GREENSBORO, N.C. -- A local psychologist and communications expert suggest incessant phone checking is becoming a life-altering, addictive occurrence--one that now prevents many people from being fully engaged with their families, as they struggle to combat this unclearly defined compulsion.
Wake Forest Baptist psychologist William McCann explained, "It turns into an intermittent reinforcement schedule, and that's when it becomes so difficult. So there's some news that's interesting, others isn't... It turns into a checking habit. To change that pattern is very difficult. It's just like gambling. Slot machines. That's the same principal."
McCann said it is a continuous, hard-to-break habit with definably addictive qualities--a phenomenon that has psychologists like him seeking to determine whether distracted parents are negatively affecting their children's brain development. McCann begged the question, "Is it better to be there and not really be present? The kids know that they're not there, when they see them on their phones."
WFMY News 2's Meghann Mollerus sought answers in a common, family-oriented environment--a local soccer park comparable to any youth sports facility in the Piedmont Triad. As the Greensboro United Soccer Association's recreation director Will Mack explained, soccer practices and games become havens for both distracted-looking parents and disappointed-looking children.
Mack said, "I see the issue maybe more in practices. During practice, parents just sitting there on the phone checking work e-mail. On a phone call, not paying attention. On the coaching side, it might be a good thing not having the parents as involved during practice, so the coaches can focus with the kids, but at the same time, you want the parents to be active in what the kids are doing."
One soccer player's grandmother, Sonya Bowden, explained she intentionally left her phone in the car that day--a feat she admitted was not easy.
"I had some friends that I texted this morning to say that we were on our way over here, and it just dawned on me oh my gosh, what if they're texting back? But I didn't want to miss anything with my girls' game, so hopefully they'll text somebody else," Bowden said.
Bowden's admission of phone separation anxiety is a common occurrence, explained McCann. A study published in the Baylor Hankamer School of Business journal "Personal and Ubiquitous Computing" found young adults check their cell phones up to 60 times a day, in addition to sending more than 100 texts.
A separate study conducted by the mobile app company TeleNav, Inc. revealed 40 percent of people with iPhones said they would rather give up brushing their teeth for a week than go without their phones. In research conducted by Purdue University, almost 90 percent of undergraduates also admitted feeling "phantom"-or imaginary-phone vibrations at least once a week.
McCann said in one survey, college students asked to disconnect for a week from technology began to exhibit withdrawal symptoms similar to those of drug and alcohol addictions. "They were depressed, disrupted sleep, they were feeling anxious. It (compulsive phone checking) is not classified as an addiction, but there are similarities."
McCann said people's brains are becoming habituated to interruption and regularly becoming distracted, and these distractions have an influence on people's neurology.
Wake Forest University communications expert, Dr. Ananda Mitra, said people are becoming inseparable from their phones because they can't figure them out. It is a phenomenon he describes, in accordance with his book title, as "alien technology."
Mitra explained people are coping with "modern mysteries." "We don't know how to solve some of the problems that technology's presented to us or the potential of technology. Consider the Rubik's Cube. You take some time to figure out eventually how it works and then eventually you solve it. And once you have solved it, it's lost its appeal. But not with these tools, because every day, a new option is being offered to you through application programs and apps and so forth. So you're constantly trying to figure out the mystery of this technology."
Though Mitra said people cannot yet solve this mystery, there is a means of softening its seemingly forceful power over phone users. McCann said compulsive phone checking is treatable.
"Anything that starts to interfere with our daily lives, our work, our interpersonal relationships, that's when usually people seek treatment. And treatment helps. This is one of the major aspects of psychotherapy is changing habits, just as an ingrained conscious habit, and it can be changed," he said.
For some parents, that change is made possible by simply forcing one's self to power down. Soccer parent and Greensboro resident Randy Lewkowicz said there is reward in regaining control over an object that so frequently becomes controlling.
"I leave my phone in my car because it's something that requires my attention, and if I know that I'm coming to an event like my son's game, that's where I want my attention to be. I want it to be holding my daughter's hand or at least trying to catch up to her when we're going into dance or holding my son's hand as we're walking to the soccer field. The phone, even though it may be just in my pocket, it feels like something that's going to grab my attention away from what we're coming to do together."
WFMY News 2