affect brain functioning leading to significantly higher levels of GABA ( a neurotransmitter in the cortex that inhibits neurons resulting in poorer attention and control) than levels of glutamate-glutamine, which is a neurotransmitter that energises brain signals.
Diagnosing a smartphone addiction is not straightforward. It is seen as being akin to Internet addiction, but has not yet been formally identified by the medical profession as a behavioural addiction in its own right. Yet, there is evidence that smartphone addiction is a growing problem that needs to be addressed, and treatment provided.
Potential indicators of smartphone addiction 2
Smartphone addiction can be defined as a psychological dependence on mobile devices whereby users exhibit symptoms similar to drug addiction. Often, these symptoms develop and manifest over the course of months and years, but may also reveal themselves in periodic shorter smartphone ‘binges’. According to an academic study published in 20161 the symptoms of smartphone addiction include:
- Conscious use of phones in dangerous situations or in prohibited contexts (e.g. while driving)
- Excessive phone use that causes social and family conflicts and confrontations, as well as loss of interest in other shared activities
- Continuing the behaviour despite the negative effects and/or personal malaise it causes
- Excessive phone use causing noticeable physical, mental, social, work, or family disturbances (e.g. eye strain, symptoms of withdrawal, stress, and anxiety)
- Chronic impulsiveness to check your device
- Frequent and constant checking of phone in very brief periods of time causing insomnia and sleep disturbances
- Increase in use to achieve satisfaction or relaxation or to counteract a dysphoric mood
- Excessive use, urgency, need to be connected
- Need to respond immediately to messages, preferring the cell phone to personal contact
- Abstinence, dependence, craving
- Anxiety, irritability if cell phone is not accessible, feelings of unease when unable to use it
According to the American Psychiatric Association 2 withdrawal symptoms when a cell phone or network is unreachable, include:
Three practical strategies for breaking habitual smartphone use
Depending on a person’s daily routine, they may have fallen into the habit of checking their phone at specific times throughout the day – or constantly throughout the day. By becoming more aware of these habitual reflexes, and taking action to change them, people can reduce their phone time – and these seemingly small changes in behaviour, practiced consistently over time, may serve to recondition the brain to not being so smartphone-dependent. Here are three practical strategies to change habitual smartphone usage:
- Change one’s habits
- Leave the phone in the car when going shopping
- Place the phone in a vehicle glove box while driving
- Have the family leave their phones well out of reach during dinner and family time, to enjoy some quality time together
- Make a rule not check one’s phone while out on a date
- Do not have one’s phone on hand at the gym or while out on a run or walk.
- Plan to mute your phone for set stretches of time at work
- If you tend to keep your phone close to hand—in your pocket, on your desk, or sitting on the table—stash it in a bag, drawer, or another room entirely, for certain periods of the day
- Make a commitment to not answer work calls or emails once at home with family1
2. Reconfigure one’s phone
- Keep the phone in silent mode for set periods of the day to minimise the distraction of notifications
- Turn on the Do Not Disturb mode which lets one choose certain times of day when notifications can still come through without any sound or vibration
- Choose which types of events will generate notifications
- Most apps, especially the ones in the categories of social media, instant messaging, and email, will have adjustable notification options
- Uninstall as many apps as possible and strip one’s phone back to the basics. Most mobile apps have corresponding websites accessible from a computer
3. Install addiction-breaking apps
One can reduce your phone use by installing certain apps such as:
- AppDetox(free for Android) allows one to set limits on the time spent inside individual apps. It can control which times of day one is allowed open up the app, how many times it can launched, or both.
- Flipd(free for Android and iOS – basic version) focuses on blocking access to certain apps for set periods of time.
- Onward(free for iOS – basic version) provides a full suite of tools and features for more comprehensive phone control. Users can track how often they use their phones and individual apps, set up rules for limiting phone use, and even have an expert give them personalized coaching to help break a tech addiction. Some of these options require a premium subscription, but one can also stick to the basic version, or simply test out the premium features with a free trial.
- Forest(free with ads) gamifies the process of lessening phone distractions. In this programme, the user plants a seed, which eventually grows into a tree—as long as the person does not navigate away from the app. If the person exits Forest during the growth period – say to check Facebook or play a favourite game – the tree will die. While the app sound simplistic it has proven to be a very effective way of avoiding the temptation of your accessing other phone apps.3