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Your Smartphone May Be Stressing You Out

By Alan Mozes
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Jan. 12 (HealthDay News) -- Compulsively checking your smartphone may not actually be that smart, British researchers warn.

The cautionary observation stems from a new study that finds an association between the increasingly popular use of Web-enabled cellphones and a rise in stress levels.

The reason: a relentless need to immediately review and respond to each and every incoming message, alert or bing.

Surprisingly, however, investigators did not link stress to the professional use of smartphones for work purposes. Rather, it's the personal use of such devices, to keep tabs on friendships and social networking "news," that is the culprit.

"Smartphones are being used more and more to help people cope with different aspects of their life," said study author Richard Balding, a psychologist in the department of psychology at the University of Worcester, in England. "But the more they're being used the more we're actually becoming a bit dependent upon them, and actually courting stress instead of relieving it."

Balding and his colleagues are slated to present their findings Thursday at a meeting of the British Psychological Society in Chester, England.

To explore how the use of iPhones, Androids, Blackberries and other similar hand-held devices may elevate stress, Balding and his team conducted psychometric stress tests among more than 100 participants, including university students, retail workers and public-sector employees.

All were also asked to complete a survey regarding their phone use.

The authors found that people typically first acquire such phones to better manage their work obligations. In turn, however, they noted that users eventually end up sliding into more personal smartphone interactions, eschewing work-related usage in favor of wanting to maintain control of one's virtual social network.

As this pattern of use takes flight so does stress, the researchers observed. And, in that regard, more is definitely more: The more often someone checks a phone for personal reasons the more stress rises.

In extreme cases, the pressure to keep in touch can become extreme, such that the most stressed users actually perceive incoming alerts (via, for example, phone vibrations) that never really happen.

"Now, certainly it's good to keep connected," Balding acknowledged. "But everyone needs a break. Some time on your own. Otherwise there's a risk that the stress and tension that builds up from keeping engaged can end up having a negative impact on relationships."

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, said that while the observations struck her as "reasonable," more work is needed to establish a true cause-and-effect.

"It could be that people who are already more stressed out and neurotic are more likely to check their phones compulsively in the first place, that people who have high stress levels to begin with are the ones who need to have their phones on all the time," she said. "So we need to see what's actually causing what."

"Of course, there's lots of research that shows that truly living in the moment makes people happier," Lyubomirsky noted. "And clearly we're less likely to savor the moment if we're checking the phone. But at the same time, it's not always a bad thing. It saves me time. It makes being in touch so much easier, and enables multitasking. There are plenty of people who can gain pleasure out of sending a thank-you email to someone or surfing the Web for information. So it's how you use the phone that matters, not the phone itself."

Because this study was presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

For more on stress, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

SOURCES: Richard Balding, MSc, psychologist, department of psychology, University of Worcester, England; Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., professor, psychology, department of psychology, University of California, Riverside; Jan. 12, 2012, presentation, British Psychological Society meeting, Chester, U.K.

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