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You’re walking down the street and suddenly think you feel a vibration coming from your pocket or purse. You believe your smartphone has just gone off, so you stop to check and discover it hasn’t. This innocent check may be a sign that your body has become conditioned to expect an interaction with your smartphone, so it is anticipating a vibration. It’s called phantom cell phone vibration.

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The scientific reason why this happens is not fully agreed upon or understood. Regardless, it’s further evidence that smartphones are having an impact on shaping human behaviour. If this happens to you, one way to stop this phantom vibration is to move your phone to another location, turn off vibrate and turn on the sound on your phone.

A study in the United Kingdom reported that 51 per cent of participants experienced severe anxiety when separated from their smartphone, and 28 per cent said they felt stressed when they weren’t carrying one.

Establishing a healthy norm is key as a baseline to monitor your smartphone use. A 2017 study reported the average American spends 2.51 hours a day on their smartphone, including both work and personal time.

Awareness

The increasing number of people getting access to smartphones and the increased amount of screen time they’re engaged in, both at work and for personal use, has resulted in more users developing a risk for smartphone behavioural addiction. Many behavioural addictions, such as gambling, shopping, food, online porn and sex trigger the brain’s reward system that ultimately drives the cycle of addiction.

Consider the power a bag of potato chips can have over a person who loves chips, has a history of eating chips as a stress outlet and is feeling stressed after a long day of work. If you fit this profile and a bag of chips is put in front of you with no one watching, the urge, tension and compulsion to eat may not go away until you actually eat the chips.

Any delay in gratification for those who have developed a dependency on their smartphone can result in a form of pain and anxiety that builds and impacts their emotions and thinking until they check for a message or notification.

The first step toward determining your risk for a smartphone behavioural addiction is awareness. If you have any reason to believe that you may be at risk, take a few minutes to complete this Smartphone Addiction Quick Survey.

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Accountability

Each behavioural addiction has its own unique pattern. It becomes problematic when the behaviour starts to drive psychological urges, compulsion and loss of control. For example, smartphone notifications go off and you feel you must immediately check; you’re not capable of delaying that action without feeling some form of internal discomfort or anxiety.

For a person at risk for a smartphone addiction, the urge to check their smartphone is like a gambler chasing a bet to win; each bet is an opportunity. The smartphone acts as a stimulus, suggesting the possibility of what could be good news, positive feedback, a career offer or whatever your mind can imagine. Or perhaps it’s a constant fear of missing out on something. The anticipation can become so intense that a person is unable to relax with other people in their presence because they’re hyper-focused on their smartphone.

One unintended consequence of advances in smartphone technology may be its effect on the quality of human interactions and communications.

If you become aware that you’re at risk for a smartphone behavioural addiction, the next step is to make a conscious decision to regain control.

Action

As smartphones become more advanced, many people are using them rather than watching TV or logging on to a computer. The key to reducing the risk of becoming controlled by your smartphone is to be aware and pay attention to how it’s influencing your behaviour and what you’re missing out on because of it.

One way to reduce your risk for developing a smartphone behavioural addiction is to manage the amount of time you spend on a personal screen each day.

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Recommendations for preventing a smartphone addiction:

Set a daily maximum and monitor your personal screen time. Screen-time apps can monitor how much personal time you spend on your smartphone. If you set two hours a day for personal screen time as your maximum and you can’t adhere to this limit, it may be a red flag that you’re becoming controlled by your smartphone and could help motivate you to take action to ensure you don’t lose control.

Sleep in a different room than your smartphone. Train your brain to sleep and relax. Waking up through the night to check messages as you hear a notification is a sign that you’re being pulled in by the stimulus-response power of a smartphone. The gap between a notification and your response builds the urge and tension until you check your phone. The more this becomes conditioned, the shorter the gap and the greater the compulsion to react immediately.

When you are with loved ones, turn off your smartphone. Create a protected space where the smartphone influence is zero and you can enjoy your family and friends. Whether at dinner, walks, dates, sports events or child events, turn off your phone. Allow yourself to enjoy authentic human connections without disruption. If you can’t do this, it may be a sign that you’re losing control of your private time.

Bill Howatt is the chief of research for work force productivity at the Conference Board of Canada, and former chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell.

Readers can also join a panel of experts from Morneau Shepell as they talk on an online webinar about the future of employee well-being on Dec. 13 at 11 a.m. ET. To register click here.

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You can find other stories like these at tgam.ca/workplaceaward.

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