The vast majority of Australians (88%) carry a device in their pocket that they use to surf the internet, post photographs, stream movies, text friends, and occasionally make a phone call.
Hand-held devices are handier than ever, but we're using our smartphones so much that it's affecting our sleep, our health and our relationships.
According to a recent study from Deakin University's School of Psychology:
- 33% of people feel anxious if they don't regularly check their phones
- 34% lose sleep because of them
- 54% say it's a problematic distraction, stealing their focus from the things they should be doing.
The research also names the key problem at the heart of this: fear of missing out (FoMO).
Lead researcher Dr Sharon Horwood says using a smartphone becomes unhealthy when it impacts your daily functioning, making it harder to study, sleep or exercise.
"Smartphones and the apps that we use on them are designed to entice us to use them, and keep using them, for as long as possible," she says. "They are deliberately addictive devices, even though we may not think of them that way."
But even though smartphones are becoming harder to put down, there are some simple steps we can take to curb – or even prevent – an unhealthy dependence on them.
Disable auto-sync (push notifications)
Google and Apple smartphones let you pick what you're notified about. This means you can enable the few notifications that are actually important to you, and turn off the rest.
Or you can go one step further and turn off all of your app notifications, so that the only sounds your phone will make are from calls and texts. It'll be just like stepping back into a pre-smartphone era when people somehow got by without such notifications.
Turn off active display
Some smartphones have standby screens that still display notifications and calendar details. This means when your phone rests idle on a table it's always sending you information, whether it's welcome or not.
Turning off this feature can be empowering. You'll choose when to check on your notifications, instead of being constantly prodded to do so.
Uninstall your social apps
Smartphones use apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to keep us connected to our social circles, and this is partly to blame for the rise in compulsive smartphone use, says Horwood.
"One theory for why we can become overly dependent on our smartphone is an emerging construct referred to as fear of missing out, which represents a desire to constantly stay online and connected via social media platforms.
"FoMO has been established as a significant risk factor for the development of problematic smartphone use," she says.
There's a middle ground between using a social network too much and avoiding it altogether: you can simply uninstall the app from your smartphone. Instead, you'll access the mobile versions of Facebook and Twitter through an internet browser. This should at least slow your incessant checking of your social networks, but still let you feel connected when you want.
Many Google phones can boot into a basic mode, where you can only access critical apps. This mode effectively turns your smartphone into a featurephone, not unlike the famed Nokia 3310. Although it may take you some time to adjust, it'll dramatically improve the battery life.
Today's smartphones have screens that are more advanced than most televisions. They also have the kind of processing power found in last generation's gaming consoles. With so much stimuli, it's no wonder we're addicted.
One way to make them less compelling is to take away the colour. A smartphone with a black-and-white display would struggle to compete with a world of colour.
This isn't necessarily a long-term solution, but it's a helpful trick if you're having trouble living in the moment. Turning it on is easy – just go to the 'settings' and then the 'accessibility' menu of any recent Google and Apple phone.
The artificial light coming from your phone's screen fools your body into thinking you're staring at the sun, and this makes it harder to rest. Blue light – or light with a cooler colour temperature – is particularly disruptive, because the colour's short wavelength puts you in an alert mood.
This is why there's a widespread understanding that smartphones shouldn't be used before you go to sleep. Sound advice... if they weren't so much fun. But, you know: they're addictive.
Apple and Google try to minimise the impact of blue light in their latest releases by introducing 'night mode'. This applies a warmer colour temperature to your phone's screen – as though you're looking at it through a red and orange tint – to make it less taxing on the eyes.
Best of all, these night modes can be set up to automatically activate at certain times (such as between 7pm and 7am), to make the process of being lulled into sleep a little easier.
Before long, you may even find that you don't need your phone with you at all times, and that FoMO was all in your head.