About a year ago, I wrote a post called Wireless Wonderland: Managing Phone Use to Stay Present, and I’d love to say that I’ve taken all of those tips and mastered my phone use since then, but I’m afraid quite the opposite has happened. I spend more time than ever on my phone, and it’s gotten to the point that I feel out of control when it comes to my phone usage. I read recently that Americans spend and average of about three hours a day on their phones, and I was shocked. Only three hours? I spent three hours on my phone this morning.
I spend more time on my phone than anyone I know, but I know I’m not alone in my excessive phone usage, so I thought I’d share with you the research I’ve been doing recently to try to combat my own issue. If you, too, are suffering from phone overuse, hopefully some of this information will be helpful. (And if you’re not, I bet you know someone who struggles with this and you can pass this along!)
WHAT IS PHONE ADDICTION?
Okay, so let’s start out what what exactly phone addiction is. There’s no “official” definition of phone addiction, but I think of it as a behavior addiction characterized by the compulsive use of one’s smartphone despite adverse consequences. Phone addiction is often compared to gambling addiction, but I tend to disagree with this comparison because, like with alcohol or drugs, you can quit gambling completely and still live a normal life. But, while it is possible to live without a smartphone (my dad’s been doing it for years!), it’s not that simple in today’s world, particularly if you work in certain industries.
(However, there is one aspect of phone addiction that’s very similar to gambling addiction, and that’s “intermittent rewards.” This means that we don’t always get a positive “high” whenever we check our phones. It only happens sometimes — when we see a lot of likes on a post, when there’s a new news story, when we get a text from a friend — and this makes it even more addictive than if we received a positive feeling every time we checked. Like gambling, we don’t know if we’re going to “win” when we check our phones, and that unpredictability keeps us coming back again and again.)
To me, phone addiction seems more like food addiction — you can’t stop using your phone entirely, so you have to learn how to use it in a healthy way, just as people with food addiction can’t just quit eating but, instead, have to learn how to eat in a “normal” way. Personally, as someone who struggles immensely with moderation of any kind, this is the worst possible kind of addiction to combat because it isn’t an all-or-nothing situation. I can’t just throw my phone away and live without it. (Yes, I probably could do this, but, let’s be honest, it’s not that simple in our tech-focused world.)
I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of addiction in general, but I do want to touch on one important point: addiction isn’t about getting a high or feeling good. Yes, that can be a result of using a substance or engaging in a behavior that gives you a rush of dopamine, but addiction is much more complex than just seeking out a “high.” Addiction is ultimately about soothing pain or calming psychological distress. Phones soothe anxiety, something a great many of us suffer from. They are, as many experts have said, “adult pacifiers.” When we’re bored or upset or lonely or restless, we pick up our phones as a way to soothe ourselves.
Phones, with all that they allow us to do, are wonderful things, but when we use them as a way to soothe pain, when we use them compulsively and without purpose, we ultimately incur more pain than we soothe.
SIGNS OF PHONE ADDICTION
Now that we’ve covered what phone addiction is (and, please, keep in mind: I’m not a professional psychologist or expert so this is all what I’ve personally experienced or found online), let’s dive into some of the signs of addiction. In researching this post as a way to understand my own phone over usage, I found this article, which explores the signs and symptoms of phone addiction. I’d recommend checking it out if you’re concerned for yourself or a loved one, but I’ll some up some of the major signs of addiction here.
- A need to use the phone more and more often in order to achieve the same desired effect.
- Persistent failed attempts to use phone less often.
- Preoccupation with smartphone use.
- Using phone to soothe unwanted feelings such as anxiety or depression.
- Excessive use characterized by loss of sense of time.
- Has put a relationship or job at risk due to excessive phone use.
- Tolerance, aka, the need for newest phone, more apps, or increased use.
- Withdrawal when phone or Wifi is unavailable.
I’ve personally experienced all of the above, which isn’t great. I also scored a 14/15 on this Smartphone Compulsion Test, which was designed to help you identify if you or someone you know might have a phone addiction. While I’m not a doctor and can’t diagnose myself based on what I read online, I clearly have some phone-related issues.
SYMPTOMS OF PHONE ADDICTION
Not only have I experienced all of the signs listed above, but I’ve also suffered from a lot of the symptoms of phone addiction. (Again, these are things I’ve found online so keep that in mind as you read through them. These symptoms could be caused by a number of things so phone use might not be the culprit if you’ve experienced any of these.) From what I’ve read (and experienced), phone addiction manifests itself with a number of physical and psychological symptoms, including:
- Eye strain. This can lead to pain, blurred vision, and headaches. (I had some really random headaches awhile back that I’m pretty sure were caused from way too much screen time.)
