Shut Up and Drive! How to Identify — and Deal With — Cell Phone Abuse

crackberryA hundred bucks to the first person who’s never abused their cell phone. And by “abused” I mean let it interfere with productivity, a relationship, or even dinner. I’ll wait. Om? Steve? Anyone?

Didn’t think so.

Although cell phone abuse is not classified as a medical condition, doctors admit it’s a widespread problem. “The overwhelming majority of cell phone users — if not all of them — let the phone interfere with their life,” says Dr. Lisa Merlo, professor of psychology at the University of Florida. “Of course, the severity of interference varies greatly among users, but interestingly, many of these individuals did not notice such interference when they were using a ‘regular’ cell phone.”

In other words, when they weren’t using a so-called smartphone. But the number of “regular” cell phones is waning fast. According to Amy Storey, director of public affairs for CTIA, the number of data-capable phones has doubled since 2005 to account for more than 88 percent of all mobiles today, meaning that abuse is more prevalent than ever. Houston, do we have a problem?

As Dr. Merlo says, it depends on the user. “If an individual cannot turn off their smartphone — or better yet, leave it at home — for at least a few hours at a time, they may want to reconsider their behavior.” That can be a tough pill to swallow, especially for those with demanding bosses, clients or investors. But before you blow off the idea, try to envision the productivity, social and sanity benefits it could yield.

Balancing alerts, face time and downtime

Undoubtedly, mobile phones can enhance user productivity. Without moderation, however, those same devices can significantly hinder output, as consumer research (and anyone who’s owned a smartphone for more than a day) will acknowledge. The most common productivity killers: obtrusive alerts at all hours of the day, cross-contamination of professional and personal correspondence, and multimedia diversions such as Facebook and YouTube.

When cell phones intrude on outside life, it can result in the alienation of established relationships, says Merlo. Granted, cell phones are powerful tools for cultivating new relationships, but when a phone supersedes the presence of good company, the net effect of networking is lost. “When you take a call, answer an email, or otherwise turn your full attention away from someone in person, this can severely damage their impression of you,” she says. “It sends the message that you find them less important than whatever is occurring on your phone.”

t-shirtOK, OK. It makes sense to prioritize cell phone use accordingly, be that at work or when interacting with friends and family. But surely there’s no harm in foregoing personal time to get the job done? Some sacrifices must be made to meet an immediate deadline, right? Of course. But when you neglect personal downtime for an extended period of time, you’ll inevitably burn out, affecting both your health and desire in the process. It happens to the best of them, as Timothy Ferris documented in his provocative book on “the new rich.”

Fixing a problem takes discipline

Since there’s no scientific evidence classifying cell phone abuse as an addiction, the good news is you can overcome problematic use without costly rehab or medication. But first you’ll need to determine whether or not you’re engaging in behavior that needs fixing. “The ‘turn it off’ test is the easiest indicator,” of cell phone abuse says Merlo, referring to the aforementioned inability to walk away from your phone without feeling anxiety. Another obvious sign is if friends and family exceedingly complain, she says, or if you’re having trouble sleeping, or waking in the middle of the night to check messages on your phone.

So is there a safe, general or optimal amount of time users should not exceed in a 24-hour period? “A good rule of thumb is to stay off the phone during meals, family time, and in social/work gatherings where your active participation is expected,” Merlo concludes. “Leisure activities involving live people should exceed leisure activities involving phone interaction.” Chris Ziegler, an admitted cell abuser and mobile editor for Endgaget, on the other hand, is quick to note that cell phones are increasingly becoming an extension of who we are, so any time limits would be unfair. “Keep in mind that young people are just as likely to use smartphones as an integral tool for connecting socially,” he says, “which means they could be on the phone all day for work and on the phone all night for play.”

And what about mobile providers? Should they play a role in limiting abuse by, say, notifying consumers of the obsessive nature of smartphones? Merlo says no. “Again, we don’t have adequate data to suggest that that phones themselves are addictive, so I think such a recommendation would be considered premature at this point. However, it may be useful to include warnings against texting while driving and other dangerous behavior.” Noting that AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Apple and Research in Motion all profit from overuse, it’s understandable that they all declined comment for this story. You’re on your own for now.

If you decide you do have a problem, the best way to avoid future abuse is to plan ahead. For example, decide beforehand when and how you will use your phone, including periodic power downs. Turn off alerts for low-priority phone messages. And set limits on how often you tweet, so as not to disturb more important things in life — like true friendship, hard deadlines and (you guessed it) safe driving.

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