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Tech your time: 12 top tips for a digital detox

Over the last few years there has been increasing use of the term ‘digital detox’. According to the Oxford Dictionary, digital detox is a period of time during which a person refrains from using electronic devices such as smartphones or computers, regarded as an opportunity to reduce stress or focus on social interaction in the physical world”. I have to admit that I often find it hard to switch off from work (mainly because I love my job). Given that my job relies on technology, by implication it also means I find it hard to switch off from technology. Today’s blog is as much for me as anyone reading this and provides some tips on how to cut down on technology use, even if it’s just for the weekend or a holiday. I have compiled these tips from many different online articles as well as some of my own personal strategies. 

Digitally detox in increments: For some people, going a few minutes without checking their smartphone or emails is difficult. For many, the urge is reflexive and habitual. If you are one of those people, then ‘baby steps’ are needed. Such individuals need to learn to digitally detox in small increments (i.e., go on a ‘digital diet’). Start by proving to yourself that you can go 15 minutes without technology. Over time, increase the length of time without checking (say) Twitter, Facebook and emails (e.g., 30 minutes, 60 minutes, a couple of hours) until you get into a daily habit of being able to spend a few hours without the need to be online. Another simple trick is to only keep mobile devices partially topped up. This means users have to be sparing when checking their mobile devices.

Set aside daily periods of self-imposed non-screen time: One of the secrets to cutting down technology use to acceptable levels is to keep aside certain times of the day technology-free (meal times and bedtime are a good starting place – in fact, these rooms should be made technology-free). For instance, I rarely look at any emails between 6pm and 8pm as this is reserved for family time (e.g., cooking and eating dinner with the family). Another strategy to try is having a technology-free day at the weekends (e.g., not accessing the internet at all for 24 hours). However, watching television or using an e-reader is fine. Another simple strategy is to have technology-free meal times (at both home and work). Don’t bring your smartphone or tablet to the table.

Only respond to emails and texts at specific times of the day: Only a few individuals are ‘on call’ and have to assume that the message they receive will be an emergency. Looking at emails (say) just three times a day (9am, 1pm, 4pm) will save lots of time in the long run. Turning off email and social media, disabling push notifications, or simply turning the volume setting to silent on electronic devices will also reduce the urge to constantly check mobile devices.

Don’t use your smartphone or tablet as an alarm clock: By using a standard alarm clock to wake you in the morning, you will avoid the temptation to look at emails and texts just as you are about to go to sleep or just wake up (or in the middle of the night if you are a workaholic!).

Engage in out-of-work activities where it is impossible (or frowned upon) to use technology: Nowadays, leisure activities such as going to the pub, having a meal, or going to the cinema, don’t stop people using wireless technology. By engaging in digitally incompatible activities where it is impossible to access technology simultaneously (e.g., jogging, swimming, meditation, outdoor walks in wi-fi free areas) or go to places where technology is frowned upon (e.g., places of worship, yoga classes, etc.) and individual will automatically decrease the amount of screen time. In social situations, you can turn people’s need to check their phones into a game. For instance, in the pub, you could have a game where the first one to check their phone has to buy a round of drinks for everyone else.

Tell your work colleagues and friends you are going on a digital detox: Checking emails and texts can become an almost compulsive behaviour because of what psychologists have termed ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) that refers to the anxiety that an interesting or exciting event may be happening elsewhere online. By telling everyone you know that you will not be online for a few hours, they will be less likely to contact you in the first place and you will be less likely check for online messages in the first place. Alternatively, Put your ‘out-of-office’ notification on for a few hours and do something more productive with your time.

Reduce your contact lists: One way to spend less time online is to reduce the number of friends on social networking sites, stop following blogs (but not mine, of course!), delete unused apps, and unsubscribe from online groups that have few benefits. Also, delete game apps that can be time-consuming (e.g., Angry Birds, Candy Crush Saga, etc.).

Get a wristwatch: One of the most common reasons for looking at a smartphone or a tablet is to check the time. If checking the time also leads to individuals noticing they have a text, email or tweet, they will end up reading what has been sent. By using an old fashioned wristwatch (as opposed to new smart watches like the Apple Watch), the urge to reply to messages will decrease.

