Computers & Your Eyes III: Smartphones – Are You Addicted?

smartphone addictionAmericans spend about 1/3 of their waking hours on smartphones; young Americans spend even more.  Research finds that we spend almost twice as much time as we think we do and more than half of that time is in short bursts of less than 30 seconds.

Why is that a problem?

Research has found that such use can damage productivity, memory, attention-span, thinking outside the box, and increase cognitive errors, anxiety and stress levels, and impair the quality of sleep. Not only that, but the blue light emitted by computers and mobile devices damages the rods and cones and the pigmented layer of the retina and is associated with eye cancer. Blue light is especially damaging in low-light conditions and in the not yet fully developed retinas of children under age nine.

World Wide Addiction

Clinicians and psychologists now identify internet addiction as very close, pathologically, to gambling because it os driven by uncontrolled, automatic and habitual impulsive behavior. Its severity is measurable and the symptoms are predictable. A number of diagnostic screening tests have been developed to distinguish between people who are internet-dependent users and nondependent internet users.1 These diagnostic tests include the Internet Addiction Test (IAT) 2 and the Problematic and Risky Internet Use Scale (PRIUSS)3

And the addiction has resulted in a named condition: nomophobia – the fear of being without one’s smartphone – a phobia which affects about 40% of the population in 2013.

Internet or smartphone addiction is characterized by the same criteria used in assessing other addictions. 4

  1. Salience – use becomes one’s most important activity, above all others.
  2. Mood modification – use becomes a method of coping: to escape from boredom, from others, from anxiety.
  3. Tolerance – with time, more usage needed for the same results
  4. Withdrawal – anxiety, moodiness, irritability, physiological changes such high blood pressure
  5. Conflict – use conflicts with social life, with school, with work, one feels like no self-control is possible.
  6. Relapse – one decides to cut back on use, but there are repeated relapses.

Habitual checking

A 2011 study reported that people are not so much addicted to their smartphones as they are addicted to habitually checking their smartphone every few minutes – disrupting the capacity to focus attention, to concentrate, to be productive, and to be a socially adept human being.

Some numbers, and it’s world-wide

  • More than half of Americans own smartphones; 95% of teens and young adults are online, 75% own a computer.
  • They spend more than 3 hours a day online (average for teens is about 5 hours a day).
  • Nomophobia affects people in a perverse way. When smartphone users lose their phones 73% panic,14% feel desperate, 7% actually get sick and 6% (happily) feel relieved. 5
  • All over the world people take their smartphones to the dinner table, to the bathroom (12% even use their phones in the shower), to the bedroom.
  • 50% of users text while driving even though it is 6 times as dangerous as driving drunk.
  • 41% of Brits feel anxious when away from their smartphone, 51% feel “extreme tech anxiety.” 6
  • Women feel no-phone anxiety more than men with one survey finding that 70% of women experience it and 61% of men experience it.
  • A survey of 1600 managers found that 51% checked their smartphones continuously even when they were supposedly on vacation.

Symptoms of internet/smartphone addiction

  • Feeling anxious or irritable when the phone not in your immediate possession.
  • Constantly checking for new texts, compulsion to respond immediately.
  • Feeling anxiety if the phone rings but you can’t answer it. One study reported that if your phone rings and you can’t answer it, you experience a flight or fight response with a faster heart rate, raised blood pressure, sweating and decreased cognitive capacity.
  • Phantom phone vibration is experienced in which your body is so attentive to the smartphone that you repeatedly mistakenly think it is vibrating. 7
  • Not listening to others.
  • Problems in school – both behavioral and scholastic.
  • Using device as a way to change mood.
  • Other people complain about excessive use.
  • Phone is the most important thing in life, the one thing you can’t live without.
  • Inability to make accurate judgments in planning.

The dangers of internet/smartphone addiction

Damage to vision. The blue light emitted by electronic devices such as computers, smartphones and gaming devices delivers blue light to your retina and damages the photoreceptors and retinal pigments that protect the retina. The more you use your devices, the greater the damage. To some extent you can protect against this damage by supplementation with appropriate carotenoids such as lutein, zeaxanthin and astaxanthin.

Driving dangerously. A study of more than 1600 students and 1000 parents reported that 88% of teens use a smartphone while driving  (even teens who considered themselves to be ‘safe drivers.’) More than half of those teens said that they were texting their parents to let them know where they were or responding to their parents and 19% said that their parents expected a response within a minute.

Problems in school. In four English cities, involving more than 130,000 students, smartphones were banned in school. As a result test scores improved by 6.4%; for students who had been doing poorly, test scores improved by 14.23%. The conclusion? Poor students are easily distracted, high achievers are more able to focus. 8

Psychiatric problems. A European study of almost 12,400 high-use teens (5+ hours a day) are at greater risk for serious psychiatric problems such as depression, anxiety and suicide, especially when that high-use is combined with not enough sleep (e.g. less than 8 hours a day) and not getting even moderate exercise. 9

Memory and decision-making. Extensive multitasking brought about by excessive computer/smartphone use damages memory and cognitive functioning.  The damage appears to be associated with the poor (hypofunctioning) functioning of the frontal cortex lobe in the brain, which is responsible for attention, short-term memory, planning and motivation. 10

Another study also demonstrated that multitasking  has long-term harmful effects on brain functioning. Over 260 college students had to multitask while at the same time filtering out irrelevant information and using their memory to complete the tasks. The chronic multitaskers had poor memory and poor capacity to screen out unrelated information even when they were not multitasking. 11 Another study evaluating a group of high-internet users, students with ADHA and a group with both conditions found that they had impaired inhibition and poor working memory compared to controls. 12

Sleep disorders. The blue light emitted by smartphones is partly responsible for poor sleep. Blue light inhibits formation of melatonin which is the hormone that tells your body it is ready for sleep.  Of course, having the phone in one’s bedroom and checking it right before bed, as well as during the night, is not helpful.

