Smartphones are an integral part of most people's lives, allowing us to stay connected and in-the-know at all times.

The downside of that convenience is that many of us are also addicted to the constant pings, chimes, vibrations and other alerts from our devices, unable to ignore new emails, texts and images.

In a new study, researchers argue that overuse of smart phones is just like any other type of substance abuse.

"The behavioural addiction of smartphone use begins forming neurological connections in the brain in ways similar to how opioid addiction is experienced by people taking Oxycontin for pain relief - gradually," explained Professor Erik Peper, of San Francisco State University.

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On top of that, addiction to social media technology may actually have a negative effect on social connection.

In a survey of 135 students, Peper and his colleagues found that students who used their phones the most reported higher levels of feeling isolated, lonely, depressed and anxious.

They believed the loneliness is partly a consequence of replacing face-to-face interaction with a form of communication where body language and other signals cannot be interpreted.

They also found that those same students almost constantly multi-tasked while studying, watching other media, eating or attending class.

This constant activity allowed little time for bodies and minds to relax and regenerate, Peper said, and also resulted in "semi-tasking", where people did two or more tasks at the same time - but half as well as they would have if focused on one task at a time.

The researchers argued that digital addiction was not our fault, but a result of the tech industry's desire to increase corporate profits.

"More eyeballs, more clicks, more money," Peper said.

Push notifications, vibrations and other alerts on our phones and computers made us feel compelled to look at them by triggering the same neural pathways in our brains that once alerted us to imminent danger, such as an attack by a tiger or other large predator.

"But now we are hijacked by those same mechanisms that once protected us and allowed us to survive - for the most trivial pieces of information."

But just as we can train ourselves to eat less sugar, for example, we can take charge and train ourselves to be less addicted to our phones and computers.

The first step was recognising that tech companies were manipulating our innate biological responses to danger, he said.

Peper suggested turning off push notifications, only responding to email and social media at specific times and scheduling periods with no interruptions to focus on important tasks.

Know-it-alls don't know it all

A new study out of the US indicates what many people suspect: these know-it-all people are especially prone to overestimating what they actually know. Photo / 123RF
A new study out of the US indicates what many people suspect: these know-it-all people are especially prone to overestimating what they actually know. Photo / 123RF

No one likes smug know-it-all friends, relatives or co-workers who believe their knowledge and beliefs are superior to others.

But now these discussions at the dinner table, bar or office might be less annoying.

A new study out of the US indicates what many people suspect: these know-it-all people are especially prone to overestimating what they actually know.

Even after getting feedback showing them how much they didn't know relevant political facts, these people still claimed that their beliefs were objectively more correct than everyone else's.

On top of that, they were more likely to seek out new information in biased ways that confirm their sense of superiority.

The University of Michigan study focused on people who profess "belief superiority" - or thinking their views are superior to other viewpoints - as it related to political issues.

The researchers noted that people also claim belief superiority in a variety of other domains besides politics, such as the environment, religion, relationship conflicts, and even relatively trivial topics such as etiquette and personal preferences.

The research used several studies to answer two key questions about political belief superiority.

Do people who think that their beliefs are superior have more knowledge about the issues they feel superior about?

And do belief-superior people use superior strategies when seeking out new knowledge?

To answer the first question, participants reported their beliefs and feelings of belief superiority about several political topics.

Researchers asked them how much they thought they knew about these topics and then had them complete quizzes testing their actual knowledge about those issues.

Across six studies and several political topics, people who were high in belief superiority thought that they knew a great deal about these topics.

However, when comparing this perceived knowledge to how much people actually knew, they found that belief-superior people were consistently overestimating their own knowledge.

"Whereas more humble participants sometimes even underestimated their knowledge, the belief superior tended to think they knew a lot more than they actually did," said Michael Hall, a psychology graduate student and the study's lead author.

For the second question, researchers presented participants with news articles about a political topic and asked them to select which ones they would like to read.

Half of the articles supported the participants' own point of view, whereas the other half challenged their position.

Belief-superior people were significantly more likely than their modest peers to choose information that supported their beliefs.

Furthermore, they were aware that they were seeking out biased information: when the researchers asked them what type of articles they had chosen, they readily admitted their bias for articles that supported their own beliefs.

"We thought that if belief-superior people showed a tendency to seek out a balanced set of information, they might be able to claim that they arrived at their belief superiority through reasoned, critical thinking about both sides of the issue," Hall said.

Instead, researchers found that these individuals strongly preferred information that supported their views, indicating that they were probably missing out on opportunities to improve their knowledge.

So why do people seem to shun opposing viewpoints?

Researchers suggest that while some people insist that they are always right, all of us feel good when the beliefs we think are important are confirmed.

In other words, when a belief was strongly held, is tied to one's identity or values, or is held with a sense of moral conviction, people were more likely to distance themselves from information and people that challenge their belief.

Why our data never dies

Our internet activity, commonly referred to as digital remains, lives on long after we die. Photo / 123RF
Our internet activity, commonly referred to as digital remains, lives on long after we die. Photo / 123RF

When we die, what happens to our online presence?

A lot, actually - and a whole industry has cropped up to cash in on what we leave behind in cyberspace.

Our internet activity, commonly referred to as digital remains, lives on long after we die.

In recent years, as firms such as Facebook and experimental start-ups have sought to monetise this content by allowing people to socialise with the dead online, the boundaries around acceptable afterlife activity and grief exploitation, have become increasingly blurry.

To date, there has been little effort to develop regulations ensuring ethical usage of digital remains for commercial purposes.

Now Oxford researchers argue that online remains should be viewed in the same way as the physical human body, and treated with care and respect rather than manipulated for commercial gain.

"Much like digital remains, archaeological and medical exhibit objects such as bones and organic body parts, are both displayed for the living to consume and difficult to allocate to a specific owner," said Carl Ohman, a postdoctoral researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute.

"As exhibits have become increasingly digitalised and made available online, the ethical concerns of the field appear to be increasingly merging with those of the digital afterlife industry."

Adopting the same regulatory approach used with archaeological and medical exhibits would clarify the relationship between deceased individuals and the firms holding or displaying their data, the researchers said.

This could apply to the four industries they'd pinpointed: information management services, posthumous messaging services, online memorial services and re-creation services, which used a person's digital footprint to generate new messages replicating the online behaviour of the deceased.

While this service has yet to be adopted by mainstream technology giants, such as Facebook and Twitter, the researchers said these services provided the highest level of online presence post-mortem.

It was, therefore, at risk of exploiting the grief of the loved ones of the deceased, they argued, and posing the greatest threat to an individual's afterlife privacy.