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Climbing up the downward spiral: Cell phone ‘addiction’ and the work, play relationship

Posted on 01-08-15 in Addiction

Climbing up the downward spiral: Cell phone ‘addiction’ and the work, play relationship

It happens more often than we would like to admit; sometimes we find ourselves scrolling through our phones, feverishly looking for something that we just cannot quite remember. After a moment, or several, of flicking our thumbs and watching the screen roll like a slot machine, we then slowly start to realize that the reason that “thing” is so hard to remember is because that “thing” does not exist. Compulsive phone checking is one of the nation’s fastest growing epidemics, transcending all situations, aside from airplane rides and sometimes movie theaters.

Although the impulsive smartphone use research field is enjoying a growing body of research on its ability to torpedo work productivity and relationships, relatively few studies have set out to determine how it affects the rest of our time, much less the ways in which they exacerbate each other. However, recent research suggests that compulsive phone checking not only increases stress in our free time, but is part of a cycle that impairs our productivity and relationships both in and outside of work.

For instance, a Kent State University study on college students recently looked at how phone use affected their leisure time, finding the higher frequency users to experience feelings of being uptight and stressed during their free time, termed “leisure distress” by the researchers. Measuring daily cell phone usage, personality and experience of leisure, the students were categorized into groups based on similar patterns of smartphone use and personality (low-use extroverts, low-use introverts and a high-use group). The high-use group, making up roughly 25 percent of the test group (averaging 10 hours of daily use), experienced the most stress and anxiety in their leisure time; contrastingly, the low-use extrovert group (about three hours a day) felt the least amount of leisure boredom, having the most motivation to challenge themselves in their free time.

“The high-frequency cell phone user may not have the leisure skills necessary to creatively fill their free time with intrinsically rewarding activities. For such people, the ever-present smartphone may provide an easy, but less satisfying and more stressful, means of filling their time,” said Andrew Lepp, Ph.D., researcher at Kent State University.

While staring at our phones’ screens anxiously and aimlessly by all means has its place as a recreational activity, the real danger of leisure distress lies in its impairment of one’s desire to fill their free time with fun and meaningful activities. Studies have shown that less meaningful free time leads to more stress and anxiety at work, triggering more cell phone use and leisure distress in return. Although the study could not determine whether stress from smartphone compulsions at work is spilling over into free time or vice versa, it is likely that the workplace would be the source in most cases as that stress and the likelihood of impulses being triggered is considerably greater.

Breaking the addictive cellular cycle

The authors suggest that disconnecting from our phones for brief periods can reduce stress and make free time more productive, something easier said than done. Part of the issue lies in our mixing of our cell phones with work related tasks, giving us a constant reason/excuse to check our phones. Taking simple steps like using a work phone and email address can help redefine the boundaries that smartphones blur; for those who would find themselves in the “high-use” group, one effective trick (at least temporarily) is to set the phone to not buzz on silent. Since most phones still buzz by default when set to silent, simply setting your phone to it while at work can trick you into avoiding the anxiety of being separated from the device while not being drawn back into it every time you get an incoming message.

Although it should not be too surprising that something that makes work more fun would also make fun more work, impulsive phone use is appearing to be an addictive cycle that disrupts both our personal and professional lives. If we all took baby steps here and there to distance ourselves from our mobile companions, we could do wonders for our productivity at work and at home, or finally make Sovereign a quiet place to work at least.

Written by Chase Beckwith, Sovereign Health Group writer