Your brain on smartphones: digital addiction's health impacts

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) Let's be honest.

How many times have you caught yourself, or someone in your family, staring at your phone, oblivious to the world around you?

It probably happens more than most of us want to admit, but it gave us an idea.

We asked a few dozen people to take part in a very unscientific study to track every minute of their phone use for one week.

It became an eye opening experience for all of us.

"I was kind of nervous, thinking, oh wow, I think I use my phone quite a bit," says psychology professor and mom of two Georjeanna Wilson-Doenges.

"When I first started looking at them I was worried," says Mark Smolik, father and account executive.

"I can do without it, kind of!" says Kirin Pandit, an Action 2 News producer.

Thirty-one people -- men and women, teens to 50-somethings -- with diverse backgrounds, from students and stay-at-home moms to producers, professors, pastors and many others, agreed to take part in our experiment.

There are lots of ways to monitor phone usage, but we used two apps, Moment on iPhones and Quality Time on Androids, to track our daily use.

"I think it's good to be aware," says college student Haley Falcon.

"I was a little surprised it was as low as it was," says Nic Wautier, a media specialist and father.

When we added it all up, on average, each person in our group spends three hours a day on their smartphone.

"I caught myself a couple of times on my phone and my computer at the same time," says college student Sierra Lardinois.

Fifteen percent of the time this group spends awake is spent looking at that phone.

"It's right next to me. I check it right before I go to bed. I check it as soon as I wake up in the morning," says Falcon.

The iPhone app also gives you this disturbing little fact: how many years of your life you'll spend on your phone if you continue at the rate you use it now. Our average? Seven years!

"Mine said five years! I thought, if I'm going to spend five years looking into this device... I wasn't good with that" says Smolik.

Our volunteers use their phones to watch movies, listen to music or get directions, which boosts their usage times, but they admit there's plenty of Instagram and Facebook scrolling, too.

"A lot of it is mindless for me, I think," says Lardinois.

Even when you're not on your phone. it appears we can't ignore those alerts and notifications.

"It does cause some anxiety if I don't look. I've solved that with a smartwatch," says Wautier.

In our experiment, people picked up their phones an average of 48 times a day. That's about every 20 minutes.

"You hear the buzzing, and you can see them try and resist and they're like, no, don't check it, don't check it, and then they check it," says Wilson-Doenges, referring to students she often sees checking their phones during her classes. "I think it is an addiction that we have."

"We are absolutely addicted to our phones," says Dr. Lynn Wagner, an integrative lifestyle medicine physician with BayCare Clinic. "People that are addicted to gambling or drugs or alcohol, you get that same release of pleasure hormones and chemicals in your brain that make you want to do it over and over again."

Dr. Wagner believes all that screen time is affecting our health.

"We're just losing this whole beautiful part of ourselves and our spirit, I would say," she adds.

Dr. Wagner points to a lack of interaction with people.

"The dentist doesn't even call anymore! I can't remember the last time I talked on the phone!" says Wilson-Doenges.

In our little study, only eight people even used their phone to talk to someone.

Dr. Wagner agrees that technology is good, but we all need limits.

"I know this sounds pathetic, but I feel naked without my phone," says Pandit. "It's like a part of my body. It goes everywhere I go. Say someone calls me and they're like, oh, I forgot my key. I would take my phone and my key, just in case my key all of a sudden explodes and dies. At least I have my phone so I can call someone to get me back in here."

All laughing aside, there's some truth to that feeling of being in the know.

"There's definitely a neurological thing that happens that triggers the need to look at it. That has to do with fight or flight, fear," says Dr. Wagner.

So what do we do about it?

Dr. Wagner has some good advice on setting boundaries, especially for those of us that bring our work home on our phones each night.

We'll look at that and how our volunteers are making changes to their phone use Monday on Action 2 News.