Patterns of compulsive smartphone use suggest how to kick the habit

Everywhere you look, people are looking at screens.

In the decade since smartphones have become ubiquitous, we now have a feeling almost as common as the smartphones themselves: being sucked into that black hole of staring at those specific apps — you know which ones they are — and then a half an hour has gone by before you realize it.

Researchers at the University of Washington conducted in-depth interviews to learn why we compulsively check our phones. They found a series of triggers, common across age groups, that start and end habitual smartphone use. The team also explored user-generated solutions to end undesirable phone use. The results will be presented May 7 at the 2019 ACM CHI conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Glasgow, Scotland.

“For a couple of years I’ve been looking at people’s experiences with smartphones and listening to them talk about their frustration with the way they engage with their phones,” said co-author Alexis Hiniker, an assistant professor at the UW’s Information School. “But on the flip side, when we ask people what they find meaningful about their phone use, nobody says, ‘Oh, nothing.’ Everyone can point to experiences with their phone that have personal and persistent meaning.

“That is very motivating for me. The solution is not to get rid of this technology; it provides enormous value. So the question is: How do we support that value without bringing along all the baggage?”

Hiniker and her team interviewed three groups of smartphone users: high school students, college students and adults who have graduated from college. The 39 subjects were smartphone users in the Seattle area between the ages of 14 and 64. Interviews started with background questions and a “think aloud” demonstration in which participants walked through the apps on their phone. Interviewers would then ask more in-depth questions about the apps participants pointed out as most likely to lead to compulsive behavior.

“We were hoping to get a holistic view into the behaviors of the participants,” said first author Jonathan Tran, a UW undergraduate studying human centered design and engineering.

In general, interviewees had four common triggers for starting to compulsively use their phones:

  • During unoccupied moments, like waiting for a friend to show up,
  • Before or during tedious and repetitive tasks
  • When in socially awkward situations
  • When they anticipated getting a message or notification

The group also had common triggers that ended their compulsive phone use:

  • Competing demands from the real world, like meeting up with a friend or needing to drive somewhere
  • Realizing they had been on their phone for a half an hour
  • Coming across content they’d already seen

The team was surprised to find that the triggers were the same across age groups.

“This doesn’t mean that teens use their phones the same way adults do. But I think this compulsive itch to turn back to your phone plays out the same way across all these groups,” Hiniker said. “People talked about everything in the same terms: The high school students would say ‘Anytime I have a dead moment, if I have one minute between classes I pull out my phone.’ And the adults would say ‘Anytime I have one dead moment, if I have one minute between seeing patients at work I pull out my phone.'”

The researchers asked participants to identify something about their behavior they would like to change and then draw an idea on paper for how the phone could help them achieve it.

“Many of the participants sketched ‘lockout’ mechanisms, where the phone would essentially prevent them from using it for a certain period of time,” Tran said. “But participants mentioned how although they feel bad about their behavior, they didn’t really feel bad enough to utilize their sketched solutions. There was some ambivalence.”

To the team, this finding pointed to a more nuanced idea behind people’s relationships to their phones.

“If the phone weren’t valuable at all, then sure, the lockout mechanism would work great. We could just stop having phones, and the problem would be solved,” Hiniker said. “But that’s not really the case.”

Instead, the researchers saw that participants found meaning in a diverse set of experiences, particularly when apps let them connect to the real world. One participant talked about how a meme generator helped her interact with her sister because they meme tagged each other all the time. Another participant mentioned that the Kindle app let her connect with her father who was reading the same books.

“People describe it as an economic calculation,” Hiniker said. “Like, ‘How much time do I spend with this app and how much of that time is actually invested in something lasting that transcends this specific moment of use?’ Some experiences promote a lot of compulsive use, and that dilutes the time people spend on activities that are meaningful.”

When it comes to designing the next wave of smartphones, Hiniker recommends that designers shift away from system-wide lockout mechanisms. Instead, apps should let users be in control of their own engagement. And people should decide whether an app is worth their time.

