“New epidemic among executives: Smartphone OCD.”

When I saw the headline come through my email, I thought for sure the story would be about those people who arrange their apps alphabetically or by color, then post to Twitter or Instagram about how “soooooo OCD” they are. I clicked anyway.

I was actually surprised to find that the behavior — and anxiety — the sources in the story describe really do sound a lot like OCD.

For example, there’s a woman whose need to immediately stop and check new messages, even when driving, nearly got her into more than one accident. Others are waking up once or more during the night just to check for messages.

Signs It May Be Time to Put Down the Phone

I did a little poking around (OK, I admit it, I just wanted to make sure I don’t have smartphone OCD). The one “symptom” that stood out is one those of us with non-smartphone OCD will recognize — dependence on a smartphone or tablet becomes OCD when it begins disrupting daily life and causing abnormal levels of panic or anxiety.

From a few different sources, including the original article, I found a few other signs someone may have an unhealthy dependence on a smartphone or tablet:

  • You feel the need to drop everything and check your phone every couple of minutes, or every time you hear a notification alert. (In 2013, an app found that the average person checks their phone 110 times per day, or up to 10 times per hour. That’s bad enough, but the truly addicted checked up to 900 times per day.)
  • Your time with your family or friends is affected negatively. Friends or family members may even complain about your smartphone or tablet use.
  • Your productivity at work is damaged because you regularly stop to check your phone.
  • Your sleep is disturbed because you regularly wake up to check your phone.
  • You imagine your phone buzzing even when it isn’t — this even has a name, “phantom vibration syndrome.”
  • Turning your phone off causes intense anxiety or even panic.

The problem has become so widespread that German officials moved to keep employers from contacting their employees outside of working hours, allowing workers to put their phones away without fear of missing a vital email or text about their jobs.

How to Break the Trend

Researchers are still undecided on whether smartphone OCD is its own version of the disorder, or simply another way for “regular” OCD to express itself in a world that is increasingly dependent on technology. However, the similarities between smartphone addiction and OCD have helped researchers develop a treatment.

OCDers who have gone through exposure therapy will recognize that treatment: If you fear unplugging, the remedy is to unplug.

“We advise them to balance work and life better, switch off cell phones and not respond to mails in the middle of the sleep,” Dr. Samir Parikh says in the Times of India story.

I think the existence of smartphone OCD shows something that most of us may have noticed before: Our OCD brains will seek out and exploit any outlet for our anxieties. That includes our mobile devices. Knowing about smartphone OCD means we’ll be aware if we begin to become too dependent on our own phones and show symptoms. Then we can shut off our phones, and get extra help if we need it.

Photo by pabak sarkar