Think about the benefits of not constantly being online: If you are the kind of person that responds to emails, texts and tweets as they come in, you will write longer responses than if you look at them all in a block. The bottom line is that you can save loads of time to spend on other things if you didn’t spend so long constantly reacting to what is going on in the online world.

Enjoy the silence: Too many people fail to appreciate being in the moment and allowing themselves to resist the urge to log onto their laptops, mobiles and tablets. It is at these times that some people might interpret as boredom that we can contemplate and be mindful. This could be made more formal by introducing meditation into a daily routine. There are also many places that run whole weekends and short breaks where technology is forbidden and much of the time can be spent in quiet contemplation. 

Fill the void: To undergo digital detox for any length of time, an individual has to replace the activity with something that is as equally rewarding (whether it is physically, psychologically or spiritually). When I’m on holiday, I catch up on all the novels that I’ve been meaning to read. In shorter spaces of time (such as sitting in boring meetings) I doodle, write ‘to do’ lists, generate ideas to write about, or simply do nothing (and be mindful, aware of the present moment). In short, I try to productive (or unproductive) without having to resort to my technology. 

Use technology to beat technology: One thing that can shock technology users is how much time they actually spend on their mobile devices. Working out how much time is actually spent online can be the first step in wanting to cut down. (For instance, someone I once worked with was shocked to find he had spent 72 [24-hour] days in one year playing World of Warcraft). Tech users can download apps that tell them how much time spending online, (e.g., Moment). Being made aware of a problem is often the first step in enabling behavioural change.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Goodnet (2013). 7 steps to planning your next digital detox. October 22. Located at: http://www.goodnet.org/articles/7-steps-to-planning-your-next-digital-detox

Hosseini, M.D. (2013). Top 10 tips to unplug this summer with a digital detox. Advertising Week Social Club, June 28. Located at: http://www.theawsc.com/2013/06/28/top-10-tips-to-unplug-this-summer-with-a-digital-detox/

Huffington Post (2013). 10 digital detox vacation hacks to help you truly unplug. July 31. Located at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/31/vacation-hacks-_n_3676474.html

Levy, P. (2015). 15 tips for a total digital detox. Mind Body Green, January 15. Located at: http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-17030/15-tips-for-a-total-digital-detox.html

Lipman, F. (2015). 12 tips for your next digital detox. March 2. Located at: http://www.drfranklipman.com/shake-it-off-12-tips-for-your-next-digital-detox/

Lipman, F. (2014). 8 ways to disconnect from technology and get more done. November 5. Located at: http://www.drfranklipman.com/8-ways-to-disconnect-from-technology-and-get-more-done/

South China Morning Post (2015). Five tips for a digital detox. Located at: http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/technology/article/1673273/five-tips-digital-detox

Vozza, S. (2013). A realistic digital detox in 5 easy steps. Entrepreneur, November 12. Located: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/229783

Are you ‘intexticated’?: Another look at excessive smartphone use

Yesterday, I received a copy of a new book called Too Much Of A Good Thing: Are You Addicted To Your Smartphone? by Dr. James Roberts (a Professor of Marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Texas). It’s a populist and easy-to-read book that you can read from cover to cover inside two hours. It’s not an academic book but there’s lots of input from various academics around the world (including me – which is why I was sent a copy of the book). It’s a fun read and is written by someone (who like myself) loves technology and all the great benefits it brings us.

The main thrust of the book doesn’t concern addiction per se, but is more concerned with how smartphones take us away from or compromises other things in our lives like our friends, our loved ones, our hobbies and (in extreme cases) our jobs. Roberts describes this as ‘cellularitis’ – “a Socially Transmitted Disease (STD) that results in habitual use of one’s cell phone to the detriment of his or her psychological and physical health and well-being”. In the second chapter, Dr. Roberts uses my addiction components model to describe his ‘Six Signs of Cell Phone Addiction Scale’ (although uses an older version of the components model taken from a paper I published on internet addiction back in 1999 in The Psychologist).

One of the chapters on the phenomena of ‘phubbing’ (i.e., phone snubbing – where someone you are socially interacting with would rather be on their smartphone, rather than talking to you). One recent paper by Dr. Roberts published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior even had the title ‘My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone’. The chapter also contains a 9-item ‘Phubbing Scale’ that Roberts developed with his colleague Dr. Meredith David (and a later chapter also includes the ‘Partner Phubbing Scale’). Academic research into phubbing has already started (see ‘Further reading below) and I’ll hopefully write a blog on that in the future. I also liked the concept of being ‘intexticated’ defined as being “distracted by the act of texting to such a degree that one seems intoxicated”.

