I Have SCS: Smartphone Checking Syndrome

Flowers on head of a cow

My smartphone is the best and worst part of my life.

Do you remember a time when you didn’t carry your life around in your pocket? Some of you young whipper snappers may not, but old Dr. Curious didn’t get his first Motorola flip phone until sophomore year of college. We didn’t even have internet access at our home until I was 14-years-old! We might as well have communicated via carrier pigeon and smoke signals, given the technology during my formative years.

Life is much different now. My precious—my iPhone—spends most of its time snuggling against my left butt cheek, and is within arms reach practically 24/7/365. It talks to me sometimes, and I’m not talking about Siri.

I’m the only one who can hear it.

“Hey sexy, why don’t you just check me once more before bedtime? I promise it’ll be worth your while. You just might see one of those red numbers you’ve been waiting for, baby. Aren’t you wondering how your investments did today, too? It’ll only take a second.”

Of course, it never takes just a second, and I find myself sucked into a black hole of checking email and social media, then bank, investment, and credit card accounts. I even check the frickin’ weather app most times. The cycle of temptation, checking, and guilt repeats itself countless—countless—times per day.

I’ve got a nasty case of Smartphone Checking Syndrome.

Smartphone Checking Syndrome?

Might you be a victim of SCS too? Take this simple questionnaire to find out.

  • Do you panic when you can’t find your phone for 30 seconds?
  • Does checking “just one thing” turn into a 20-minute ordeal?
  • Have you replied to a tweet while stopped at a traffic light?
  • Do you pat the outside of your pocket to ensure your phone is still there?
  • Do you check for likes or replies mere seconds after your posts?

If you answered yes to all these questions, I’m afraid your SCS could be quite serious. Maybe it’s time for an off-the-grid vacation to Nepal.

annapurna base camp
Dr-Mrs-Dr. Curious at Annapurna base camp, Nepal

Addictive personality + addictive smartphone

A number of my blood relatives have addictive and obsessive tendencies, and have struggled with substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and OCD. Given their widespread prevalence, it would surprise me if one of these conditions did not affect a given family.

Unsurprisingly, I share my family’s personality traits to some degree. Luckily, my proclivities are less drugs and alcohol and more culture and music (my apologies to The Smashing Pumpkins for borderline stalking them in the late 90s). As the years went by, obsessions came and went, but the call of the smartphone has been persistent and stronger than anything I have yet experienced. Why?

My mind’s playing tricks on me

The neurobiology of addiction is complex: neurotransmitters such as dopamine and opioids mediate the relevant pathways and feedback mechanisms. Smartphones and their apps have mindslapped users by exploiting these pathways.

Part of the reason for their powerful draw is that they represent a desirable connection to other people and to the outside world. But smartphones can be, to borrow a U2 lyric, even better than the real thing. Unlike the real world, they never stop stimulating us with new emails, alerts, and messages.

The cold, logical part of me knows that I don’t NEED to constantly check my phone, and I will often scold myself for an unnecessary peek. Even the desire to merely touch it can sometimes be overpowering. I will pick it up, physically and mentally wrestle with the choice, then toss it away in disgust.

Smartphones and their apps are designed to vie for our attention. They are perfect organisms of temptation, hijacking our subconscious desires and instincts to continuously bring our focus back to them.

Metal bowl on head
No idiots were harmed in the taking of this photograph. (Pictured = Tibetan singing bowl therapy.)

Hallelujah, there is a cure!

A few weeks ago, I decided enough was enough, and changed some habits to diminish my phone-checking urges.

Reward myself. I make it a game. I’m not “allowed” to touch that precious phone until I finish the task at hand—be it writing, exercising, or completing a work project. It isn’t always effective, and I still grab my phone in the end, but it certainly works to decrease checking frequency.

Designate a phone parking spot. When I arrive home each day, I immediately deposit my phone on a shelf just inside the door—not to be disturbed until after my children’s bedtime. If I receive a phone call or text message, I can take a quick look without physically touching the vile instrument.

Move my phone out of the bedroom at night. My phone used to charge on the bedside table and function as my alarm, which meant it was there for the checking first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I now charge it in the hallway, its spot taken by a sweet 1980s throwback: a radio alarm clock.

Limit phone email accounts. I have four email accounts: 2 personal, 1 work, and 1 blog. If they were all accessible on my phone, I would receive a new email every 5 minutes. With only one account, the email deluge slows to a manageable trickle. Knowing I’m less likely to see a new email makes me less likely to check.