“People have a pretty good sense of what matters to them.” Hiniker said. “They can try to tailor what’s on their phone to support the things that they find meaningful.”

Your present self is your best future self

When thinking about the future, some people think they will change, and others expect they might remain the same. But, how do these predictions relate to happiness later on in their lives? According to new research from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), expecting ourselves to remain mostly the same over the next ten years is strongly related to being happier later in life. The research is published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Researchers have consistently found that people who are connected to their future selves are better able to save for the future, delay gratification, and take care of their health, compared to people who feel less connected to their future selves.

So one would assume that if people make optimistic predictions about the future, such as “thinking they will become more compassionate and intelligent in the future,” as Joseph Reiff (UCLA) suggests, “they would end up becoming happier in the years that follow.” What Reiff and colleagues found however, surprised them.

“The more people initially predicted that they would remain the same — whether predicting less decline or less improvement across a number of core traits — the more satisfied they typically were with their lives ten years later,” says Reiff.

Reiff, Hal Hershfield (Anderson School of Management, UCLA), and Jordi Quoidbach (ESADE) analyzed a ten-year longitudinal dataset (N = 4,963) to estimate how thoughts about one’s future self in an initial survey predicted life satisfaction ten years later.

They found that people who expected to be better off in ten years and those who expected to be worse off both reported less satisfaction ten years later. However, people who expected to remain the same typically were the most satisfied ten years later.

Their research builds on a growing body of psychological literature suggesting that perceiving similarity to the future self is generally beneficial for long-term decisions and outcomes.

When it comes to future research, “We are now interested in understanding why some people think they will remain the same and why others think they will change,” says Hershfield. “What life events, for example, cause people to shift the way they think about their future selves?”

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4 Game-Changing Tips From Hairstylists for Detangling Natural Hair

Learning how to properly detangle my tightly coiled, sometimes luxurious, often stubborn 4B hair has been a process, and definitely not one that I’ve enjoyed. In fact, I don’t know if I’ll ever really enjoy taking time to comb through all my tangles and knots section by section but I am getting better at it—practice makes perfect. There have been plenty of times where I’ve made the conscious decision to (gently) tear out the tiny knots that lived between my strands just to get the process over with, but I know that’s not what’s healthiest for my hair.

After a number of wash and gos, twist outs, and attempts at securing my hair in a sleek bun in its most curly state, I’ve realized that there is a method to the madness when it comes to detangling it. To find out how to rid natural hair of difficult tangles without having to resort to desperate measures (or the big chop), we asked hairstylist Candace Witherspoon and celebrity hairstylist Gabrielle Corney for expert tips on the best ways to smooth things over. Keep reading for some of the best tools and techniques they recommend (plus a few of my personal favorites) for loosening even the trickiest of hair knots.

All products featured on SELF are independently selected by our editors. If you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

What makes memories stronger?

A team of scientists at NeuroElectronics Research Flanders (NERF- empowered by imec, KU Leuven and VIB) found that highly demanding and rewarding experiences result in stronger memories. By studying navigation in rats, the researchers traced back the mechanism behind this selective memory enhancement to so-called replay processes in the hippocampus, the memory-processing center of the brain. These important findings provide new insights into one of the most enigmatic brain features: memory consolidation.

When we experience something important, we usually remember it better over time. This enhanced memory can be the result of stronger memory encoding during the experience, or because of memory consolidation that takes place after the experience. For example, experiences that turn out to be very rewarding have been found to lead to stronger and longer-lasting memories.

“One of the ways in which our brains consolidate memories is by mentally reliving the experience,” explains Prof. Fabian Kloosterman, whose research is aimed at unravelling memory processing in the brain. “In biological terms, this boils down to the reactivation or replay of the neuronal activity patterns associated with a certain experience. This replay occurs in hippocampal-cortical brain networks during rest or sleep.”

The question Kloosterman and his team at NERF set out to answer was whether the positive effect of rewards on hippocampal replay extend beyond the time of the experience itself and thus could further support enhanced memory consolidation.