In previous blogs I have examined the concept of mobile phone addiction, the most recent of which argued that there was nowhere near enough empirical evidence to be able to confirm whether addiction to smartphones exists. Dr. Roberts asked me about the topic for his book and here are the answers to the questions he asked me.

Can someone be addicted to their cell phone? Why or why not?

That depends on how ‘addiction’ is defined. I believe that anything can be potentially addictive if constant rewards and reinforcement are present. Some people may confuse habitual use of such technology as an addictive behaviour (when in reality it may not be). For instance, some people may consider themselves cell phone addicts because they never go out of the house without their cell phone, do not turn their cell phone off at night, are always expecting calls from family members or friends, and/or over-utilise cell phones in their work and/or social life. There is also the importance of economic and/or life costs. The crucial difference between some forms of cell phone use and pathological cell phone use is that some applications involve a financial cost. If a person is using the application more and is spending more money, there may be negative consequences as a result of not being able to afford the activity (e.g., negative economic, job-related, and/or family consequences). High expenditure may also be indicative of cell phone addiction but the phone bills of adolescents are often paid for by parents, therefore the financial problems may not impact on the users themselves.

It is very difficult to determine at what point cell phone use becomes an addiction. The cautiousness of researchers suggests that we are not yet in a position to confirm the existence of a serious and persistent psychopathological addictive disorder related to cell phone addiction on the basis of population survey data alone. This cautiousness is aided and supported by other factors including: (a) the absence of any clinical demand in accordance with the percentages of problematic users identified by these investigations, (b) the fact that the psychometric instruments used could be measuring ‘concern’ or ‘preoccupation’ rather than ‘addiction, (c) the normalisation of behaviour and/or absence of any concern as users grow older; and (d) the importance of distinguishing between excessive use and addictive use.

What signs or symptoms would you look for when deciding if someone is addicted to their cell phone?

You could argue that a person is no more addicted to their phone than an alcoholic is addicted to the bottle. Individuals tend to have addictions on their mobile phone rather than to their phone. For me to class someone as addicted to their mobile phone they would have to fulfill the following six criteria:

  • Salience – This occurs when the mobile phone use becomes the single most important activity in the person’s life and dominates their thinking (preoccupations and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings) and behaviour (deterioration of socialised behaviour). For instance, even if the person is not actually on their phone they will be constantly thinking about the next time that they will be (i.e., a total preoccupation with their mobile phone).
  • Mood modification – This refers to the subjective experiences that people report as a consequence of mobile phone use and can be seen as a coping strategy (i.e., they experience an arousing ‘buzz’ or a ‘high’ or paradoxically a tranquilizing feel of ‘escape’ or ‘numbing’) when on the phone.
  • Tolerance – This is the process whereby increasing amounts of mobile phone use are mobile phone users gradually build up the amount of the time they spend on their phone every day.
  • Withdrawal symptoms – These are the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability, etc.) that occur when the person is unable to use their phone because there is no signal, mislaid or broken phone, etc.
  • Conflict – This refers to the conflicts between the person and those around them (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (social life, hobbies and interests) or from within the individual themselves (intra-psychic conflict and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) that are concerned with spending too much on their mobile phone.
  • Relapse – This is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of excessive mobile phone use to recur and for even the most extreme patterns typical of the height of excessive mobile phone use to be quickly restored after periods of control.

What is one suggestion you could offer to help someone better control their cell phone use?

I don’t have a single suggestion. If there was a single suggestion to overcome or better control problematic phone use then I could give up my whole research career. However, my tips on digital detox can be found here.

 

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bianchi, A. & Phillips, J.G. (2005). Psychological predictors of problem mobile phone use. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 8, 39–51.

Billieux, J. (2012). Problematic use of the mobile phone: A literature review and a pathways model. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8, 299–307.