Delete tempting apps. The absence of social media apps further diminishes my phone’s appeal (although that temptress Instagram remains mobile only). I deleted the WordPress mobile app too, as my website stats were getting checked way too often.

Buffer. Sometimes I think of something so brilliant, I must tweet it immediately! But drat, I deleted Twitter from my phone. For these “emergency” social media posts, I use an app called Buffer.

Many bloggers use Buffer to publicize and schedule Facebook and Twitter posts. It links to social media accounts without logging into those accounts directly and, critically, you can’t see your social media feeds on Buffer. Thus, you can post via the Buffer app, confident you won’t get sidetracked by stories, comments, or notifications. 

While these steps may be overkill for the strong-willed, they help quell my urges tremendously. Do I still check my phone more than I should? Yes, but I check it less than before, and I waste less time during each session.

In the power struggle for attention, my smartphone has ever so slightly loosened its grip.

12 Replies to “I Have SCS: Smartphone Checking Syndrome”

  1. i have a minor case but do feel the symptoms worsening. Limiting the email accounts is a great idea. I might try that soon, especially with work email. There is just no reason to check that at home, but I love to see that I have no emails in my queue.
    One problem is that work pays for my phone and so I use it as a pager. I also receive texts through an app when a patient is ready in clinic, so I need it all day every day…. but maybe not all evening.
    I might have seen you at a Smashing Pumpkins concert in the late 90s. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness tour was unreal… Ah to relive the mosh pit days.

    1. My wife is similarly tied to her phone for call, but feels much less of the urge to check it, from what I can see. It’s a necessary evil. I sometimes wonder if a pager would be better.

      Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie are such classics! I though about going to an SP concert a few years ago (well, it just Billy Corgan now), but thought they would play too much newer stuff.

      Dr. C

      1. I’ve thought about requesting a pager for the very reason you mentioned. I’d like to sleep away from my cell phone. Funny how they have masqueraded successfully as wireless phones for the last 10 years. But it’s been insidious, they are really computers and I would never sleep with the laptop opened up on my nightstand!
        Also, what’s with the cow tree? Is it a metaphor for the ridiculoussness of your phone relationship or is it arbitrary gif humor? Either way, it’s great.

        1. While having lunch, we saw a parade of similarly adorned cows walking through Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland a few years ago. I have no idea why those poor bovines had flower trees on their heads.

          I felt the picture was symbolic of my smartphone being constantly “on my mind” 🙂

  2. We are in the early stages of this epidemic. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders with the next update.

    I have been lucky to avoid the affliction so far and I may be immunized against it. I think part of it is I am practically an old man and didn’t get my first cell phone until medical school and my first smartphone until I was finished with residency.

    A great read on the benefits of checking out is Deep Work by Cal Newport. Check it out if you haven’t already

    Nice blog,

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, I will look into it.

      I heard a recent radio story about summer camps in which kids detox from their phones for a few weeks. Researchers found that they had improvement in some markers of emotional IQ after just that short time not using their phones. Frightening and heartening results; one hopes phones are not doing any permanent damage to the next generation.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Dr. C

  3. I have a love/hate relationship with my smartphone because of SCS. The very first article of my blog asked how often people checked their stocks (http://www.wallstreetphysician.com/how-often-do-you-check-your-investments/). I’ve successfully cut down checking my investments to essentially never (maybe once or twice a month), but I still check my phone incessantly.

    You need to do a smartphone detox plan and tell us the results!

    1. Investments definitely don’t need to be checked as often as most people do; it might arguably be detrimental to one’s financial and psychological health to do so!

      I’m trying a detox light with my current methods. I’ll let you know how it goes.

      I also recently had 3 days camping off the grid, and I have to say it felt great. I plan to try it more often.

      1. I intentionally did not check my work e-mail during my last beach vacation. It felt so awesome to see 100+ unread e-mails when I came back, because I knew work was off my mind for such a long period of time.

        1. Impressive! My wife has something like 2000 unread messages in her inbox; it gives me heartburn just thinking about it.

  4. […] Curiosity Lab: I Have SCS: Smartphone Checking Syndrome — Dr. Curious discusses our unhealthy obsession with checking our smartphones. I have it. Dr. […]

  5. I read this article about phubbing, yeah I just learned that word, and thought of your post. (As I send this on my cellphone.)

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