Rewards and challenges

To find answers, the researchers trained rats to learn two goal locations in a familiar setting. One of the goals was a large reward — nine food pellets — while the other goal location only had a single food pellet on offer as a small reward. “Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that rats remembered better the location where they found the large reward,” says Frédéric Michon, PhD student in the Kloosterman lab, who conducted the experiments. “But we also observed that this reward-related effect on memory was strongest when the food pellets were located in places that required more complex memory formation.”

Replay for better memory

To assess the contribution of replay brain activity after the actual experience, the researchers disrupted this particular signaling network, but only after the rats got a chance to discover the reward locations. Michon: “Mirroring our earlier findings, we observed that memory was impaired only for the highly rewarded locations, and in particular, when the rewards were at challenging locations.”

In sum, the researchers could demonstrate that hippocampal replay, occurring after initial learning, contributes to the consolidation of highly rewarded experiences, and that this effect depends on the difficulty of a task. “A relatively simple experimental setting with rats and food pellets can teach us a lot about memory,” says Kloosterman. “Our results demonstrate that replay contributes to the finely tuned selective consolidation of memories. Such insights could open future opportunities for treatments that help to strengthen memories, and could also help us understand memory decline in diseases such as dementia.”

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Biodegradable bags can hold a full load of shopping after 3 years in the environment

Biodegradable and compostable plastic bags are still capable of carrying full loads of shopping after being exposed in the natural environment for three years, a new study shows.

Researchers from the University of Plymouth examined the degradation of five plastic bag materials widely available from high street retailers in the UK.

They were then left exposed to air, soil and sea, environments which they could potentially encounter if discarded as litter.

The bags were monitored at regular intervals, and deterioration was considered in terms of visible loss in surface area and disintegration as well as assessments of more subtle changes in tensile strength, surface texture and chemical structure.

After nine months in the open air, all the materials had completely disintegrated into fragments.

However, the biodegradable, oxo-biodegradable and conventional plastic formulations remained functional as carrier bags after being in the soil or the marine environment for over three years.

The compostable bag completely disappeared from the experimental test rig in the marine environment within three months but, while showing some signs of deterioration, was still present in soil after 27 months.

Writing in Environmental Science and Technology, researchers from the University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit say the study poses a number of questions.

The most pertinent is whether biodegradable formulations can be relied upon to offer a sufficiently advanced rate of degradation to offer any realistic solution to the problem of plastic litter.

Research Fellow Imogen Napper, who led the study as part of her PhD, said: “After three years, I was really amazed that any of the bags could still hold a load of shopping. For a biodegradable bag to be able to do that was the most surprising. When you see something labelled in that way, I think you automatically assume it will degrade more quickly than conventional bags. But, after three years at least, our research shows that might not be the case.”

In the research, scientists quote a European Commission report in 2013 which suggested about 100 billion plastic bags were being issued every year, although various Governments (including the UK) have since introduced levies designed to address this.

Many of these items are known to have entered the marine environment, with previous studies by the University having explored their impact on coastal sediments and shown they can be broken down into microplastics by marine creatures.

Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit, was involved in those studies and gave evidence to the Government inquiry which led to the introduction of the 5p levy. He added: “This research raises a number of questions about what the public might expect when they see something labelled as biodegradable. We demonstrate here that the materials tested did not present any consistent, reliable and relevant advantage in the context of marine litter. It concerns me that these novel materials also present challenges in recycling. Our study emphasises the need for standards relating to degradable materials, clearly outlining the appropriate disposal pathway and rates of degradation that can be expected.”

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Education may be key to a healthier, wealthier US

According to the United States Department of Education, the U.S. high school graduation rate will reach an all-time high this year, which is good news for both our economy and health. Policy makers often use education policy to strengthen the workforce and boost earnings, productivity and employment. But earning a diploma may also lead to a longer, healthier life.

A new study from the University of Colorado Denver is the first to estimate the economic value of education for better health and longevity.

The study finds that the reduced disability and longer lives among the more educated are worth up to twice as much as the value of education for lifetime earnings.

The study, “The Economic Value of Education for Longer Lives and Reduced Disability,” was published in The Milbank Quarterly.

