High on Technology

Phone addiction isn’t technically a thing – yet ­– but most adults use their devices too much. Here’s how to get your smartphone time under control.

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Whether he’s walking down the street, riding the subway or eating his lunch, chances are, Sean Lamb is on his phone. “I check Twitter hundreds of times a day,” says the Toronto-based real estate agent. “I constantly want to know what’s going on in sports.”

Lamb, 37, is hardly alone in his seemingly constant phone use which, despite our assumptions, impacts all ages. Recent research by Nielsen showed 52 percent of baby boomers use technology during meals, compared to 40 percent of Millennials, while another study found that people touch their phones, on average, 2,617 times a day.

While there isn’t much medical evidence proving we can actually become addicted to devices – at least not yet – anyone who’s used a smartphone knows they’re difficult to put down. Lisa Pont, a social worker in the problem gambling and technologies program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, thinks that more studies will eventually come out showing that technology can be addictive. “Research can take time to catch up,” she says. “People were having problems with gambling before it was sanctioned an official diagnosis.”

Consider it a red flag if you feel panic when away from your phone (called nomophobia - yes, there's a word for it ), have the urge to text while driving, notice your stress increases after you're on your phone, or if your loved ones complain about your usage.

The problem with phones

Noodling away on a device has become so accepted that few raise an eyebrow when you check messages in the middle of a conversation and posting photos of your meal is practically expected now. How do you know if you have a problem?

Consider it a red flag if you feel panic when away from your phone (called nomophobia – yes, there’s a word for it), have the urge to text while driving, notice your stress increases after you’re on your phone, or if your loved ones complain about your usage.

Pont says there are real health concerns, such as texting and driving, plus neck and shoulder strain, as well as mental health considerations. “On Facebook or Instagram people are posting the best of their lives, all their wonderful trips and holidays. When you compare other people’s outsides to your insides, of course you’re going to feel like crap afterwards,” she says.

When we focus too much on our devices, relationships can suffer. Mobile phones also provide easy access to addictive or potentially problematic activities such as gambling, pornography and online shopping.

Digital detox

Follow these tips to take back some control over your mobile device.

Take stock: Download a usage tracking app or just make a conscious effort to be more mindful of when you use your phone and ask yourself, “Is this value-added?” suggests Pont.

Turn off alerts: Apps use notifications and alerts to keep you coming back for more. “We get a dopamine surge every time we engage with our smartphone, when it dings or rings, or when we get a ‘like’ or a new email,” she explains.

Have device-free zones and times: In Lamb’s house, he and his wife don’t have phones at the dinner table with their two young kids. He also doesn’t bring his phone into his bedroom at night, which are both strategies Pont says can help reduce use. Let others know you won’t be responding to them immediately and use the “do not disturb” function to keep your commute, meals and evenings message free.

Schedule it: Pick a time of day – like an hour after dinner – to catch up on social media or sports scores, and forget about it the rest of the time. “Because you’ve integrated it into your day, you know when you're going to do it, and you're not just doing it automatically or out of habit,” says Pont.

Technology is here to stay, and it can be useful, but it takes effort to make sure the time you’re on your device is helpful, not harmful. Lamb acknowledges he’s always going to need his phone for work, and he and his wife still watch TV while scrolling Twitter and Facebook. “But, I’d like to use it less when I’m with my kids,” he says. It’s a worthwhile goal, as the next generation is looking to adults as a model for healthy tech use.

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