When was the last time you checked your smartphone?
If it was 25 minutes ago, congratulations, that’s almost twice as long as the average Brit or American, who steals a glance every 12 minutes.
Any longer apart and it’s possible you may experience “nomophobia” – a freshly coined term used to describe smartphone separation anxiety.
And if the anxiety caused by not checking your phone a multitude of times each day doesn’t upset you, there’s always a chance that “phubbing” will – the experience of being snubbed by someone you are talking to as they check their phone mid-conversation.
From the expanding lexicon of terms associated with it, to its ubiquity of use, the smartphone has lived up to Steve Jobs’ prediction, made on introducing the first iPhone in 2007, that: “Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.”
But it’s a change which is paradoxically liberating and confining at the same time – just ask UniSA student Jessica Thomas (pictured in main image above).
Jessica spends about six hours or longer on her phone each day, checks any notification on social media sites “within 30 seconds” of a ping and admits to feeling anxious if her device is not with her.
“When I am unable to use my phone, I stress about all the new things occurring in all my applications, and not being able to know about it,” Jessica says.
“Within the past seven days I spent 6.7 hours a day on my iPhone, with Facebook messenger and Instagram being the top two apps I spend time on.
“Numerous cases of physical pain have affected my life due to my phone usage.
“This extends from sore and blurry eyes followed with excessive squinting, to terrible posture and slouching, as I don’t hold my phone at eye level when I use it, I tend to look downwards.
“This 6+ hour slouching causes significant neck and upper back pain.”
The physical discomfort and anxiety Jessica feels, related to her phone use, is not uncommon and points to wider concerns about the harmful effects of excessive smartphone use.
UniSA partnered research has found that of a group of 779 Thai university students who use smartphones, 32 per cent reported neck pain, 26 per cent shoulder pain, 20 per cent upper back pain and 19 per cent wrist and hand pain.
Musculoskeletal disorders were more common among students with higher smartphone use (more than five hours a day) and those who smoked and did little exercise.
Dr Rose Boucaut, a UniSA physiotherapist involved in the research, says the awkward postures adopted by smartphone users can adversely affect the body’s soft tissues.
“Smartphone users typically bend their neck slightly forward when reading and writing text messages.
“They also sometimes bend or twist their neck sideways and put their upper body and legs in awkward positions,” Dr Boucaut says.
“These postures put uneven pressure on the soft tissues around the spine that can lead to discomfort.”
Further research is under way to investigate ways to improve posture during smartphone use.
In addition, it’s not uncommon to hear of cases of people tripping, falling or walking into objects while using their phone.
Poor posture, “text-neck” and accidents related to distraction are indicative of the physical hardships smartphone users may be prone to, but what of the device’s impact on mental health?
The way smartphones are being used is evolving: a 2018 study by UK communications regulator Ofcom, noted a decline over the past decade in the amount of time people spend making actual calls, alongside an increase in the use of social media and messaging services to communicate.
As a pocket computer stacked with apps, today’s smartphone functions differently to its predecessors. As Silicon Valley executive Tristan Harris said: “Your telephone in the 1970s didn’t have a thousand engineers updating the way your telephone worked every day to be more and more persuasive.”
Science journalist Catherine Price is the author of How to Break Up With Your Phone (phonebreakup.com) and the founder of Screen/Life Balance (screenlifebalance.com), an initiative devoted to helping people develop better relationships with their devices.
“Phones and apps are packed with triggers for dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that tells our brains when something is worth doing again,” Price says.
“Two of the strongest dopamine triggers are novelty and unpredictability – the more unpredictable and novel something is, the more we’re going to want to do it again. When we check our phones, we usually find something new waiting for us, which makes our brains release dopamine, which teaches us that checking our phones is worth repeating, which makes us want to check our phones even more.
“Conversely, once this dopamine link has been established, we begin to release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol when we can’t check our phones. We feel twitchy and irritable, and we keep reaching for our phones even if we know they’re not there. In other words, we begin to exhibit signs of withdrawal.
“If you spend that much time doing anything, it’s going to change your brain. And in this case, the effects aren’t good: the time we spend on our phones is reducing our attention spans and weakening our memories, damaging our relationships, lowering our self-esteem, making us less creative and productive, and actually harming our physical health (whether by keeping us up later than we’d like, or by causing repetitive strain injuries).
“In other words, our phones may seem innocuous, but they’re not.”
Not innocuous – but increasingly used by a huge number of young children late at night.
Research by UniSA’s Behaviour-Brain-Body Research Centre in partnership with Resilient Youth Australia, has found that a quarter of children aged 7-8 are now using mobile phones at night (between 10pm and 6am).
“Using smartphones at night is now common among children at that age and it will be a concern for parents and carers because not only does phone use impact negatively on sleep, but we are finding that it also increases angry or hurtful communication,” says Dr Stephanie Centofanti, one of the lead researchers.
“One of the more obvious ways in which using a smartphone at night disrupts sleep, relates to the phone’s light which can disrupt circadian rhythms and cause havoc to the body’s biological clock.
“This research highlighted other negative effects, indicating that night-time phone use was associated with a fourfold increase in the odds of receiving hurtful messages and an almost threefold increase in the odds of being cyberbullied.”
Further UniSA research, detailed in the Safe and Well Online (SWO) study, shows that internet use after 11pm appears to be a risk factor for cyber-victimisation, social connectedness, mental health and wellbeing for some young people.
Associate Professor Barbara Spears (pictured right), who co-led the SWO project with Dr Carmel Taddeo (pictured below) and Dr Alan Barnes, describes the nexus between cyberbullying, phone use and sexting as a “reality”.
“But one is not causative of the other. Cyberbullying is embedded in bullying behaviour, and restricting mobile phones may well decrease access and therefore opportunity, but it will not change the bullying behaviour per se,” Dr Spears says.
Dr Taddeo says the suggestion that a legal age limit be introduced for smartphone users is fast becoming irrelevant in an age of hyper connectivity.
“We then need to ask ourselves, will there also be a legal age for computer use, tablet use? What about hybrid devices?
“With increasing connectivity and smart technology, conversations that focus on restricting the use of specific devices is increasingly becoming an irrelevant and dated discussion,” Dr Taddeo says.
“These conversations do not need to be underpinned by legislation and legal frameworks, but rather underpinned by youth voice.”
The aim should be to provide young people the requisite knowledge and skills to ensure their safety, health and wellbeing when online, Dr Taddeo says.
“It requires research that informs strategies and education programs that are effective in supporting and ensuring young people’s healthy, productive and positive uses of technology, regardless of the type of device,” she says.
In a similar way, Catherine Price advocates taking a responsible approach to phone ownership rather than ditching the device altogether; customising your own internal settings in order to create a healthier relationship with an object, that for many, is within arm’s reach every moment of the day.
“In other words, it’s like going from an obsessive romance where you’re constantly craving the person and can’t bear to be apart – to just being friends.”