HEADLINE: HELP! I'm addicted to my phone BYLINE: Neil Keene
Mobile phone use triggers sensations of happiness within the brain, just like other addictions, writes Neil Keene
Jaimie Abbott certainly doesn't look like an addict.
But nor do hundreds of thousands of other Australians whose smartphones have become less a device of convenience and more an irreplaceable extension of themselves.
Abbott, 33, readily admits to being hooked on her phone, clocking up "at least eight hours a day" of use: checking social media, sending emails and running her Newcastlebased company from the palm of her hand.
"It makes me feel happy to check social media several times an hour so I know what's going on in the world and feel connected," she says.
"I travel a lot and it helps me stay in touch with family and friends back home." But that convenience comes at a cost.
Abbott says she struggles to get through a dinner or social function without picking up her phone to check for messages and social media updates.
The phone has also been a point of contention in her relationships. "My partner of 11 years has threatened to break up with me several times (due to smartphone use), particularly when I'm glued to my phone on holiday," she admits.
Perhaps Abbott, and other addicts, can blame chemistry.
Research suggests mobile phone use triggers sensations of happiness within the brain, much the same as other forms of addiction.
University of Wollongong emerging technologies researcher Professor Katina Michael says mobile phone use releases dopamine a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's pleasure and reward centres.
"It is a different trigger to drugs or alcohol but it triggers the same part of the brain it is a dopamine fix," she says.
Michael says heavy smartphone users often suffer genuine symptoms of separation anxiety when they don't have their phone close at hand.
"Most addicts tend to realise their behaviour but can't stop it," she says. "They are subliminally reaching into their pockets or bags, ready to react. Even when there is no cause to react no phone ringing, no alarm, no tweet message they are naturally looking down at a screen, extending their fingers and scrolling." Smartphone addiction is yet to be deemed a specific mental illness in Australia, but some countries, such as South Korea, are already treating internet addiction in that way. Smartphone and tablet addiction diagnoses and treatment may not be far behind.
Michael says symptoms are both physical and mental.
People hooked on smartphones often suffer from back and neck soreness from craning forward to look at their screen.
Aching and bruised fingers from scrolling and typing are also common. So, too, are mental issues, such as being unable to go extended periods without checking the phone, feeling anxious about unread messages or social media responses and losing track of time while using the phone.
Smartphone addiction and the need to interact with the digital realm could also be driving a wedge between people in reallife relationships.
Results released this month from Australian sex surveys found that both men and women are having less sex, on average, now than 15 years ago.
A study earlier this year by researchers at the University of Arizona found that people who felt their partners were "overly dependent" on their smartphones were less satisfied in their relationships.
Matthew Lapierre, who headed the research, says it is not always a question of time spent using a mobile phone, but rather a person's overall perception of how attached their partner is to the device.
"In other words, if I believe that my partner is excessively dependent on their smartphone I am more likely to be unhappy in my romantic relationship," he says.
Plans are under way to explore in greater depth how people actually become jealous of their partner's smartphone.
"If I had to venture a guess, I would suspect that jealousy towards the actual device is playing a role, along with participant suspicions that there is something nefarious going on with the partner being so focused on their smartphone," Lapierre says.
"I think we've all been in a situation where a friend was on their phone during a conversation and felt that pang of: 'Am I not interesting enough?' "Among the main culprits when it comes to mobile phone addiction are social media sites and their accompanying apps.
Researchers in Norway last year developed a scientific model to gauge an individual's level of addiction.
Known as the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale (BFAS), the model is based on six basic criteria.They include how often a user thinks about using or plans to use Facebook and whether they have tried to cut down on their use without success. Other signs of addiction included feeling restless or troubled when prohibited from using Facebook and using it to the point where it affected work life or studies.