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Are We Addicted to Cell Phones?

How much time did your kids spend on their cell phones yesterday? When was the last time you checked your cell phone? If contemplating these questions makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone. Cell phones dominate our lives in part because they are designed to do precisely that, according to Tristran Harris, a tech entrepreneur who worked as a Product Ethicist at Google. Now he runs TimeWellSpent, a non-profit that points out how cell phones and their apps hijack our attention. The group urges tech designers to take the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath and encourages consumers to make more mindful decisions about when, how, and where to use their phones.

Harris isn’t the only expert concerned about cell phone overuse. Some researchers have noted that brain scans of people who spend a lot of time online are disconcertingly similar to those of people with substance abuse problems. In a recent NPR report, Dr. Anna Lembke, an assistant professor in addiction medicine at Stanford, noted that Internet use can follow a classic pattern, “Intermittent to recreational use, then progresses into daily use, and then progresses into consequential use.”

Here are a few consequences of over cell phone use you may recognize in yourself or your kids:

Time - You devote more and more time to cell phone activities, partly because you lose track of time and partly because it takes longer to feel satisfied.

Obsession - You think about being online even when you are offline. There is a failure to cut back phone use despite a resolution to do so.

Mood - You feel anxious, restless, irritable or even angry when online activities are interrupted or when you have to be offline.

Social - You withdraw from friends and real-life social activities. You have the feeling that online relationships are more significant and genuine.

Interference - You spend time online even when it interferes with other important activities including employment, schoolwork, chores, exercise, family time, and sleep.

Deception - You lie to yourself or others about how much time you spend with your phone.

Of course, for most people, cell phone use doesn’t rise to the level of addiction. Still, many parents have the uneasy feeling that phones take up too big a chunk of family life. In contemporary culture, total abstinence isn’t realistic for adults or teens, but there are ways to become more deliberate about when and how we use our phones.

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Evaluate activities. Pay attention to what you and your kids are doing on your phones. Some activities - games, social media, news - are designed to be endless. Others - gambling, shopping, looking at porn - are associated with offline addictions. Identify activities that are productive and/or enjoyable. How much time should be allotted to each? Develop a budget that guides how you spend your time online. Use the timer on your phone or ask other family members to hold
you accountable.

2. Create an essential home screen. Harris suggests sorting apps into three categories: 1. Tools that help you complete essential tasks: Calendar, camera, etc. 2. Bottomless Bowls: Apps that encourage you to binge. 3. Aspirations: Things you’d like to do. Create a homescreen that includes only indispensible tools and realistic aspirations. Hide other apps in folders where you won’t see seductive icons. Having a folder called News, Games, or Social forces you to think, even briefly, about whether you really want to engage in that activity.

3. Identify triggers. Addictive behavior often starts with uncomfortable feelings such as depression or anxiety. Talking about feelings helps children and adults recognize their emotions and make more conscious decisions about how to manage those feelings. If a family member is upset because of something that happened at school or at work, they may get temporary relief from playing a game or binge-watching YouTube. That’s not necessarily a problem, if the person eventually thinks through the basic problem and comes up with ideas about how to address it. Without that kind of emotional intelligence, kids and grown-ups may habitually turn to the phone to escape their feelings.

4. Customize notifications. The ding from a cell phone is like a slot machine. Most of the time it’s meaningless, but occasionally there’s a big payoff. Assign special ringtones to family members and other people so you won’t miss genuinely important messages, and then turn off notifications from everything else. As Harris points out, there will always be breaking news, urgent emails, and fresh information on social media. You won’t know everything about everybody all the time, so put an end to FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Attention is valuable; don’t squander it.

5. Create rich offline lives. Seek out tech-free experiences that are rewarding for family members. Take every opportunity to be physically active outdoors, if possible. Ride bikes, take walks, play sports. Cultivate face-to-face social skills by giving children lots of opportunities to meet and interact with other people. Get to know your neighbors. Join a faith community or other community organization. Invite friends and extended family over for meals or game nights and collect cell phones at the door.

6. Get an alarm clock. Using a cell phone as an alarm makes it the last thing you see before you fall asleep and the first thing you check in the morning. It may even interrupt sleep with notifications that matter much less than being rested. Claim the luxury of thinking your own thoughts as you drift off to sleep. Take a little time in the morning to wake up fully before engaging with whatever is on your phone.

Finally, appreciate what’s good about cell phones. Some researchers, for example, have noted that use of drugs and alcohol among teens has declined over the same period that smartphone use increased. They speculate that interactive media may satisfy adolescent cravings for independence, risk-taking, and sensation-seeking without the devastating consequences of other addictions. In other words, cell phones - like so many other technologies - can make our lives better or worse. It’s up to parents to pay attention to that uneasy feeling about phones, so we can gently take corrective action if needed.

Carolyn Jabs, MA, has been writing about families and technology for over 20 years. She is also the author of Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart, a book that describes a highly effective way to address conflict in families, schools, and communities. Available to purchase at Amazon and cooperativewisdom.org.

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