“We often think about health insurance access or medical procedures, like mammography or colonoscopy, as the most important drivers of health,” said study co-author Patrick Krueger, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Health and Behavioral Sciences at CU Denver.

“But education could be a more substantial contributor to longevity than medical care. Policy makers seldom act on that evidence, though, because researchers haven’t demonstrated the value of education for longer, healthier lives in terms of dollars and cents.”

Compared to adults who never finished high school, adults with a high school degree live longer and with less disability. Those longer, healthier lives are worth an additional $693,000 among men and $757,000 among women. The incremental earnings associated with a high school degree are much smaller — amounting to an additional $213,000 among men and $194,000 among women.

To estimate the economic value of education for longevity, the authors used data from the National Health Interview Survey-Linked Mortality Files, Current Population Survey-Annual Social and Economic supplement, and published estimates of the economic value of a statistical life.

“We weren’t surprised that the economic value of longer lives would top lifetime earnings, but we couldn’t have guessed the magnitude,” said Virginia Chang, MD, PhD, associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at NYU College of Global Public Health. “One additional year of life is a significant change in life expectancy and has a lot of economic value. When you consider the cost of completing high school or college is significantly less than what we spend on health care, it’s clear that spending on education is going to have a much greater return.”

In fact, researchers found that education has a bigger impact on health and longevity than targeted behavioral or medical interventions in adulthood. That’s because the benefits of new drugs, medical treatments and behavioral interventions largely go to the most educated, who are already among the most healthy. Pulling together the big picture was important to Krueger and Chang.

“It’s easy to assume that if we improved life expectancy, it would lead to increased health care costs,” says Krueger. “But our inability to control medical costs is what drives our excess health care spending, not living to older ages. Other high income countries have longer life expectancies and lower health care expenditures than the U.S., suggesting that we can and should improve both.”

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Stressed at work and trouble sleeping? It’s more serious than you think

Work stress and impaired sleep are linked to a threefold higher risk of cardiovascular death in employees with hypertension. That’s the finding of research published today in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, a journal of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC).

Study author Professor Karl-Heinz Ladwig, of the German Research Centre for Environmental Health and the Medical Faculty, Technical University of Munich, said: “Sleep should be a time for recreation, unwinding, and restoring energy levels. If you have stress at work, sleep helps you recover. Unfortunately poor sleep and job stress often go hand in hand, and when combined with hypertension the effect is even more toxic.”

One-third of the working population has hypertension (high blood pressure). Previous research has shown that psychosocial factors have a stronger detrimental effect on individuals with pre-existing cardiovascular risks than on healthy people. This was the first study to examine the combined effects of work stress and impaired sleep on death from cardiovascular disease in hypertensive workers.

The study included 1,959 hypertensive workers aged 25-65, without cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Compared to those with no work stress and good sleep, people with both risk factors had a three times greater likelihood of death from cardiovascular disease. People with work stress alone had a 1.6-fold higher risk while those with only poor sleep had a 1.8-times higher risk.

During an average follow-up of nearly 18 years, the absolute risk of cardiovascular death in hypertensive staff increased in a stepwise fashion with each additional condition. Employees with both work stress and impaired sleep had an absolute risk of 7.13 per 1,000 person-years compared to 3.05 per 1,000-person years in those with no stress and healthy sleep. Absolute risks for only work stress or only poor sleep were 4.99 and 5.95 per 1,000 person-years, respectively.

In the study, work stress was defined as jobs with high demand and low control — for example when an employer wants results but denies authority to make decisions. “If you have high demands but also high control, in other words you can make decisions, this may even be positive for health,” said Professor Ladwig. “But being entrapped in a pressured situation that you have no power to change is harmful.”

Impaired sleep was defined as difficulties falling asleep and/or maintaining sleep. “Maintaining sleep is the most common problem in people with stressful jobs,” said Professor Ladwig. “They wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning to go to the toilet and come back to bed ruminating about how to deal with work issues.”

