The increasing use of smart phones, is it an addiction or just a societal norm?

Have you then gone into the settings on your smartphone and found your daily phone usage or even the number of pick-ups? If you have, how many of you are surprised or even shocked?

At the end of 2019 Swiss Re ran a session, at the LUCID Conference, on modern-day addictions. Our leading experts, Dr Debbie Smith & Dr John Schoonbee, explored the impacts from the distractions of today, underpinning the opportunities and risks that they present for the future.

About a week before the presentation, we issued a survey to assess mobile device use. Over 230 people responded, and to thank you for your support we wanted to present back our findings and provide an overview of the information presented. This article is one of two we created from the data, the other article focusses on the impact screen time has on quality sleep.

Our survey on phone usage was consistent with the average population, as documented by Ofcom in 'A Decade of Digital Dependency' (2018).  From our survey, 87% check their phones within an hour of waking, with the suggestion from Ofcom that this is higher in under 35s; and 60% check their phones within five minutes of waking. This might be related to using our phone as an alarm clock but could also signify over-reliance on that device.  Especially when you learn that 70% admit to experiencing withdrawal symptoms when away from their device.

What is the impact of excessive use?

In terms of family impact, 44% of respondents regularly discuss phone use, indicating there is a desire to alter behaviour and there is a perception that some effects may be negative. Overall, 43% have tried to reduce usage citing reasons such as tiredness, digital detox, family impact and sleep issues among but a few. More tellingly 30% of those trying to cut down failed, so how much control do we have over compulsions, and how much can they be exploited?

Ofcom reported people check their smartphones every 12 minutes, with the figure being more frequent in younger ages ('A Decade of Digital Dependency', 2018). In terms of the literature on workplace productivity and the negative impact of interruptions, it was noteworthy that 37% of the sample respond immediately to a mobile device notification.

Unfortunately, distractions at work are not the only concern about the compulsion to check phone notifications and pick-ups for messages immediately. 35% of respondents have reported accidents, having either fallen, walked into traffic or simply bumped into someone, due to being distracted by their phone.

Here we can see that compulsive phone users have little control over when they use their phone – illegal use while driving being a notable inclusion not only here but in the Nottingham Trent study. Despite hefty fines coming into law, they still feel compelled to check their phone.

There appears to be a growing trend on the excessive use of our smartphones, but we need to better understand the correlation between behaviours and risks.  When do these craving behaviours become obsessive or even potentially addictive? Are we addicted to our phones or are they just vehicles to accessing other online addictions?

Is our phone a pathway to addiction?

There is currently little in the way of underwriting or claims data to help us understand the impact of behavioural addictions on disability claims. However, our report suggests that it is likely that behavioural addictions are having an impact on disability claims inceptions and duration but that the extent is hidden. This is not surprising as those with behavioural addictions will often keep their addiction hidden from underwriting applications and even from their treating medical practitioners, who may or may not investigate for potential addictions.

Kelly du Preez, UK Claims Market Head at Swiss Re suggests "With growing awareness of behavioural addictions, in particular gambling, gaming and internet addictions, we may be able to identify the presence of these issues early. Rehabilitation is already a mainstay of disability claims management in the UK, and insurers should be able to play a key role in specifically treating addiction and so improving the chances of recovery and return to work for their customers and members."

How much control do we have?

Going back to one of our original question on estimating phone usage, just over half guessed their usage correctly when checking their phone data but 16.5% underestimated their usage by >1 hr per day. Thoughts appear to be shifting on what we think about addiction. This has moved from a single topic disorder with an underlying personality defect to focussing on craving and compulsion control issues with the likelihood to cause harm. It may raise the question on whether we may eventually see mobile phone use or internet surfing classified alongside other behavioural addictions. It will be interesting to find out, over time, if the internet and/or mobile device use will be acknowledged as being addictive in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or whether they will simply reflect the change in a societal 'norm'.

Gratifying an urge is never going to be symptomatic of a disorder, otherwise we would become addicts for doing things that society judges as “bad”. This might be food, shopping, fashion...whatever! Having compulsions is not abnormal, when it impacts on life and functioning then we might be able to identify with pathological processes. Is it more a question of nature versus nurture? Genes or environment?

The future

So, we see headlines about addiction in the tabloid press every week. Only very recently we heard of a new NHS centre opening up for the treatment of adolescents addicted to games such as Fortnite.

So, should we be worrying about the insurance consumers of tomorrow, and will the income protection claims look very different in coming years?

The Telegraph reported that in 2018, 78% of the population now use smartphones compared to only 17% ten years earlier. With people putting more value than ever before on their smartphone, are we sitting on a ticking time bomb? 

We have issues with productivity, poor sleep and we have only touched on mental health issues not to mention potential long-term posture issues from watching small screens. Are we underestimating the impact from overuse and the opportunity costs involved? To quote Dr Debbie Smith at LUCID "if we're not asking disability claimants about their phone health, then we should be". Maybe we should be asking questions earlier too, at the underwriting stage.

Looking at the statistics collected, it may come as no surprise that on a global level, more people in low and middle-income settings have access to a mobile phone than to clean running water. With that thought, we will leave you with one more question…what percentage chance is there that this article will have been read using a mobile device?

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