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Need a new game to keep people amused at the office? Ask your co-workers to show you their screen time.

Since Apple rolled out the iOS 12 operating system a few months ago, the new Screen Time app has been tracking time spent with ­iPhones -- specifically, whenever the screen is on. Once activated by the user, the app lurks quietly in the background, taking note of those scrolls through Instagram that soothe your train commute. Your late-night Twitter habit and the text fight with your sister.

At week's end, voila, the tiny computer spits out data about your phone use for the week, and sends a message. "Your screen time was up 11 percent last week." And then ... the number: Six hours per day? Or 45 minutes? Virtue, or digital degeneracy?

You lean into the delicate glow of the screen, mouth gaping slightly. Did you see that right? An average of six(!) hours per day?

Though screen-time trackers have been around for a while (in the form of apps such as Moment) and though Google also has a tracker, Digital Wellness, Apple has moved the needle by including Screen Time as part of iOS 12 and sending those little notifications.

While we were worrying about screen time for kids (and you can use these apps to track your child's use too), guess what? We were staring at the phone much more than we thought we were.

Maybe we were texting our significant others to tell them how worried we are about the kids' screen time. For six hours a week.

Does it count my podcast/music/navigation/recipes app time? The answer is a qualified yes — the ticker is running whenever the screen is on, so if you have an app that keeps the screen locked on, that will inflate your total.

The numbers can be a bit of a shock.

"I'm on it all the time," says Larry Rosen, whose number hovers in the four- to five-hour range. "I'm staggered by how much I use it."

Note that Rosen is a research psychologist who is expert on "the psychology of technology."

He has studied smartphone-use trackers for three years with apps that examine the habits of college students. His research subjects send him weekly reports or screen shots of the report from their phones. When the study is finished, he asks them whether their number was higher or lower than expected.

"The answer," he says, "is always more. And then we ask, 'Did you do anything about it?' and the answer is always 'Nope.'"

Why? "Because they can't see anything that they are doing with the phones that they'd want to give up or reduce."

KEEPING UP

The grand total hours spent, Rosen says, might not be the big problem.

He has seen total phone use creep higher year by year among his research subjects. But the stat that shot up in the most recent study was check-ins, or how often subjects picked up the phone or touched it to check something.

In the first year, subjects checked their phones an average of 56 times per day, and had screen time of about 220 minutes. By year three, subjects logged screen time of around 277 minutes, but checked their phones an average of 77 times per day.

"That's what they're doing — they're checking in, but it's for about 3 2/3 minutes, and then they are off for only about 10 minutes at the most. And the interesting thing is," he says, "we know why."

Research has shown that "what's driving it is anxiety, and it's a particular kind of anxiety some people call nomophobia but we call technological dependency."

Nomophobia — fear of not having your mobile device — is also known as fear of missing out. That's right: FOMO.

Rosen explains it like this: "As soon as you check in, chemicals start to build in your brain," including the stress hormone cortisol. "When those get to a sufficient level to create external distress, that's the key that forces you to go, 'Oh, I better check in.'"

These are arousal chemicals, he notes, not the feel-good chemical dopamine. While we might get a hit of pleasure from seeing a fun message from a friend, the increase in check-ins doesn't seem to be driven by addiction-style pleasure seeking. Instead, it's driven by anxiety.

Which makes you wonder about the skyrocketing rates of anxiety: What if we all had a tiny device that we carried with us everywhere and considered essential to daily life, that was also an anxiety-producing machine?

The intense personalization of smartphones is a problem as well, since it cues into another brain function that makes check-ins feel mandatory. Our brains prioritize some stimuli more than others — when someone calls your name, for instance, your brain overrides other stimuli to alert you. Smartphones, essentially, are always calling your name, and social media plays a big part in that. Social media introduces the idea that, at any moment, someone could be talking to you, or about you. Someone you know may have just said something and later might ask you, "Did you see my tweet?" Better check in.

"You are," Rosen says, "compelled to do it."

TO CUT BACK

There are ways to curb screen time, Rosen says. The app Screen Time allows you to set time limits on the use of certain apps. Other apps, such as Onward, let you lock yourself out of nonessential apps once a time limit is reached, and you will be unable to access them until the next day.

Rosen suggests a few more basic fixes:

■ Turn off notifications, except essentials such as calls or messages from family.

■ Bury social media apps in folders on the last page of the home screen, so it takes several clicks to open them.

■ Don't save your password in social media apps or apps you spend too much time on, and close the app each time you leave it, so that you have to log in each time.

■ Keep your phone on gray screen, all the time. Color is an arousal tool. Gray is less enticing to your brain.

■ Train yourself to check the phone only on a schedule.

Style on 12/10/2018

Print Headline: Got 'nomophobia'? Check screen time

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