Billieux, J., Maurage, P., Lopez-Fernandez, O., Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Can disordered mobile phone use be considered a behavioural addiction? An update on current evidence and a comprehensive model for future research. Current Addiction Reports, DOI 10.1007/s40429-015-0054-y

Carbonell, X., Chamarro, A., Beranuy, M., Griffiths, M.D. Obert, U., Cladellas, R. & Talarn, A. (2012). Problematic Internet and cell phone use in Spanish teenagers and young students. Anales de Psicologia, 28, 789-796.

Chóliz M. (2010). Mobile phone addiction: a point of issue. Addiction. 105, 373-374.

Griffiths, M.D. (1999). Internet addiction: Fact or fiction? The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 12, 246-250.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Mobile phone gambling. In D. Taniar (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Mobile Computing and Commerce (pp.553-556). Pennsylvania: Information Science Reference.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Adolescent mobile phone addiction: A cause for concern? Education and Health, 31, 76-78.

Karadağ, E., Tosuntaş, Ş. B., Erzen, E., Duru, P., Bostan, N., Şahin, B. M., … & Babadağ, B. (2015). Determinants of phubbing, which is the sum of many virtual addictions: A structural equation model. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4, 60-74.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Honrubia-Serrano, L., Freixa-Blanxart, M., & Gibson, W. (2014). Prevalence of problematic mobile phone use in British adolescents. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 17, 91-98.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D., & Billieux, J. (in press). The conceptualization and assessment of problematic mobile phone use. In Z. Yan (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Mobile Phone Behavior (Volumes 1, 2, & 3). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Roberts, J.A. (2016). Too Much Of A Good Thing: Are You Addicted To Your Smartphone? Austin: Sentia Publishing.

Roberts, J. A., & David, M. E. (2016). My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone: Partner phubbing and relationship satisfaction among romantic partners. Computers in Human Behavior, 54, 134-141

Smetaniuk, P. (2014). A preliminary investigation into the prevalence and prediction of problematic cell phone use. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 3(1), 41-53.

Ugur, N. G., & Koc, T. (2015). Time for digital detox: Misuse of mobile technology and phubbing. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 195, 1022-1031.

Ringing the changes: Can disordered mobile phone use be considered a behavioural addiction?

Over the last decade, I have published various papers on excessive mobile phone use both in general and related to particular aspects of mobile phone use (such as gambling and gaming via mobile phones (see ‘Further reading’ below). Recently, some colleagues and I (and led by Dr. Joël Billieux) published a new review in the journal Current Addiction Reports examining disordered mobile phone use.

I don’t think many people would say that their lives are worse because of mobile phones as the positives appear to greatly outweigh the negatives. However, in the scientific literature, excessive mobile phone use has been linked with self-reported dependence and addiction-like symptoms, sleep interference, financial problems, dangerous use (phoning while driving), prohibited use (phoning in banned areas), and mobile phone-based aggressive behaviours (e.g., cyberbullying).

Despite accumulating evidence that mobile phone use can become problematic and lead to negative consequences, its incidence, prevalence, and symptomatology remain a matter of much debate. For instance, our recent review noted that prevalence studies conducted within the last decade have reported highly variable rates of problematic use ranging from just above 0% to more than 35%. This is mainly due to the fact most studies in the field have been conducted in the absence of a theoretical rationale.

Too often, excessive mobile phone use has simply been conceptualized as a behavioural addiction and subsequently develop screening tools using items adapted from the substance use and pathological gambling literature, without taking into account either the specificities of mobile phone “addiction” (e.g., dysfunctional mobile phone use may often be related to interpersonal processes) or the fact that the most recent generation of mobile phones (i.e., smartphones) are tools that – like the internet – allow the involvement in a wide range of activities going far beyond traditional oral and written (SMS) communication between individuals (e.g., gaming, gambling, social networking, shopping, etc.).

The first scientific studies examining problematic mobile phone use (PMPU) were published a decade ago. Since then, the number of published studies on the topic has grown substantially. At present, several terms are frequently used to describe the phenomenon, the more popular being ‘mobile phone (or smartphone) addiction’, ‘mobile phone (or smartphone) dependence’ or ‘nomophobia’ (that refers to the fear of not being able to use the mobile phone).

