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Are we addicted to smartphones?

Tue, 10/22/2013 - 4:13pm
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor, Photography by Melissa Spivak

Do you own a “Crackberry” or, god forbid, an iPhone? Is it always within arms’ reach, and do you compulsively check it every 5-10 minutes? Do you scour your smartphone with no clear purpose in mind? And do you have a strong desire to resist this “constant connectivity”? You may be experiencing “pushback”, according to a new paper from the University of Washington. But is this a symptom of smartphone "addiction"?

“Pushback is an expression of those who have access and use of communication technologies, but who decide to resist, drop off, manage or reduce their use of these technologies,” said Ricardo Gomez, assistant professor in the UW Information School and co-author of a paper to be presented at the iConference in Berlin in early 2014.

According to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center, 46% of American adults own a smartphone. In certain industries (publishing included), it seems like everyone is constantly checking a portable electronic device.

Web MD pointed to a study of 1,600 managers and professionals conducted by Leslie Perlow, PhD, the Konosuke Matsushita professor of leadership at the Harvard Business School. The findings are as follows:

  • 70% said they check their smartphone within an hour of getting up.
  • 56% check their phone within an hour of going to sleep.
  • 48% check over the weekend, including on Friday and Saturday nights.
  • 51% check continuously during vacation.

Why do we check our smartphones so obsessively? Psychologists call this reward-seeking behavior "variable ratio reinforcement." "It's like slot machines," says Greenfield, a West Hartford, Conn., psychologist and author of Virtual Addiction: Help for Netheads, Cyber Freaks, and Those Who Love Them. "We're seeking that pleasurable hit."

I can personally attest to this. Especially when I’m waiting for something – an e-mail, a response to a Facebook status, a sports score – I’ll remain tethered to my iPhone like it was the Holy Grail. I’ll check it every minute (or two). The fact that I keep it on silent at work (meaning that I don’t hear e-mails arrive) makes it worse. Sometimes, I’ll scroll through random apps or web pages almost reflectively. But then, I consider my smartphone an extension of my personality (very detail- and task-oriented). I don’t think that owning a smartphone transformed me in any fundamental way – if I wasn’t checking my smartphone, I’d be checking a favorite webpage. And if not the web, I’d be doing some other compulsive activity.

Further, I don’t believe that “addiction” to technology is a chemical process on par with drug or alcohol addiction, and that’s not what the UW paper seeks to prove or disprove.  

In his study, Ricardo Gomez explored the reasons for this smartphone “pushback,” expecting to find frustration with devices, costs, or learning new technologies as key motivators. But Gomez clearly underestimates the public’s (and especially each succeeding generation’s) familiarity and overall comfort level with technology.

Gomez primarily discovered an overall “dissatisfaction” — the thought that users’ needs are not really being met by technology, along with political, religious, or moral concerns. Users also expressed the wish to regain control of time and energy and fear of addiction.

In a strange sort of way, an obsession with time management may be the natural evolution of smartphone addiction (such as it is), rendering the concept of “pushback” meaningless. Smartphones have taught – or at least, reinforced – a renewed sense of efficiency, the idea that something important is always happening, and we need to stay on top of numerous interrelated (or completely disparate) tasks.

Are we addicted to smartphones? Perhaps “addiction” isn’t the right word. “When you’re addicted to exercise and cell phones and cloud watching, it’s trivializing something that’s very important for people to understand,” noted Dr. Brian Johnson, the director of Addiction Psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University.

Dr. Johnson defines addiction as repeated harm from acts. Is your iPhone usage killing your productivity at work? Is it irritating loved ones? Does it preclude a more meaningful relationship with significant others?

Like every other pleasurable activity, it’s all about moderation.

Now excuse me while I check my iPhone.

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