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Tech addiction

People rarely put down their phones, even when strolling on the Santa Monica Pier in California.

How often do you look at your phone each day, checking Twitter, Instagram, Slack or whatever emails might have come in over the past five minutes?

More than you might realize.

A 2018 Deloitte survey showed Americans look at their phone 52 times a day on average. Tech insurance and support company Asurion's 2018 survey pegged it at 80 times a day. "Tech neck" is approaching public health crisis levels. If you've ever ignored your partner to look at your phone, you've taken part in a behavior known as "phubbing," a term coined in 2012.

We love our phones. A lot. Is it an addiction? Experts disagree.

Wendy Wood has an entire chapter of her forthcoming book "Good Habits, Bad Habits" titled "How To Stop Looking at Your Phone So Often." Wood, a provost professor of psychology and business at USC who studies habits, says phone usage — while pervasive — doesn't rise to the level of being an addiction for most people.

"Addiction is characterized by an inability to stop using a drug, in this case a phone; failure to meet work, social or familial obligations; and sometimes, depending on the drug, tolerance and withdrawal," Wood said. For most people, that's not the case — "which doesn't mean there aren't some people who fit that requirement," she said. "For most people, phone use is more of a habit that we haven't quite figured out how to control."

But some think phone usage does qualify as an addiction, particularly among younger people. Digital sociologist and USC lecturer Julie Albright is the author of the book "Left to Their Own Devices: How Digital Natives Are Reshaping the American Dream," which explores the impact devices have had on young people's real-life connections.

"I didn't used to use the word 'addiction.' I didn't like the word 'addiction,'" she said. But at this point, she feels it fits, particularly for Gen Z, the oldest of which are finishing college now. A sorority house mother on campus mentioned to her that the girls seemed to have lost the art of conversation; that they speak briefly to one another at group dinners but all quickly gravitate back to their phones. She said the dean of religious life at USC told her he gets a question from a student at least once a week now that he never received five years ago: "How do I make friends?"

In some ways, phones broke us. As we've used the language of addiction to describe how we use them, so too has that vocabulary extended to fixing the problem: Worldwide Google searches for "digital detox" have been rising steadily over the last five years. At the same time, rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues among teens and young adults — the group that collectively spends the most time on their phones — have spiked.

But in any case, a world of coaches, books, podcasts, wellness programs, camps and retreats have sprung up to help those of us who need a little external assistance to guide our "digital detox."

If you'd like to detox, there are a few tips to help get you started. Put your phone away during meals. Practice intention when you use your phone: Before you go to pick it up, ask yourself why. Are you bored? Uncomfortable? In an awkward social situation? Sit with that for a minute and decide whether you have a good reason to be looking or if it's just a reflexive motion.

And if it's just a reflexive motion: Just put your phone down and don't look at it.

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