Your smartphone is likely to be your most-used gadget and even one of your most important possessions. We all use them for the traditional duties of phone call and texts, but such is the power and capabilities of modern devices that we now rely on these glowing rectangles to tell us our schedule, how to get places, listen to music, take photographs and video, browse the internet, control our heating, book train tickets, social media, play games and even to pay for things in shops.
So we’re interacting with our phones more than ever before, but just how much of a problem is that? Research has now identified links between our use of devices and various mental health problems, including the new phenomena of Phone Separation Anxiety. So, how can we determine whether we’re spending too much staring and screens, and what steps are there to prevent this becoming a serious problem?
Here are some ways you can work towards having a healthy relationship with your screens.
What is Phone Separation Anxiety?
Nomophobia is the condition where users feel anxiety or fear when their phone isn’t nearby. The term isn’t some classic Latin-based term, but rather comes from the contraction of No Mobile Phone Phobia, as our Roman ancestors didn’t have to contend with iPhones back when they were putting together the language, which is maybe how they managed to complete the task in the time they did and get on with some straight roads.
The condition is also known as Phone Separation Anxiety, although both terms are still in the early stages of acceptance, with more studies needed before either will appear officially in the International Classification of Diseases that is used by the medical profession.
Effects of PSA aren’t limited to just anxiousness when phones are out of reach, there’s also disruption to sleep, eye-strain, and some suffers even reporting that they can hear the phone ringing or message alerts even when the phone isn’t present. Research conducted in the USA on college students found that ‘being without one's mobile phone might lead to habitual distraction in everyday situations such as classroom learning, heightened state of anxiety, and poor short-term memory. Specifically, being without one's phone may lead to distracting thoughts on what messages or news may be awaiting.’
So far, there have been a number of reports outlining the potential effects of PSA, with a recent entry in the International Journal of Research in Medical Sciences concluding that;
‘Nomophobia is an emerging adverse effect associated with mobile phone use. It is prevalent in all age groups and varied geographical locations and is associated with prolonged use of mobile phones. Early intervention for such unconventional problematic entity, in the form of lifestyle changes and promoting the judicious use of mobile phones, is required to avoid dependency and addiction of mobile phones and its adverse effects on individual’s health.’
As with many addictions, the condition intensifies when people use their phones heavily, which is why some studies have focused on teenagers and millennials who are more likely to have smartphones and spend a lot of time on them.
There have also been links between the use of social media and depression or loneliness, especially in the groups mentioned above. A study at the University of Pennsylvania in 2018 showed that when one group was asked to reduce its use of social media to thirty minutes a day (10 mins on each of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram), while another continued to use them at their normal rate, the first group showed ‘significant reductions in loneliness and depression over three weeks compared to the control group’. Interestingly, both groups saw a reduction in these areas during the test, which was attributed to them all being more conscious of how they were using the technology.
The conclusion of the study stated, ‘Our findings strongly suggest that limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day may lead to significant improvement in well-being.’
And it should also answer the question of whether you're using your phone too much: if you can't go for half an hour without picking it up, if it's the first thing you reach for in the morning and the last thing you look at before you go to sleep, you could probably benefit from trying some of the following tips.
How to reduce your phone usage
No-one is seriously saying that we should bin our smartphones and go back to landlines and iPods, but as the evidence above suggests, we should all be more aware of how much we use our devices and curtail any excessive tendencies before they become a real problem.
Apple and Google now make this easier with Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing apps that allow you to monitor your usage and set limits for how long you can spend on certain apps each day. There are also a number of helpful apps that aim to stop the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) drive that makes people so eager to keep checking their feeds for new messages.
One of the most peaceful is Forest, which acts as a timer that allows you to put down your phone and not touch it again for 30 minutes. During this time the screen will stay on and a tree will slowly grow from its tiny acorn. If you manage to refrain from using the device then you’ll be rewarded with points, but should you pick up the phone and use it the tree will die.
Seems a bit dramatic, but the app's popularity shows that it’s a good way to reassert control over your impulses.
Headspace is another well regarded app that helps users calm their minds and think rather than tap. The software contains many guided meditation sessions, mindfulness exercises, and sleep aids that can turn your phone use into a healthy and beneficial activity.
Take a holiday from your smartphone
We’re aware of the irony of trying to combat phone addiction with apps that run on those very devices. So, you could try and altogether more radical route.
Invest in a traditional ‘dumb’ phone as a companion to your smart one. Then, one day a week, swap the SIM into the former and go for a walk, enjoy a book in your favourite coffee shop, head out to the gym or whatever it is that you like to do to relax. You’ll still be contactable, thus hopefully reducing the anxiety of being away from your phone, but the internet and all its seductive charms will be left in the drawer at home.
You’ll find a selection of these basic phones in our chart, so spend a little bit of money on one of those so you don’t have to spend as much time staring at a screen. Now, stop reading this, put down your phone and breath. There’s plenty to do and see in the world, all of which looks better when it isn’t framed in a widescreen display. Enjoy it and be sure to look after yourself and others along the way.