Smartphone Sickness

Here’s a question for you:

How many times a day would you guess you look at your phone?

And another question:

How many times a day do you touch your phone?

Ready for the shocking answers…

One UK study reported users looked at their smartphones 221 times a day and touched their phones more than 2,000 times a day.

We all have read and heard the scary warnings about smartphone addiction. We know the horrible, panicked, uncomfortable feeling we have when we realize we have left our phone at home for the day, but do we really know that smartphones are physically harmful or cause disease?

Well, a group of scientists decided to measure the levels of a hormone produced by the body, called cortisol, during times of stress. They hypothesized that that smartphone addicts would have higher levels of cortisol. Cortisol is the “fight or flight” hormone- what helped the cavemen get ready to fight off the wooly mammoth. At high levels, cortisol increases your heart beat, releases more sugar into your blood stream, and activates your brain to get ready for a potential threat. But Mother Nature never designed us human beings to have this fight or flight response multiple times an hour or day. Researchers have already shown that chronically-high levels of cortisol increase your risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, infertility, dementia and stroke.

In the smartphone cortisol study, participants’ levels of cortisol were elevated even when their phone was in sight or nearby, when they heard it and even when they thought they heard it. We all are living in a state of hypervigilance, on edge, just waiting for the next text, notification, email, or social media slight. In the short term, higher levels of cortisol have also been shown to influence brain function (memory), job performance, sleep quality, and the ability of our bodies to stay healthy and fight off disease (immune system function). So, not only do years smartphone addiction and elevated cortisol levels potentially cause chronic health conditions, but nomophobia (no-mobile-phone-phobia, or the fear of being without our phone) is also harming us on a daily basis.

Even though psychologists have proposed smartphone addiction be added to the catalog of psychological disorders (DSM), doctors and scientists have shown a possible biochemical link between smartphones and disease, don’t go checking your self into a Digital Detox bootcamp or addiction treatment program quite yet. Use these researchers’ findings to your advantage: Remind yourself that somethings as simple putting your phone out of sight (as painful as it might be), could be helping you live a longer, healthier life. There are a few small steps that you can try to incorporate into your daily life to try to bring your relationship with your phone back from nomophobic proportions:

1. Be aware. Even if you do give in and check your phone, notice how long you can wait before picking it up and checking it. Pay attention to what you are thinking and how you are feeling when you are tempted to check your phone or even touch it.

2. Take a break. Purposely leave your phone outside of your bedroom for one night a week. Turn your phone off and put it in another room while you eat dinner each night. Try to wait 1 hour each morning before turning on your phone. Choose realistic and small goals for your phone vacation when you begin so you are more likely to be successful.

3. Avoid notifications. The “Notifications” tab under your “Settings” section on your phone can be your newest health coach. Challenge yourself to turn off as many notifications as possible. The less your phone beeps, buzzes, flashes, or tries to steal your attention, the lower your cortisol levels will be, and the healthier you can be.

Afifi, Tamara & Zamanzadeh, Nicole & Harrison, Kathryn & Callejas, Acevedo. (2018). WIRED: The impact of media and technology use on stress (cortisol) and inflammation (interleukin IL-6) in fast paced families *. Computers in Human Behavior. 81. 265-273. 10.1016/j.chb.2017.12.010.

Price, Catherine. Putting your phone down may help you live you longer. New York Times, April 24, 2019.

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