Smartphone addiction, part deux: Acceptance is the cure

| August 15, 2010

Noah’s illuminating post a couple weeks ago, “Overcoming smartphone addiction” (Aug 2), gave me a lot of food for thought. I’ve been more aware of my own usage patterns ever since I read it, and in truth, I think he offered a very relevant snapshot of the modern “techified” conundrum.

In Asia, where technology rules the young (even more so than here), there are even boot camps to “cure” the tech-obsessed. Meanwhile, all sorts of stories have been coming out for a while now, from the 2008 American Journal of Psychiatry article about email/text addiction to Gothamist’s 2009 story on smartphone addiction; even the mainstream health site WebMD has acknowledged it with a 2010 piece on the subject.

Am I wrong to think that, as our devices get more powerful and offer increasing functionality, our collective obsession with it might grow as well? Or is that alarmist-speak, a flurry of concern that amounts to “much ado about nothing”? I looked to my own behavior for insight.

Like our PhoneDog ed-in-chief, I wake up in the morning and reach for my smartphone before I’m fully awake. After brushing my teeth and doing the rest of my morning ritual, I hunker down in front of the French press, checking more messages, feeds and updates as I wait for my coffee. It’s kind of sad. I’d only just checked them a few moments before in bed, and yet I can’t even bear to be offline long enough to get caffeinated.

To my friends and hubby, I clearly have a case of FOMS, or “fear of missing something.” I am on this site, my other site, RSS feeds, Twitter, Facebook, Mobcast, IM — to name just a few. When I don’t check email for a couple days, I literally have hundreds that accumulate there, so I’m checking it all the time. It’s gotten so severe that my husband has regular interventions with me to tear me away from my smartphone. (You know what seems to work? Taking me hiking in upper New England. There are no cell towers in the wilderness.)

Bastion of peace and tranquility? Or a frightening cellular dead zone that induces panic and “fear of missing something”?

Whenever I’m out of service for a period of time, I notice a strange sense of dread upon resuming my cellular activities. How many IMs, texts or other important things have piled up at my virtual doorstep?

That’s the thing: Given the widespread use of cellular devices, people have expectations of immediate responses. It’s become an unwritten rule to answer contacts as quickly as possible, otherwise appear rude or worse — after a period of “no reply,” you might even trigger a genuine fear in loved ones that something horrible has happened to you. So I did my best to stay on top of the never-ending communications, as well as up-to-the-minute news and other updates. It was exhausting. And it was exhilarating. I was totally hooked.

To those who aren’t tech-obsessed, it can all sound a little ridiculous, I know. And I used to berate myself. (What was wrong with me?) Then I really started to worry: Studies on the health effects from the bombardment of wireless signals are still inconclusive. And other research suggests that people who multitask — as many of us tend to do with our phones while working, hanging out with friends or taking care of chores — actually makes us less productive than staying focused on singular tasks. Long-term, could this behavior actually affect people? Would this constant availability eventually wreak havoc on my well-being, on my sanity?

None of this worrying was doing me any good. I had to snap out of it. And I did. Unfortunately, it took something serious to wake me up: One of my parents went into the hospital. I won’t go into too many details, but I bring it up here because it’s relevant — mobile technology was my lifeline. First and foremost, I was reachable, even though I was out running errands, so I got my father’s call to begin with.

Dad said he couldn’t reach my brother, so I wound up connecting with him via text. I’m eight+ hours away, but my brother isn’t, so I mapped the location on my handset using Google Maps, and then sent him the address and directions. I Googled search terms about my mom’s scenario, and then I launched Mobcast. The app told me that my friend wasn’t at work that day (thanks to geo-location), and so I was able to call her for some support.

I was using mobile Safari to arrange transportation down there, when my Dad called back. Mom’s fine, he said. Turns out, it’s something pretty minor, and I shouldn’t worry. (I’m seriously considering getting him a smartphone like an Android or iPhone. It would’ve been nice to vid chat and see his face right then.)

All that snapped things into focus for me. I am no longer fighting my smartphone addiction. I accept it, embrace it even. Yes, maybe I am prone to excess, but with the bad comes a lot of good — like being there when you’re needed, no matter where you are.

Now this doesn’t mean I have license to short shrift in-person friends and activities, and get lost in my device. But for now, accepting that I am tech addicted means I can let go of the guilt (or denial). And instead of berating myself or trying to substantially change my long-term behavioral motivations, I can focus on immediately regaining control.

Here are a handful of things that I’m doing to make my smartphone compulsions more manageable.

  • Designate quiet times at night (some apps allow this to be set).
  • Create folders for my inbox, to filter work emails and messages from loved ones apart from anonymous senders.
  • Trim down my RSS feeds, and use two different readers — one designated for important news, the other for everything else. Then I set only the first one to give me alerts.
  • Speaking of alerts, I deactivated them on everything non essential.
  • Set Facebook to only notify of direct messages or comments to my updates. (Otherwise, it’s too tempting to constantly click on contacts’ feeds. Now, I don’t feel compelled to do it, but only do it when I have time.)
  • Make sure to use alarms for important tasks, so I don’t constantly check my handset.
  • Sign up for streaming video services and use apps that let me stream content from my desktop. Chops down the time of handpicking and loading the media that goes on my device. I have my whole library with me everywhere, without worry.
  • Also, given how much I use my phone, I use an earbud. Calls are clearer (which means they go faster), they’re convenient for music and phone functions, and there are fewer health worries about having the handset at my face so often.
  • Most of all, I have now adopted the phrase, “I’ll get back to you when I’m at my computer.” It’s so simple and obvious, I actually did a facepalm when my husband suggested it. Strange that there’s so much power in such a short little sentence.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but already, these tips are saving me from myself. I feel like my phone is working for me, instead of the other way around. And if I “fall off the wagon” and start regularly staying up all night using my phone — well, I suppose I could get a plane ticket to Asia and sign up for one of those boot camps.

I’d like to hear from you guys. Are you smartphone addicted (or attached to someone who is)? Is it just willpower, or do you have tactics to prevent overload? Share your advice below.