Home Caregiving Smartphone Addiction: Reclaiming Our Health and Attention
Photography by Corey Agopian

Smartphone Addiction: Reclaiming Our Health and Attention

by Wayfinders Now

On a particular evening back in 2010, Michael watched as a young man drove his car and veered past the lane marker, his face lit up by the glowing screen—of his cell phone! Moments later, the car swerved completely off the road and slammed into a curbside tree, jolting the stunned driver back to the moment at hand.

This scene took place at a time when our distraction by mobile devices was perhaps less common and understood. Once he had pulled over and realized the driver would be okay, Michael admitted that he laughed out loud about what he observed then as an absurd incident—of someone being so utterly distracted from their surroundings due to their cell phone use.

Photograph by Gigi.

The widespread cost of our smartphone addiction

Perhaps you might be thinking, But I love my phone! The pros of what my phone offer far outweigh the cons. Plus, I absolutely need it for X, Y, and Z reasons.

Today, however, we have more evidence about the correlations between our smartphone dependence and our disrupted attention.

Take a look at how our mobile devices distract us in almost every facet of our lives:

  • The average user touches their phone 2,617 times a day (that equals 2.42 hours of phone screen time every day for the average user, and 3.75 hours for the heavy user)
  • Smartphone owners interact with their phones an average of 85 times a day, including immediately upon waking up, just before going to sleep, and even in the middle of the night (Perlow 2012; Andrews et al. 2015; dscout 2016). 
  • 91% report that they never leave home without their phones (Deutsche Telekom 2012), and 46% say that they couldn’t live without them (Pew Research Center 2015)
  • 1 out of every 4 car accidents in the U.S. is caused by texting and driving
  • Over 80% of drivers witnessed pedestrians cross the street while looking at their cell phones 
  • Selfie-related deaths while driving have increased 90% in the past five years
  • Traffic researcher, Richard Retting, says a surge in pedestrian fatalities since 2010 coincides with the rapid increase in cellphone use
  • Smartphone use and depression are correlated
  • 2/3 of Americans sleep with or next to their smartphones
Photograph by Bruno Reyna

Nomophobia and brain drain

Research published by the University of Chicago found that even if cell phones are turned off, turned face down or put away, their mere presence reduces people’s cognitive capacity. In other words, our phones give us “brain drain” even when we’re not using them!!

If that’s not enough, there’s a growing modern phenomenon called nomophobia (or, no-mobile-phone-phobia), which the Scientific American describes in this way:

(1) the feelings of anxiety or distress that some people experience when not having their phone (“I don’t know where my phone is!), and (2) the degree to which we depend on phones to complete basic tasks and to fulfill important needs such as learning, safety and staying connected to information and to others (“I’ll just get my phone to help me”). 

Balancing caregiving and self-care with smartphone use

It’s no wonder then that, after noticing how our own phone habits directly correlated with our sense of anxiety and scatteredness during the day, Michael and I wanted to majorly re-evaluate.

My own phone dependance was exasperated, on some level, by my anxieties related to caregiving responsibilities and convincing myself that I needed to be near my phone—to have it always nearby—because, well, what if something happens and what if someone can’t get a hold of me?

This isn’t to say that I haven’t received phone calls alerting me about an emergency involving one of my parents—it’s happened more than once in the past few years. However, the level of anxiety I’ve felt by keeping my phone constantly within reach—always accessible, always on—has taken a toll on my stress and focus (especially for creative projects).

This phone-related anxiety about reaching or being reachable by loved ones isn’t uncommon. According to a study by the UK Post Office, “Fifty-five percent of those surveyed cited keeping in touch with friends or family as the main reason that they got anxious when they could not use their mobile phones.”

For parents, this anxiety may feel especially acute. As a social worker friend (a parent herself) put it, she suspects that the tragic increase of school shootings has intensified many parents’ desires for immediate phone access with their children.

Smartphone impacts on learning and play

At the same time, we’re learning how smartphones affect children and adolescents in terms of their well-being and academic performance. In fact, many schools have enacted recent classroom technology bans, including at the collegiate level.

For instance, this article explores the impacts of mobile technology on childhood psychology and development, arguing that screen time takes away from learning and physically exploring the world through play and interactions:

Dr. Jenny Radesky of Boston Medical Center, became concerned when she noticed the lack of interaction between parents and children. She had observed that smartphones and handheld devices were interfering with bonding and parental attention….They (children) learn language, they learn about their own emotions, they learn how to regulate them. They learn by watching us how to have a conversation, how to read other people’s facial expressions. And if that’s not happening, children are missing out on important development milestones.

A closer look at our phone habits and how they make us feel

In order to become less digitally distracted, Michael and I took stock of our worst phone habits:

  • Responding habitually and instantly to texts and phone calls
  • Accessing social media in the mornings
  • Reading the news during meals and, ahem, even while in the bathroom!
  • Checking email multiple times
  • Having multiple text ‘conversations’ throughout the day
  • Feeling anxious about being away from the phone or turning it off
  • Relying on GPS while driving

Does this sound familiar at all? Can y’all relate? 😅 From here, we asked ourselves:

In a world that heralds busyness and makes us feel that our cell phones are inevitable and necessary, is it possible to change our phone habits? Can we cultivate a mindful way of using our phones and recover our attention away from ‘virtual living’ and spend more time for the real world—the off-screen world?

Photograph by Corey Agopian.

Our bodies vs. the wireless industry

On top of all the reasons cited above about how our phones negatively impact our well-being—kidnapping our attention, increasing our anxiety, reducing our cognitive capacity—there’s now growing evidence about additional, serious impacts of cell phones on our health.

According to The Guardian, a landmark United States government study concluded

‘clear evidence’ that radiation from mobile phones causes cancer, specifically, a heart tissue cancer in rats that is too rare to be explained as random occurrence….For a quarter of a century now, the industry has been orchestrating a global PR campaign aimed at misleading not only journalists, but also consumers and policymakers about the actual science concerning mobile phone radiation….And like their tobacco and oil counterparts, wireless industry CEOs lied to the public even after their own scientists privately warned that their products could be dangerous, especially to children.

While the true extent of mobile technology’s impact on our bodies may not be fully known or shared with the general public yet, it’s clear that our smartphone usage and addiction are both increasing.

In light of using our smartphones—devices designed to capture and maintain our attention—and our desire to cultivate more intentional habits, we’re keeping in mind this advice from Larry Rosen, psychology professor and co-author of The Distracted Mind:

Understand that your attention is fragile and you need to really work to increase that attention…It takes practice.

If you’re digitally distracted (like us) and trying to cultivate healthier habits, we leave you with this quote from this poignant article, “I Used to Be a Human Being,” by Andrew Sullivan about what led him to a meditation retreat center after quitting the web:

But of course, as I had discovered in my blogging years, the family that is eating together while simultaneously on their phones is not actually together. They are, in [Sherry] Turkle’s formulation, ‘alone together.’ You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.

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