Woman using a mobile phone

The endless scroll – most of us know it well. But where does screen obsession fit into today’s self-care focused society?

It doesn’t, says Mariam Wahby, PhD, LMFT, education specialist with Behavioral Health Services at Memorial Hermann Health System.

Here’s what you need to know.

Q: How Do You Know if You Have a Problem?

A: Beware if you sense – or family, friends or bosses mention – you’re overly tethered to technology, Dr. Wahby says. You also may be in too deep digitally if you:

  • Consistently lose track of time while on your phone
  • Feel anxious when sparated from your phone
  • Reply to texts, emails and social messages at all hours or while eating or driving,
  • Slumber with your turned-on phone beneath your pillow or on your nightstand
  • Text, DM or email people more than talking to them in person

Consider it time to power down if you answer yes to five of the fifteen statements in a quiz by The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction: https://virtual-addiction.com/smartphone-compulsion-test/.

Q: What Are the Risks of Being Screen-Obsessed?

A: As with drugs, phone addiction builds a thirst for longer and more frequent hits. Connecting may feel good in the moment but may be followed by regret, Dr. Wahby says.

Not only that, but doubling up – scrolling one’s social media while watching TV – triggers symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

“Even if you don’t have ADHD, you may no longer be entertained by a single forum, needing multiple screens and stimulations,” Dr. Wahby says.

Tech tools also fuel isolation and depression because their use fails to resonate with the limbic part of our brain. Communication devices ironically disconnect us from deeper feelings.

“Chasing likes can lead people to feel validation when others share posts – and less worthy when they don’t.,” adds Dr. Wahby.

Teens, arguably our most plugged-in generation, seem to suffer. Adolescents who linger longest on new media (including social media and cell phones) were more likely to report mental health troubles than those who devoted more time to non-screen activities such as in-person social interaction, sports, homework and reading.

In 2015, 42% of high schoolers confessed they sent texts and email while driving, the CDC reports. Taking just five seconds to glance down at a text while driving is the time you’d travel the length of an entire football field.

Such distracted driving endangers us and others, killing 3,450 yearly – more than nine a day, according to 2016 data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Association.

Q: Is Addiction Too Harsh a Term to Use?

A: No, Dr. Wahby says. Much like other addictions, excessive use of communication devices follows an arch: abuse, increased tolerance that requires greater use, dependence and a feeling of restlessness and irritability when attempting to quit, followed by a high risk of relapse before ultimate success.

“It may not be recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic tool known as DMS (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), but if you look up the criteria for gambling, you could plug in digital abuse,” she says.

“Our brain becomes wired to intermittent rewards, just as it does when we gamble. Seeing notifications on your phone when you check it is much like playing slot machines,” she adds. “You lose, lose and lose, but then you win, before losing again.”

Q: How Can You Successfully Give Your Screen a Time-Out?

A: Your technology delivers entertainment and links to the outside world. To unplug, Dr. Wahby says, you need an alternative such as walking, reading, stretching, meditating or being mindful.

“You’ve got to replace one activity with another or you may fail to disconnect digitally.” She suggests reading, walking, stretching, meditating or focusing on the now and your surroundings, when tempted by your tech.

Start the morning with a new routine rather than grabbing your cell upon awakening. “Not only does that set the tone for your day, but you also will be able to focus and run on time, versus getting absorbed with what you missed on social media,” she suggests.

We’re often annoyed by telemarketers invading our personal time, yet we allow communication devices to do so. Create a no-tech zone of device-free domains in bedrooms and dining rooms, Dr. Wahby suggests.

Lead by example if you want your kids to unplug. Toddlers under age two should only video-chat online, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises. Preschoolers’ screen time – TV included – should be curbed to just one hour daily. One hour!

Gradually detox digitally. You might put your phone on airplane mode for 15 minutes, double that two days later and build up to forsaking Twitter, Instagram or another app for an entire day, Dr. Wahby says.

Tracking apps such as Moment can be sobering, but educational. “You can get a sense of areas where you struggle and adjust your use,” she adds.

If you still cannot cut the cord, consider downgrading to a phone with fewer features.

Q: Why Is It Important to Reduce Screen Time Before Bed?

A: Our bodies power down based on our circadian rhythms -- our internal alarm clock if you will. Screen lights delay slumber, make it more shallow. Calls and notifications from nearby turned-on devices can further disrupt snoozing.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends 30 gadget-free minutes before bed. You’ll feel better – and so will those around you.

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