- Neck / arm pain. Having been in physical therapy for months because of this, I can tell you it’s no joke. I’m now in almost constant pain, and I’m so limited in what I can do with my arm (which impacts not only what I enjoy doing for fun — drawing and writing — but also has negatively impacted my work and my ability to take on new projects). Despite the pain (and the $40 per physical therapy session!), I keep on scrolling and scrolling…
- Increased illness. Constantly touching your germ-covered phone can lead to all kinds of illnesses. Eww!
- Sleep issues. Phone overuse has been linked to sleep disorders and fatigue. I personally struggle to get to sleep sometimes because there’s just so much to look at on my phone! I also struggle a lot when it comes to going back to sleep if I wake up in the night because I start looking at my phone and then I’m awake and scrolling.
- Psychological issues. Overuse has also been linked to depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, relationship problems, and other kinds of psychological stress. I’m not going to go into this one in too much depth, but let’s just say… yeah.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Did you find yourself experiencing a number of the above signs and symptoms? You’re definitely not the only one. Obviously, you’ve got me, and, based on the tons of articles and books I found online, we’re not the only ones suffering from this. So what are we supposed to do? As mentioned above, completely getting rid of the phone isn’t an option for most of us. But, if you’re like me and struggle with moderation, how do you combat that instinctual urge to pick up your phone, the reflex that’s not so ingrained in you that you’re not even thinking about it, you’re just doing it?
Physical To-Do List
- Disable notifications. This seems to the number one recommended tip when it comes to phone addiction, but I’m not certain it’s the best. I’ve always had my notifications disabled and it clearly hasn’t stopped me from having a problem (though perhaps it’s different if you have notifications and turn them off). Personally, I wonder if this doesn’t encourage me to check my phone more often, since I’m not notified of when I get something, and I instead have to check every app just to make sure I haven’t missed anything. If you don’t have your notifications off, this might be a good place to start though. Just pay attention to make sure it’s not making things worse.
- Consider black-and-white mode. Another tip I’ve seen mentioned frequently is turning your phone to black-and-white mode because the bright colors are what entice us to look at the phone and click apps. However, I’ve never tried this because, to be honest, I need to see what my illustrations look like on Instagram. (I could, and probably should, give this tip a try though because I can turn it on and off and, as someone who loves color, it could actually help me.) It’s worth a try, especially if you’re not running a business that involves lots of colors!
- Delete the apps you aimlessly scroll most often. Apps are designed to keep you hooked and coming back for more. As Catherine Price, author of How To Break Up With Your Phone, has written, “Instagram has created code that deliberately holds back on showing users new ‘likes’ so that it can deliver a bunch of them in a sudden rush at the most effective moment possible — meaning the moment at which seeing new likes will discourage you from closing the app.” If you’re dealing with technology addiction, meaning that if you delete it on your phone you’ll just go scroll on your laptop, this might not be an effective strategy, but I’ve found that I do much less obsessive scrolling on my computer (and even on my iPad) than I do on my phone. Consider replacing the endless scrolling apps — Twitter, Instagram, etc. — with ones that will actually be productive, like Kindle or another book-reading app. (Admittedly, I’ve deleted Twitter probably a dozen times and then reinstalled it because I “have to know what the latest news is!” so don’t be discouraged if this tip doesn’t work for you.)
- Track your phone time. There are lots of apps, like Moment and Forest, designed to help you keep track of how often you use your phone. I’ve used them before and been astounded by how much time I spend on my phone, but, despite the shocking numbers, I didn’t end up changing my behavior. The knowledge of how much you use your phone might be a put-the-phone-down prompt for some, but I think if you’re really addicted, an app telling you that you’re on your phone all the time isn’t going to fix you.
- Put your phone in another room. This is another tip I see frequently, and it’s definitely helped me (when I actually have the strength to do it…) Whenever I can’t physically see my phone, I tend to use it less often. If your phone must be in the room with you, I recommend put it on the other side of the room or somewhere you can’t see it. I’ve tried putting it under a blanket, and, silly as that sounds, it does seem to help a bit. Out of sight, out of mind is an old saying, but there’s definitely some truth in it!
- Get a real alarm clock. I’ve read that the worst time to use your phone is right when you wake up and right before you fall asleep, which are my two favorite times to use it! I always make the excuse of “needing” my phone in my bedroom because it’s my alarm, but did you know you can buy a thing that’s just a clock? Haha! It’s hard for me to remember the days of the good ol’ alarm clock, but I’m going to invest in one so that I can keep my phone out of the room. It’s great that our phones can do everything, but that doesn’t mean they have to do everything.
- Consider a lock box. After seeing a fellow Instagrammer using a lock box with a timer to keep herself from her phone, I’ve been seriously considering getting one. It seems extreme, but I can only imagine what kind of work I could get done if my phone were taken from me for a few hours every day! (If you’ve tried this for your phone or snacks or anything, let me know if you had any luck with it. I’m very curious!)
