Timothy Caulfield: People choose screen time over sleep time

New research suggests we’re spending more time looking at our smartphones and screen devices than we are sleeping.

Nomophobia: the sense of anxiousness many people get when separated from their phone

How many times have you been caught checking our your phone when you're supposed to be doing something else?

Feel like you spend a lot of your day staring at your phone? You're not alone.

Studies show that people in the developed world are now spending upwards of eight hours per day staring at their smartphones and other screen devices — more time than they spend sleeping.

"It is a crazy amount of time, and it's going up," said Timothy Caulfield, a professor in the faculty of law and school of public health at the University of Alberta.

"We're talking a significant portion of our lives is consumed by these machines."

What's more, Caulfield cites a recent study that found users routinely underestimate how much time they actually lose staring at their screens, estimating totals about half as large as the truth.

With that level of use and reliance on smartphones and the like, our screens and the access they give us to the online world has become an addiction, Caulfield said.

The problem has become so common, there's even a name for it: nomophobia. People who suffer from the condition get anxious when they don't have their phone on them or can't get a Wi-Fi connection.

"I definitely have that," Caulfield said with a chuckle. "If I can't check my phone, check my email and check my Twitter account, I get a little twitchy."

Brain drain

That reliance on technology has very real repercussions for how we think and how we accomplish tasks, Caulfield said.

"Really what we're talking about here is multitasking," he said. "Productivity goes down, the ability to think goes down. There are even some studies that suggest our IQ goes down as we're multitasking on these devices."

It's the people who think they are good at multitasking who are actually the most easily distracted, he added.

"They're the ones that hop from task to task instead of digging in and finishing something."

More and more businesses and technologies are cashing in on our distractibility, Caulfield added.

"Our whole world is designed now in order to force us to switch. Think of the little pop-ups you get when you're working and someone sends you a text message.

"Those things that force us to multitask are really hurting our productivity, hurting our ability to critically think, hurting our concentration."

Over time, that multitasking can create a cognitive drain "which makes you basically dumber," Caulfield said, adding the more you switch between tasks, the less efficient you become.

No users immune to brain drain

While no users are immune to the effects of brain drain as a result of our smartphone dependence, there is one group that stands out, although it's not who you might expect.

"We often think it's the kids these days, but studies have shown actually that people sort of in the middle of their careers — 25 to 45 — spend the most amount of time (on their devices)."

Asked how to break the control our phones have on us, Caulfield said the first step is mindfulness.

Pay attention to how much time you're spending on your device, and to how it makes you feel, he suggested. If you find yourself feeling a little down after your third hour of trawling through Facebook,  it's time to sign off.

The other thing to do is to force yourself to focus and finish the task at hand, no matter how big or small, before picking up your phone.

What won't work is to simply ignore the effect our technology is having on our health and lifestyle, Caulfield cautioned. Nor will railing against it help.

"We need to caution against damning technology because every generation does that. A lot of good comes from technology, it's part of our culture now, so we need to find a way to use it in a constructive manner."