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How to combat 'phoneliness'

A new study likens smartphone addiction to substance abuse. Here are some ways to break the habit.

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Digital addiction is real, and the symptoms include increased loneliness, anxiety and depression.

Photo by Farhad Sadykov/Flickr

How many times per day do you interact with your phone? A few? A few dozen? Maybe a hundred? In what probably comes as a surprise to no one, too much of this can be bad for your health -- your mental health.

According to a recent NeuroRegulation study, digital addiction is real, and smartphones are causing it in a growing number of people. What's more, the symptoms and behaviors mimic those of actual substance abuse and can include increased loneliness (which the study calls "phoneliness"), anxiety and depression.

Although the study concludes with a few strategies to combat digital addiction, I wanted to know more about the problem and ways to overcome it. So I reached out to clinical forensic psychologist Dr. John Huber, chairman of the non-profit organization Mainstream Mental Health. We spoke via email; here's what he told me.

Q: How would you define "phoneliness"? 
Huber: The uncontrollable urge to pick up your phone and check it, just in case you missed something. 

How can I be experiencing this phenomenon when I'm surrounded by people? 
Huber: The issue is much like stimulus response conditioning that was first demonstrated by Pavlov and his dogs by ringing a bell. When we get a notification, a like on "Instagram" or any other social media app, our brain releases a very small amount of dopamine. This is the same neurotransmitter released when your brain is fed cocaine. It is addictive both mentally and physically. In fact, with just two hours of screen time, research shows that people begin to exhibit behavioral signs of depression. 

If I'm a heavy phone user, does that mean I'm addicted to it? Maybe I just need it for work. 
Huber: Modern life has given us some huge demands on our time, and to function most efficiently we use technology. Heavy phone use is part of that trend.

When not at work, do you find yourself checking your phone or not attending to conversations with live people directly in front of you? Do you feel uneasy when you don't have your phone on your person? Do you find yourself lost in thought thinking about what you could be doing on your phone? These are all signs you may be more than a heavy user and maybe you should seek help. 

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What are some of the key symptoms of this addiction? 
Huber: Feeling isolated when you do not have your phone, even with friends and family physically present. Feeling anxious when you do not have a good cell connection. You find yourself avoiding human interaction by using your cell phone. These are just the tip of the iceberg, 

What are some good ways to reduce daily smartphone use? 
Huber: Don't charge your phone overnight near your sleeping area. By giving yourself 10 to 30 minutes phone-free in the morning, you increase the likelihood of increased interactions with other humans -- and you get a better night's sleep.

When eating meals, turn your phone off. It shows respect for the people you are with and helps retrain your mind to prioritize the actual people around you.

Probably most important, engage in activities that require you to use both hands during your leisure time, preferably outside. Activities such as tennis, basketball, fishing, camping, even martial arts give us time to clear our mind and get our hearts pumping, which is always a good thing.

Mindfulness meditation is very popular right now, but the irony is we use meditation apps on our phones. Does this just worsen the problem? 
Huber: Mindfulness meditation is a way to meditate by focusing on paying attention. Using phone apps and/or YouTube videos to do meditation is, in a lot of ways, defeating the purpose of the meditation.

Phones are designed to make you focus on them, so are you really learning to meditate or are we still just playing with your phone? If you want to calm yourself and attain inner peace, the best way to do that is inside yourself, not with an app.

Using social media and apps to increase our social interaction can be good for business and may keep you [connected to] society and the world in general. These interactions, though reinforced by a neurochemical process, are much like drinking a diet soda: It tastes sweet and fills your tummy, but it lacks in real nutritional value, and in the long run, too much can be harmful.

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