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Is it possible that the things that ‘connect’ us in this wireless, tweeting, humble-bragging age are making us sick?
Smartphones have been labelled an addiction, an obsession, an extra limb. They also draw us from the real world and train us to choose immediate pleasure hits over long-term goals, such as building a healthy lifestyle.
About half of us spend more time socialising online than we do face-to-face. We spend 4.4 hours of our leisure time in front of screens each day and 60% of us admit to using our mobile device while going to the bathroom. Eww.
It may be the last thing you check at night and the first thing you pick up in the morning, but is your attachment to your smartphone spoiling your quality of life? ClickFit investigates.
We may get separation anxiety if we lose them, but are smartphones addictive, medically speaking?
Some psychologists argue that using our iPhones and BlackBerrys may tap into the same associative learning pathways in the brain that make other compulsive behaviours — like gambling — so addictive. As with addiction to drugs, cigarettes or food, the chemical driver of this process is the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine.
‘Each time you look at your phone you get a hit of dopamine and it really becomes an addiction,’ says weight loss coach Kylie Ryan.
‘It’s a mechanism of instant gratification. But the key to lasting weight management is training yourself to delay gratification.’
Kylie argues that constant phone checking trains our brains to seek immediate pleasure over the long-term benefits that accrue when we decide not to act on impulse. We are less likely to work towards our goals, such as reaching our goal weight. Instead we stay on the sideline of our own lives, watching instead of doing.
‘Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of addiction, but it’s also the neurotransmitter of motivation. If you overload your dopamine transmitters, as when you constantly look at your phone or are bombarded by images on your screen, the receptors are dulled. You then receive less pleasure from normal interaction in the real world,’ she says.
According to Kylie push notifications begin within our phones but end up affecting our brain chemistry.
‘They train your brain to think: what’s coming next, what’s next? This puts your body in a state of alert. You then secrete higher levels of cortisol, which makes you scattered and unfocused.’
John Lenarcic , lecturer at RMIT University on information technology and social issues, says the phone obsession doesn’t allow us to be lazy. He argues time spent looking at your phone is time not spent doing nothing, it’s distracted time.
‘In the past, laziness was not necessarily a bad thing because it meant you had time to play with friends, goof off, invent something accidentally. People looking at their phones all the time are not lazy because they’re doing something, but they’re being distracted from the present moment.’
Instead of being creative and productive individuals, we’re turning in absent-minded consumers of information and entertainment.
Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed: Tricks companies use to manipulate our minds and persuade us to buy, conducted a study in 2011 to find whether iPhones are addictive in the way that alcohol or video games are.
He enlisted 16 men and women to whom he exposed to a ringing and vibrating iPhone. He found a flurry of activity in the insular cortex of the brain, which is associated with love and compassion. The subjects responded to the sound of their phones as they would to the presence of a loved one. He concluded: subjects didn’t demonstrate the classic brain-based signs of addiction. Rather,they loved their iPhones.
Using an electronic back-lit gadget for 2 or more hours before bed can cause sleep problems and disrupt our natural body clocks.
A 2012 study by the US-based Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found the displays can cause melatonin suppression by 22%. Suppression of melatonin by light at night has been implicated in sleep disturbances, increased risk of diabetes and obesity, as well as increased risk for breast cancer if it occurs for many consecutive nights.
Kylie suggests turning off all push notifications. Also, only check your phone at certain times of the day.
As well, she suggests writing a list of compelling goals. ‘Train yourself to focus on tasks that you find worthy.’
‘If you must have anything pinging,’ she says, ‘make it positive and important.’ She sets reminders on her own phone to exercise and eat well.
John says daily habits that don’t involve technology (like reading books and writing in a notebook) help to wean us off the sense of hyper-stimulation. Find ways to make yourself pay attention in the present moment. For example, don’t take your phone when you visit friends.
To improve your sleep and stabilise your circadian rhythm, he recommends you don’t take your phone to bed, and start using traditional alarm clocks instead.