Phone addiction may afflict millions: therapies rely on time-outs

 16 Apr 2016 - 12:15

Phone addiction may afflict millions: therapies rely on time-outs
A woman texts although her baby is crying. It's when you neglect more important things like childcare that bondage to the phone becomes serious. (File photo/Bildagentur-online/Tetra-Images / dpa)


Addiction looms for millions of users unable to take their eyes off their smartphones. The satisfactions are just too alluring.

By Julia Ruhnau

You can do virtually everything with your smartphone - chat, surf the internet, play games, shop online and look for a partner - and that precisely is the problem. Addiction looms for millions of users unable to take their eyes off their devices.

Computer scientist Alexander Markowetz has conducted research into digital burnout and says it is the way the user-phone interaction works that is addictive. "I carry out an action, and I get a surprise," is how he analyses the conditioned behaviour.

The "action" is tapping the screen. The "surprise" varies: Has anyone viewed my party photo? Is there any news? Or the next message from friends, or the latest Like on Facebook or the next level in the online game.

All this generates dopamine, the "happiness hormone," ensuring that the user will soon reach for the display again to get another fix.

"This is getting maximum reward for minimum effort," says Michael Knothe, a spokesman for Germany's association on media dependency.

Merely looking at your smartphone frequently does not mean that you are addicted in the view of Kai Mueller, a hospital psychologist working in gambling addiction.

"There are certain risk factors that people bring to it," he believes. Some use their smartphone for distraction in stress situations or to avoid unpleasant chores.

"You should start to worry if your whole world turns on your mobile phone and you even break into pleasant activities to look at the display," Mueller says at his office in Mainz, Germany.

Merely chatting for hours while still going as usual to the sports club or school does not count as addiction. It's when social contacts suffer, or you neglect more important things like childcare, that bondage to the phone becomes serious.

Mueller says the risk from a smartphone is greater than from gambling machines or PCs, because it is always there and there are no natural breaks in use.

"It's important to lay down definite time-outs," he says.

Even where addiction is not an issue, constantly looking at the display means that "productivity and well-being suffer," says Markowetz, who works at the University of Bonn and has developed an app called Menthal that measures smartphone user behaviour.

While his figures are not representative, they do have a certain validity, as the app is running on 300,000 smartphones. The data reveals that users look on average at their phone displays 88 times a day, with an action following in 53 cases.

He calls this "anti-yoga," as it undermines concentration and distracts from the essential.

"With yoga you go into a healthy physical posture and focus the mind. Surfing on a smartphone leads many people to take up an absurd posture and go looking for distraction."

Knothe advocates keeping track of mobile phone use and exercising greater self-control. "It helps to estimate how much time a mobile takes up and what the alternatives are," he says.

Mueller's strategy is to advocate offline days on which the device is turned off. In addition, smartphones have no place in bed or at the dinner table, he argues.

There are various apps to help kick the habit, some offering rewards for a timeout.

Another trick that Markowetz advises is to wear a wristwatch, have an alarm clock at the bedside and to carry the mobile in a rucksack rather than in a pocket, making it more difficult to reach.