What Smart Phone Shaming Can Teach Us

While I think it's perfectly reasonable to ask your partner to put away their phone at the dinner table, we must be careful about how we gloat about our apparent technological enlightenment.
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Earlier this month an Arizona Diamondbacks cameraman captured a group of sorority girls more engaged with taking the perfect selfie than watching the baseball game. When the spectacle caught the attention of the announcers, they started adding improvised commentary to the young women's comical actions.

"Do you have to make faces when you take selfies?" one asked.

"That's the best one of the 300 pictures of myself I've taken today!" the other wisecracked.

When the video went viral, the Internet policers cried foul. The comments were touted as anti-feminist, and not respectful of "selfie culture."

When I scrolled past the outrage on Tumblr, I couldn't decide whether I was more concerned as a baseball fan or a therapist. Yes, there are harmful narratives about women as sports fans, but what about this "selfie pride" business? I decided to do a little investigating and did what no mental health clinician should ever do: trudge through Internet comments.

What I found was a relatively new term: smart phone shaming. We've all done it, regardless of how attached we are to our devices. We mock teenagers for taking selfies, berate a friend for sneaking a glancing at her iPhone under the dinner table, or grumble about the sea of smart phones recording every moment of a concert. Is there wisdom in our frustration? Are people escaping a hard look at their behaviors with a "shaming" label? Or am I the 30-year-old equivalent of an old man yelling for those damn kids to get off his lawn?

When it comes to being glued to your smartphone, researchers are hesitant to use the word dependence. This is largely because calling the behavior an addiction is highly contested. There's no diagnosis for smart phone or Internet addiction in the mental health field's diagnostic manual, the DSM-5, but many rallied for its inclusion.

Problematic smart phone use does mimic many concepts of addiction. Users can show increased tolerance, needing to unlock their screens more frequently once they begin using the phone. They experience withdrawal when they can't use the device. Researchers have even coined a name for the fear of being out of smart phone contact: Nomophobia.

But for most addictions, the user experiences feelings of euphoria in anticipation of the behavior, like drinking or gambling. With smart phones, we experience that glorious dopamine rush during the behavior, like when we receive a text message or when the Backstreet Boys tweeted me during a "Scream Queens" episode. What a rush.

We also know that some people are more at risk for addiction than others. Smart phone dependent people are more likely to be female, extraverted, and neurotic. People who are lonely, impulsive and have a motivation for social approval are also at risk. Though Internet policers tote that selfies can encourage positive self-image among women, dependence on the approval of others can reinforce deeper involvement with one's smart phone. Take away the phone, and you've taken away a person's identity.

But the next time your friend chooses Instagram over the funny story you're telling, that doesn't mean that they're addicted. Researchers distinguish between two ways of measuring cell phone behavior: use and involvement. Use is the number of times we check our phones and how long we stare at the screen, and it actually is not a reliable measure for determining addiction.

Our involvement with our phones is much more telling than how often we play Candy Crush. Involvement has cognitive components, like thinking about the phone when we can't check it, and behavioral ones, such as cradling your iPhone at night. The more involved we are with our phones, the more likely we are to demonstrate problematic use that can lead to anxiety, depression, and sleep problems.

So does this reality debunk the "smart phone shaming" concept? While I think it's perfectly reasonable to ask your partner to put away their phone at the dinner table, we must be careful about how we gloat about our apparent technological enlightenment. People have been rolling their eyes at teenagers for millennia, and nothing will change that. Instead, it's best to turn the focus on yourself and what your smart phone behavior can tell you. You may not be in search of the perfect selfie, but you might discover another habit distracting you from something that's really worth watching.

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