When a notification pings, many people will immediately bring whatever they’re doing to a halt in order to check their phone. The task the person puts on hold could be a work project, or a conversation with a real live person sitting across the table.

A recent study published in NeuroRegulation says that’s because people with digital addiction have behaviors that mimic those of substance abuse addiction. Erik Peper, Ph.D., a professor at San Francisco State University, said we get addicted because we get pleasure from the quick feedback. He explained our phones almost always win our attention because we are wired to react to visual stimuli.

“It’s done totally automatically,” he said, “even subconsciously.”

But there are problems with this natural reaction. Peper has noticed a big change in his students in the last five years: “I used to come to class and students would all be talking with one another. Now I come to class and they’re all with their heads down looking at their cell phones. We are more connected and yet more people are socially isolated and people are depressed.”

But another study, part of a 2016 dissertation, has a different take. Rowan University assistant professor Matthew Pittman, Ph.D., had been seeing so much negative press about phone use, he wondered if there might be some redeeming qualities. His study looked at the relationship between social media and loneliness and whether these apps connected people in a meaningful way. He said he was unsurprised by the findings.

“Most social media are helpful to a point,” he said, “they just have a point of diminishing returns.”

With each platform he tested, there was a specific amount of time used that would result in the least amount of loneliness. Using much more than that, or much less, and the student felt more loneliness. For Snapchat, the magic number was 30 minutes per day. The optimal time spent on Facebook was 45 minutes, with 60 minutes for texting and 90 minutes for Instagram. Pittman said these forms of communication can be fine if people use them to strengthen existing real world relationships, “But once you’re using Instagram for two or three hours a day, then you’re not supporting existing relationships. You’re then usurping or subverting the things you meant to support.”

Matthew Pittman, Ph.D.

Peper’s study supports this idea regarding people who consistently use their phones while in a social setting.

“If my phone signals me and I turn away from someone in front of me,” he said, “that person will feel dismissed.” He noted that the more people use phones in social settings, the more they report feeling lonely.

And he still believes real world communication is better for relationships than digital ones where we lose the nuances of pitch and inflection of voices.

“Which do you like better,” he asked, “an actual massage or a virtual massage?”

Pittman adds the generational aspect of social media usage is also important. He cited the recent New York Times analysis of Spotify data that found that whatever music is our favorite when we are in our teen years will continue to be so throughout our adult lives. He says it’s the same with the amount of face-to-face time people need with others to feel connected. Since older generations didn’t grow up using cell phones, they may need more physical togetherness to maintain a relationship. But the younger generations who have always communicated with one another through texting and apps may not.

“It’s whatever we’re comfortable with,” he said. “Whatever we used a lot as teenagers is whatever we think is normal.”

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Are you using your phone to avoid human interaction? Is your phone use taking away from the time you could spend enhancing your real life relationships?

If so, Peper proposes some strategies to regain social connections, including completely turning off digital devices during social events. He also recommends turning off notifications that can act as a steady stream of interruptions while working or playing. And finally, set specific times of the day when you will look at and respond to social media. Peper suggests letting your contacts know the hours they can expect to get responses from you.

Trusting oneself and observing how social media and texting make you feel is the bottom line for Pittman.

“If you think it’s connecting you with other people when you use it, then it’s good for you,” he said. “And if you don’t, then using it is going to be frustrating and you’re going to compare yourself to others.”

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