App addicts: has your smartphone become a drug?

Has your smartphone become a drug?
But they're all so warm...

It doesn't matter where you are these days – people are being rude in a way they didn't used to be. Ignoring you in the car or at a restaurant. Annoying everyone in the cinema. Blanking you at a party.

Look around and you'll see why: there's a good chance you'll see at least one person using a smartphone. You might be reading this on one right now.

Smartphone penetration in the UK stands at 71% as of March this year according to data from Kantar Worldpanel ComTech (with similar numbers in developed nations around the world) and that figure is still rising.

People take their smartphones to bed with them, lay them on the table as they eat, and even take them into the toilet.

The manners passed down from generation to generation are being forgotten in a Tweet. It's not unusual for people to pull a phone out and start tapping away while you are in direct face-to-face conversation (it's called phubbing), and come on, admit it: you've probably done it yourself.

"Abusing and sometimes compulsively using our smartphones can be a real problem," explains Dr. David Greenfield, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.

"It can lead to a marked reduction in real-time social interaction as our capacity and desire for regular face-to-face conversation decreases."


No, put it down! You're outside!

Dr. Greenfield is also founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, one of the few places in the world that specifically treats smartphone and technology addiction, as well Internet, video game, and pornography addiction.

"When we're engaged in these digital technologies we're not doing other things that may be important for our lives, whether its exercise, socializing or work", says Dr. Greenfield, before going on to explain that the ever-present nature of smartphones and our "hyper-vigilance" towards them elevates stress hormones and is "not good for productivity or physical health".

He describes the smartphone as the "smallest slot machine in the world" because of the variable-ratio reinforcement schedule. When your phone rings or buzzes you can't predict what it will be, if it's an important email, a text from someone you love, or maybe a winning score for your favourite football team, you get a pleasurable neurochemical hit of dopamine.

"It can start as a minor irritation for family and friends," says Professor Reed, a psychologist at Swansea University, "they're focusing more on the device than the people around them, but it can turn into a serious problem.


The Breakfree app, designed to combat smartphone dependency

"Some smartphone owners are reporting broken sleep patterns where they're actually waking up to check the Internet, email, or social media. At the extreme there are people spending 60-70% of their waking life on the Internet for non-work-related purposes."

"Perhaps 6-10% of people display some signs of Internet addiction," says Reed, "it's a behavioural addiction like gambling or pornography."

It may not have the same physiological consequences as something like alcohol or drug addiction, but smartphone addiction works the same way Dr. Greenfield explains, "irresistible urges, inability to stop using compulsively, withdrawal when you don't have it, and increased tolerance which leads to using it more and more."

Both Greenfield and Reed have found classic withdrawal symptoms in Internet or smartphone addicts. They report pronounced negative mood swings, irritability, frustration, feeling disconnected, and a fear of missing out.

"You also see some physiological changes," says Reed, "increased blood pressure and increased heart rate, which indicates that people are using it like a sedative, or an escape."

The good news for most of us is that withdrawal lasts a matter of hours or days, but how do you know if you have a problem in the first place?

Admission is the first step

"We knew we were wasting a lot of time on the phone and we didn't know what to do about it," explains Mrigaen Kapadia, CEO of Mobifolio, the husband and wife team behind the BreakFree app on Android.


Those are flowers he's holding

They decided that something on your phone which monitors how addicted you are could be the perfect solution.

"We came up with a two-step process," says Kapadia, "the first is to tell the user how addicted they are because most of us don't realize how much we are using our phones."

The BreakFree app gives you a daily addiction score based on a combination of factors including how many times you've unlocked the screen, how long you've spent on the phone, and which apps you've been using.

"The next step is to stop the addiction," he explains, "so we have tools that provide notifications to warn users when they're going overboard."

You can get notifications to alert you when you've used an app a number of times or for a prolonged period, and there's an option to automatically switch off functions like Internet access, audio, or to block calls, which can also be scheduled to give you some quiet time, free from smartphone interruptions.

"The problem is when you have nothing to do you're going to get your phone out and you'll find something to do," says Kapadia, "the whole family can be sitting together, but they're all staring at their smartphones and the art of conversation is being lost."

"Smartphones fill in those little gaps," says Dr. Greenfield, "gaps of timelessness where creativity occurs and new ideas are born, where spontaneous interactions can occur, where we have an opportunity to relax, reflect, or talk to somebody.

"Try to make healthy choices about how you use and when you use your smartphone," he suggests. "Remember that you can turn it off sometimes, you don't need to take it everywhere with you."