- Switch positions. If you must be on your phone, one of the best ways to combat potential physical ailments is to switch positions often and do exercises that will help you avoid a repetitive stress injury. As someone suffering from one now, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to do whatever you can to avoid injury, particularly if you’re not getting your addiction addressed (because you’ll keep using your phone and continue to make it worse). If you have pain when looking at your phone, go to the doctor and get a professional evaluation to avoid causing more damage.
Psychological To-Do List
As you can see, my progress has been kind of hit-or-miss when it comes to the physical attempts at conquering phone addiction. The reason most of those don’t work is probably because phone addiction, like all addictions, isn’t just about pleasure-seeking. It’s about avoiding pain. Until I deal with the psychological issues that are causing me to reach for my phone incessantly, I probably won’t be able to have a positive relationship with my phone. Here are some of the psychological tips I’ve read about for combatting phone addiction:
- Replace the habit. As I read in this very helpful article, 5 Science-Backed Ways to Break Phone Addiction, habits aren’t broken; they’re replaced. If you want to break a bad habit, you have to have something else to take its place. For example, if you always reach for your phone in bed, put a book there instead and reach for that (and put your phone on the other side of the room). I’ve tried this a few times, and whenever I do it, it works, but the trick is actually getting myself to do it, which can be really challenging.
- Focus on “won’t” instead of “can’t.” This is another tip I read in the article mentioned above and it seems like a good one, particularly if you’re a rebellious type like myself who tends to balk at the word “can’t” and immediately wants to do whatever I’m told I can’t do. Tell yourself, I won’t look at my phone for the next hour, instead of, I can’t look at my phone for the next hour.
- Listen to meditation. As much as I’d like to be, I’m not a meditator, but while strolling through Twitter last week, I came across this eating addiction meditation by Tara Brach. As I mentioned above, I really believe phone addiction is very similar to eating addiction, in that most of us can’t completely cut out all phone use, so I thought this meditation might be helpful. Boy, was I right! I never thought I’d be able to listen to it for an hour, but I spend the entire time phone-free and learned so much. If you’re struggling, I recommend checking it out!
- Consider why you’re grabbing the phone. Checking your phone constantly is a symptom of a deeper psychological issue. There is something you’re not addressing in your life and you’re using your phone as an escape. If you don’t deal with the underlying reason for your addiction, you’ll find it manifesting in something else. (For example, while I’ve been sober for nearly eight years, I’m pretty sure this phone addiction situation is a sign that I haven’t really dealt with whatever caused me to become addicted in the first place. I’ve just switched addictions, which I’m guessing is probably common. Since phone use seems way better than substance use, it’s easy to rationalize it, but the effects of phone addiction can be devastating and shouldn’t be taken lightly.)
- Think about what you could do instead. One thing that’s helped me a bit is thinking about the things I’m not doing while I’m using my phone. I’m not reading as many books. I’m not spending as much time with my friends and family. I’m not going outside often enough (though I do try to leave my phone inside whenever I go for walks!). I’m suffering arm pain so severe that I can’t do many of the things I love (like drawing!). Considering what I’m missing out on sometimes snaps me out of my phone reverie (though it’s certainly not a guarantee because my mind can rationalize that things on my phone — looking a inspiring art, reading thought-provoking articles, connecting with people around the world — have a lot of value, which keeps me scrolling.)
- Remind yourself that this is serious. Problematic phone overuse might seem trivial in comparison to alcohol or drug addiction, but it can cause significant harm to those addicted and those who care about them. No, you won’t overdose on your phone and die (at least I don’t think you will…), but that doesn’t mean the addiction can’t cause major issues in your mind, in your relationships, and in your work. Most of the time when I mention phone addiction to people, they kinda laugh because it sounds silly, but if your phone use is negatively impacting your life, it’s not a joke. And, like all addictions, the sooner you begin working on it, the sooner you’ll be making positive progress.
- Seek professional help. Phone addiction is a real thing, silly as it might sound to some. And, just like other addictions, more often than not, to actually kick the habit, people need professional. It’s not just a willpower thing. It’s not just “put your phone down.” It’s a complex and complicated situation that may require the help of someone who knows what they’re doing. As much research as I’ve done on this, I’m certainly no expert on this, and if you find that these words resonate with you, I highly recommend seeking out the help of a professional. I know it’s expensive and time-consuming, but, let’s face it: so is an addiction.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this. Do you struggle to put down your phone? Do you wish you spent less time looking at screens? If you’ve ever tried to cut back on your phone usage, what techniques have you used? What’s worked for you? What didn’t work so well? Share below in the comments section! And if you know someone who might need to read this post, pass it along. There are so many people who feel silly talking about this, since it doesn’t seem as serious as “real” addiction, and a post like this might be the motivation someone needs to seek change or professional help.