“These are insidious problems,” noted Professor Ladwig. “The risk is not having one tough day and no sleep. It is suffering from a stressful job and poor sleep over many years, which fade energy resources and may lead to an early grave.”

The findings are a red flag for doctors to ask patients with high blood pressure about sleep and job strain, said Professor Ladwig. “Each condition is a risk factor on its own and there is cross-talk among them, meaning each one increases risk of the other. Physical activity, eating healthily and relaxation strategies are important, as well as blood pressure lowering medication if appropriate.”

Employers should provide stress management and sleep treatment in the workplace, he added, especially for staff with chronic conditions like hypertension.

Components of group stress management sessions:

  • Start with 5 to 10 minutes of relaxation.
  • Education about healthy lifestyle.
  • Help with smoking cessation, physical exercise, weight loss.
  • Techniques to cope with stress and anxiety at home and work.
  • How to monitor progress with stress management.
  • Improving social relationships and social support.

Sleep treatment can include:

  • Stimulus control therapy: training to associate the bed/bedroom with sleep and set a consistent sleep-wake schedule.
  • Relaxation training: progressive muscle relaxation, and reducing intrusive thoughts at bedtime that interfere with sleep.
  • Sleep restriction therapy: curtailing the period in bed to the time spent asleep, thereby inducing mild sleep deprivation, then lengthening sleep time.
  • Paradoxical intention therapy: remaining passively awake and avoiding any effort (i.e. intention) to fall asleep, thereby eliminating anxiety.

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Materials provided by European Society of Cardiology. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

34 Pairs of Running Shorts Marathoners Swear By

If you regularly run long distances or train for marathons, you understand the importance of having comfortable apparel that won’t distract you or interfere with the task at hand. Running is a fairly low-cost sport, but there are some essentials worth investing in, especially if you’re spending more than an hour or two a day using them. For me, shorts are at the top of my priority list, right up there with comfortable shoes and a quality sports bra.

Living in Houston, Texas, I train in shorts year-round and sometimes, in brutally hot conditions. If my shorts don’t fit well, I know I can end up dealing with painful chafing, or the annoyance of constantly pulling them down when they ride up.

I found my perfect pair of shorts seven years ago: the Oiselle OG Distance shorts. In addition to fitting me well and not being too short for my liking, they have two zip pockets, which are a must for anyone who’s ever lost their keys on a run (as I have), and for carrying up to four gels on a long run or during a marathon. I keep five pairs of them in heavy rotation during Houston’s ridiculously hot and humid summers (black only, so they won’t turn see-through when I sweat). No lie: I might cry a little if they ever get discontinued. I realize, though, that these shorts only go up to a size 12, so while I love them, they’re unfortunately not going to be a good choice for all runners out there.

Even though I’ve found my perfect pair of running shorts, I know there are many runners still on the hunt for theirs—especially because it’s still harder than it should be to find size-inclusive activewear. Some mass brands are slowly but surely extending their size offerings, and many new and wonderful size-inclusive activewear brands have launched in recent years (check out these 40 plus-size brands our Big Fit Girl columnist, trainer Louise Green, recommends), but we still have a long way to go when it comes to this issue.

For this reason, we gathered running shorts recommendations from a wide variety of professional and recreational runners so that we could include as many options as possible, with the hope that all runners can find something that might work well for them.

Here are 34 running shorts to help get you through your longest training runs and races.

All products featured on SELF are independently selected by our editors. If you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Being a car commuter with obesity linked to a 32% increased early death risk

New research presented at this year’s European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow, Scotland (28 April — 1 May) shows that individuals with obesity who commute by car have a 32% higher risk of death, from any cause, compared with those individuals with a normal weight and commute via cycling and walking. The study is by Edward Toke-Bjolgerud, University of Glasgow, UK, and colleagues.

Previous work, using UK Biobank data, has shown that active commuting, mainly cycling, was associated with a 50% lower risk of death, from any cause, and heart disease compared to car commuting. Since 57% of men and 66% of women in the UK are overweight or obese — a condition linked with a range of poor health outcomes — the authors of this new research aimed to investigate how different modes of active commuting (car, cycling, walking, mixed-mode) might alter the association between obesity and adverse health outcomes.