Depression and anxiety. A study of 230 high-use Korean students found that they had fewer catecholamines and higher levels of anxiety even when they were not using the internet. 13 Catecholamines are hormones such as dopamine which increase in the body when you are happy.

Flight or fight.  iPhone users who were denied use of their phones while completing word puzzles experienced typical flight or fight symptoms with increased heart rate, high blood pressure and anxiety. In addition, their ability to complete the word puzzles was impaired, even after the iPhones were returned to them. 14

What to do

Recognize your problem. The hardest task might be to recognize that you have a problem. If you have the habit of responding immediately to emails, messages, of checking Facebook every few minutes, of tapping on your smartphone screen in the restroom, of checking your smartphone last thing before bed and first thing in the morning … you do have a problem.

Don’t multitask. Set aside chunks of time during your day for answering email, working, using social media, watching television, reading the news. Start by allowing 5 or 10 minutes at the beginning of each hour and then turn off your email/messaging notifications the rest of the time so that you don’t feel compelled to answer immediately. Multitasking, itself, is damaging to cognitive brain functioning and memory.

Wean yourself. Wean yourself from the need to constantly check your phone. Not surprisingly, there are smartphone apps to help you do so for both the iPhone (Moment) and the Android (Breakfree).

Be conscious. What makes you want to spend more time on the internet? Boredom? Loneliness? Investigate how you feel and try other things to alleviate that symptom. For example get up and stretch or do a little yoga, get a drink of water. Are you hungry? Have a great lunch. Challenge yourself to sit through an entire program on television without checking your phone.

Be social.  Turn off your smartphone with you are with others, whether at a restaurant or watching TV. Turn off your smartphone when you are doing your homework or helping your child with hers. Turn off your smartphone when you are spending time with your friends. One restaurant in L.A. even offers a 5% discount to guests who leave their smartphone with the receptionist.

Not while driving. Do not use your smartphone while driving. Turn it off so that you are not even tempted by a phone ring. Texting while driving causes 6 times as many accidents as driving drunk. You have a designated driver if partying. Have a designated phone answerer if need be.

Prevention.If your profession requires many hours on the computer, use good computer use habits.  Get adequate nutrition to support the antioxidant activity in your eyes.  Eat a healthy diet with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens.  Get plenty of exercise such as a minimum of a 20 minute brisk walk daily or the equivalent, and take regular breaks from the computer to relax your eyes and do a couple of minutes of eye exercises.

Next: Nutritional support, diet, & lifestyle tips for computer eye fatigue.

Introduction  I: Computer Vision Syndrome  II: Blue Light  III: Addiction

  1. Kimberly S. Young, Psy.D., Internet Addiction: The Emergence of a New Clinical Disorder, CyberPsychology & Behavior, January 2009.
  2. Internet Addiction Test (IAT)
  3. The Problematic and Risky Internet Use Screening Scale (PRIUSS), Laren Jelenchick, Adolescent Health Research Team, University of Wisconsin, 2012.
  4. Griffiths M. D., Internet Addiction – Time To Be Taken Seriously?, Addiction Research, August 2000.
  5. Psychology Today, July,2013.
  6. Ishbel MacLeod, Over half of Brits suffer ‘extreme tech anxiety’ when separated from smartphones, TheDrum, July, 2013.
  7. Patrick Thibodeau, Cellphone vibration syndrome and other signs of tech addiction, ComputerWorld, May, 2012.
  8. Louis-Philippe Beland, Richard Murphy, Technology, Distraction & Student Performance, Centre for Economic Performance, May, 2015.
  9. Vladimir Carli, et al., A newly identified group of adolescents at “invisible” risk for psychopathology and suicidal behavior: findings from the SEYLE study, World Psychiatry, February, 2014.
  10. J. Liu, et al, Functional characteristics of the brain in college students with internet gaming disorder, Brain Imaging Behavior, March, 2015.
  11. Clifford Nass, et al, Cognitive control in media multitaskers, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A., September, 2009.
  12. J. Nie, Impaired inhibition and working memory in response to internet-related words among adolescents with internet addiction: A comparison with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Psychiatry Research, January, 2016.
  13. N. Kim, Resting-State Peripheral Catecholamine and Anxiety Levels in Korean Male Adolescents with Internet Game Addiction, Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, February, 2016.
  14. Russell B. Clayton, et al, The Extended iSelf: The Impact of iPhone Separation on Cognition, Emotion, and Physiology, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, January, 2015.