PMPU is generally conceptualized as a behavioural addiction including the core components of addictive behaviours, such as cognitive salience, loss of control, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and relapse. Accordingly, the criteria (and screening tools developed using such criteria) that have been proposed to diagnose an addiction to the mobile phone have been directly transposed from those classifying and diagnosing other addictive behaviours, i.e., the criteria for substance use and pathological gambling. For example, in a recent study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, Dr. Peter Smetaniuk reported a prevalence of PMPU around 20% in U.S. undergraduate students using adapted survey items that were initially developed to diagnose disordered gambling.

Although many scholars believe that PMPU is a behavioural addiction, evidence is still lacking that either confirms or rejects such conceptualization. Indeed, the fact that this condition can be considered as an addiction is to date only supported by exploratory studies relying on self-report data collected via convenience samples. More specifically, there is a crucial lack of evidence that similar neurobiological and psychological mechanisms are involved in the aetiology of mobile phone addiction compared to other chemical and behavioural addictions. Such types of evidence played a major role in the recent recognition of Gambling Disorder and Internet Gaming Disorder as addictive disorders in the latest (fifth) addiction of the DSM (i.e., DSM-5) In particular, three key features of addictive behaviours, namely loss of control, tolerance and withdrawal, have – to date – received very limited empirical support in the field of mobile phone addiction research.

Given these concerns, it appears that the empirical evidence supporting the conceptualization of PMPU as a genuine addictive behaviour is currently scarce. However, this does not mean that PMPU is not a genuine addictive behaviour (at least for a subgroup of individuals displaying PMPU symptoms), but rather that the nature and amount of the available data at the present time are not sufficient to draw definitive and valid conclusions. Therefore, further studies are required. In particular, longitudinal and experimental research is needed to obtain behavioural and neurobiological correlates of PMPU. In the absence of such types of data, all attempts to consider PMPU within the framework of behavioural addictions will remain tentative. It is worth noting here that it took decades of empirical research before disordered gambling was officially recognized as an addiction (as opposed to a disorder of impulse control) in the DSM-5.

The current conceptual chaos surrounding PMPU research can also be related to the fact that while the number of empirical studies is growing quickly, these studies have (to date) primarily been based on concepts borrowed from other disorders (e.g., problematic Internet use, pathological gambling, substance abuse, etc.). This approach is atheoretical and lacks specificity with regard to the phenomenon under investigation. In fact, by adopting such a ‘confirmatory approach’ relying on deductive quantitative studies, important findings that are unique to the experience of PMPU have been neglected. As an illustration, no qualitative analyses of PMPU exist, and only a few models have been proposed. This implies that most studies have been conducted without a theoretical rationale that goes beyond transposing what is known about addictions in the analysis of PMPU.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Additional input: Joël Billieux, Pierre Maurage, Olatz Lopez-Fernandez and Daria J. Kuss

Further reading

Bianchi, A. & Phillips, J.G. (2005). Psychological predictors of problem mobile phone use. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 8, 39–51.

Billieux, J. (2012). Problematic use of the mobile phone: A literature review and a pathways model. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8, 299–307.

Billieux, J., Maurage, P., Lopez-Fernandez, O., Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Can disordered mobile phone use be considered a behavioral addiction? An update on current evidence and a comprehensive model for future research. Current Addiction Reports, 2, 154-162.

Carbonell, X., Chamarro, A., Beranuy, M., Griffiths, M.D. Obert, U., Cladellas, R. & Talarn, A. (2012). Problematic Internet and cell phone use in Spanish teenagers and young students. Anales de Psicologia, 28, 789-796.

Chóliz M. (2010). Mobile phone addiction: a point of issue. Addiction. 105, 373-374.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Mobile phone gambling. In D. Taniar (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Mobile Computing and Commerce (pp.553-556). Pennsylvania: Information Science Reference.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Adolescent mobile phone addiction: A cause for concern? Education and Health, 31, 76-78.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Honrubia-Serrano, L., Freixa-Blanxart, M., & Gibson, W. (2014). Prevalence of problematic mobile phone use in British adolescents. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 17, 91-98.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D., & Billieux, J. (2015). The conceptualization and assessment of problematic mobile phone use. In Z. Yan (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Mobile Phone Behavior (Volumes 1, 2, & 3) (pp. 591-606). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Smetaniuk, P. (2014). A preliminary investigation into the prevalence and prediction of problematic cell phone use. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 3(1), 41-53.