Their analysis includes 163,149 UK Biobank participants who have been followed up for a mean of 5 years. The age range was 37 to 73 years and 50.8% were women. Obesity was defined as a body mass index (BMI) (kg/m2) of greater than 30. Active commuting to and from work was self-reported and people classified in one of the following groups: car commuters, walking and cycling (active-mixed), cycling-only and walking-only. The health outcomes of interest were death from any cause, death due to heart disease and hospital admission due to non-fatal heart disease.

Dr Carlos Celis, from the British Heart Foundation Glasgow Cardiovascular Research Centre at the University of Glasgow and lead investigator of this work, reported that during the follow-up a total of 2,425 participants died and 7,973 developed heart disease. Compared with having a healthy body weight and reported mixed active commuting (walking and cycling to and from work; reference group), being obese combined with car commuting was associated with a 32% higher risk for premature death, a doubling of risk of heart disease mortality and a 59% increase in risk non-fatal heart diseases.

In contrast, those people with obesity who reported being active commuters had a risk of death from any cause that was similar to normal weight active commuters, suggesting that cycling or walking to and from work could reduce the detrimental effect of obesity. However, the risk of heart disease was still increased by 82% in active commuters with obesity compared with normal weight active commuters.

The authors conclude: “Our findings, if causal, suggest that people with overweight or obesity could potentially decrease the risk of premature mortality if they engage in active commuting.”

They add: “Regardless of your body weight, being physically active could partly reduce the excess risk associated with obesity. However, compared to other forms of physical activity — such as gyms and exercises classes — active commuting can be implemented and fitted within our daily routines, often with no additional cost, but at the same time could increase our overall physical activity levels and therefore help to meet the current physical activity recommendations for health.”

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New study examines the resurgence of milk sharing

A new study examines the history and resurgence of milk sharing. Findings from the study will be presented during the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) 2019 Meeting, taking place on April 24 — May 1 in Baltimore.

Wet nursing was considered the safest and most popular alternative form of nutrition until further options were invented, leading to the eventual decline in the profession. Now, society is seeing a resurgence in milk sharing practices through women with an oversupply who are storing extra breast milk and selling it. Unlike wet nursing, however, these interactions often take place away from the regulations and medical examinations that once kept this practice relatively safe.

“While the practice of milk sharing has been around for centuries (as highlighted in this abstract), unregulated milk sharing via the internet presents safety concerns and is therefore discouraged,” said Ruth Milanaik, DO, one of the authors of the study. “Physicians should be aware of the resurgence of this practice and encourage participation in regulated milk sharing via milk banks.”

Practices of milk sharing can be traced to 2000 B.C., when wet nurses would breastfeed a child that was not biologically their own. At this time, wet nurses played a vital, lifesaving role in feeding infants who had no alternative form of nutrition if their mother could not provide enough breastmilk herself. Wet nursing evolved into a well-regulated profession, with laws and contracts that governed its practice, including a requirement for completion of a medical examination before being registered.

Though commonplace, wet nursing did also face widespread criticism from those concerned about its effect on the mother-infant bond as well as the risk of disease transmission (exacerbated by the low socioeconomic status of many wet nurses). Despite these objections, the lack of hygienic bottles, suitable infant formula, and proper food sterilization techniques (to allow for storage of breastmilk) left feeding via wet nurse as the only safe alternative to a mother’s own breastmilk for centuries. It was not until these inventions in the 18th and 19th century — combined with society’s historical distrust of wet nurses — that wet nursing fell out of popularity.

Physicians must understand the history of milk sharing — the important role it once played and its previous status as a well-regulated profession — in order to best advocate to patients and to policymakers for safer sharing practices and regulations.

“This project was actually borne out of another study we were conducting looking into the milk sharing practices of parents of newborns,” said Nikita Sood, one of the authors of the study. “We thought it was important to examine the history of this practice so that we could better understand the culture around milk sharing and advocate for safe sharing of human milk.”

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