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Cell phone addiction: Real and depressing

By on May 30, 2018 in Columnist with 0 Comments

Jim BrownBy Jim Brown, M.D.

The iPhone was launched in 2007, and when it was unveiled, Steve Jobs called it a revolutionary and a magical product that was five years ahead of any other mobile phone.

Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, said it was the most expensive phone in the world. That expense didn’t seem to deter consumers since by 2016 over 1 billion of these phones had been sold.

A recent Pew Research study showed 77 percent of Americans own smart phones, an increase from 35 percent in 2011.

It makes me wonder with the cost of these phones as well as the monthly cell phone service, how so many families can afford them. What are they sacrificing to keep this habit going?

It might surprise some people that using a “smart” cell phone can be considered addicting. One definition of addiction is the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice that is psychologically or physically habit forming. There are several “tests” to see if a person is “addicted” to their phone.

A relatively simple one follows:

n Do you panic when you have misplaced or can’t find your phone?

n Are you on your phone during social interactions or in the presence of your family?

n Do you carry your smart phone everywhere you go even when you go to the bathroom? (I’ve heard of people taking them into the shower as well.)

n Do you go to sleep and wake up looking at your phone. We know looking at your cell phone or computer just before trying to sleep decreases your natural melatonin level which decreases your ability to get a good night’s sleep.

Now in the 21st Century there is a new term for the fear of not being able to use your cell phone or other smart device. That term is nomophobia. It is derived from: NO MObile PHOne phoBIA.

I am not making this up.

I believe smart phones are a remarkable invention and are very useful. It’s the misuse and over use leading to dependency that concerns me as a physician.

A recent columnist wrote about our nation’s current “loneliness” epidemic.

Relationships are a valuable life-creating resource for any society. They help us not only to survive but also to grow emotionally and to thrive.

It is estimated 40 percent of us say we are lonely, so it isn’t surprising our suicide rates currently are at a 30 year high. The rate of depression is also increasing.

A recent article suggests cell phones are accelerating social collapse in this country. Cell phones have been suggested to result in a decreasing level of teenage dating (which might make some parents happy) but it also is an activity that helps young people prepare for adulthood.

People using social media to excess are 27 percent more likely to be depressed. This isn’t just a teenage or millennial issue. A global survey suggested 56 percent of teenagers think their parents check their devices too often and 32 percent felt “unimportant” when their parents are distracted by their phones.

There is a growing body of evidence of the negative effects smart phones and the internet have on our minds when used in excess.

A Korean study of teenage boys who had been diagnosed with cell phone addiction underwent brain imaging and other studies. They had a higher level of a neurotransmitter called GABA that inhibits brain neurons rather than the neurotransmitter that energizes brain cells.

These young boys had poorer attention spans and emotional control and were more vulnerable to distractions. This suggests when one is too dependent or addicted to a smart phone, they are damaging their ability to be attentive.

I suspect our over-burdened teachers are well aware of inattentive students in their classrooms but might not have suspected the role cell phones were playing in this.

According to most surveys, so-called “millennials” (born between 1982 and 2004) are the biggest users of smartphones and most likely to fall into the “addicted” category.

Nevertheless according to a recent study, half of all teenagers feel “addicted” to their cell phones. About 78 percent of teens check their phones hourly.

Being connected to their phones often means they are disconnected from others, leading to isolation, decreased interpersonal relationships and social skills.

Like any addiction we hope for some solution or help for those who are caught up in a habitual behavior. Some of the activities that have been suggested for cell phone addiction are:

n Put you phone on silent a good part of the day.

n Turn off your phone and put it away when you are with your friends and family. Be attentive to them and their conversation rather than your phone.

n Don’t sleep with your phone. Turn it off and put it in a drawer. You will definitely sleep better.

n Detox — use a weekend to go without your phone. Give your brain a chance to normalize periodically.

During the last election I quit Facebook since I was too upset by the vitriolic comments and hatred flooding it from all directions. I do not miss it.

My wife thought I was using my phone too much. Recently my phone’s battery was dying so I sent it in to Apple for a battery replacement.

After going a week without my iPhone, I realized I really didn’t miss it all that much, and I could go without it much of the time.

I am making a commitment to myself to use my cell phone less and not take it with me where ever I go. If anyone wants to contact me it can go to voice mail, gmail or text.

It will still be there later when I get together with my cell phone.

There can’t be that much important in the 2.6 million emails that are sent every second worldwide every day.

Jim Brown, M.D., is a retired gastroenterologist who has practiced for 38 years in the Wenatchee area. He is a former CEO of the Wenatchee Valley Medical Center.

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