Addiction is an integral part of the human psyche, and the addictive qualities of alcohol, tobacco and gambling have long been understood.
However, we’re only just beginning to recognise the equally addictive nature of digital technology.
Smartphones have evolved beyond recognition since the millennium, with 4G and WiFi creating an always-connected digital culture.
Sadly, the online world often seems more appealing than the real one.
Millions of people across Britain have developed obsessive relationships with their smartphones, even though we rarely recognise ourselves as sufferers…
Defining smartphone addiction
The term nomophobia (the fear of being without a phone) was coined by the Post Office in 2010, and two thirds of UK adults are believed to suffer from it.
Withdrawal symptoms include classic phobic reactions like panic and anxiety, nausea and dizziness, depression and insomnia.
We subconsciously scratch this itch by endlessly looking at news and social media apps, filling every idle moment with superfluous phone-based activities.
Food is unthinkingly shovelled into our mouths while we gawp at a glowing screen, and even walking is often secondary to scrolling and messaging.
When a ladder becomes a crutch
Smartphone addiction has hitherto been ignored as a medical crisis because phones are so deeply enmeshed in modern society.
Sadly, their ubiquity is part of the problem.
The dopamine rush of social media likes is intentionally addictive, akin to the endorphin release of successfully completing a game or puzzle.
Some people revel in encrypted message notifications and inbox pings; others find themselves scrolling through user-generated content almost without thinking.
This is fine in small doses, but social media algorithms are designed to keep us swiping and scrolling long past the point where we’ve stopped enjoying ourselves.
Arguing with trolls and following the exploits of people we don’t like are textbook examples of pleasure becoming compulsion.
Ironically, ‘social’ media apps have been proven to increase depression and loneliness, while a build-up of unread status updates fuels anxiety and stress.
Attention deficit disorders are exacerbated by constantly unlocking a screen, damaging the mind’s ability to concentrate, remember things or even sleep soundly at night.
People who leave their phones at home or run out of charge may become restless, anxious and irritable – symptoms familiar to ex-smokers and other former addicts.
What should I do to tackle smartphone addiction?
Change has to be driven by the individual, so confiscating your partner’s iPhone or banning your kids from using devices after dinner won’t work in isolation.
Instead, try to evaluate whether current smartphone usage levels are unhealthily high. They probably will be.
These steps should help to regulate smartphone usage without requiring CBT or counselling:
- Study phone usage statistics. The latest versions of iOS and Android record every instance of device unlocking, how long the user spends on each app, etc.
Simply viewing those statistics might provide a wake-up call. It could inspire you to set usage limits on certain apps, or to limit phone to specific periods of each day.
- Switch to desktop use. A PC or Mac provides a superior platform for gaming, ecommerce and work, with less risk of eyestrain or neck ache from protracted use.
Not only that, but it’s far harder to distractedly use a PC while trying to do something else. Concentrating on one action at a time is far healthier than juggling three at once.
- Keep electronics out of the bedroom. You don’t need to use a smartphone as an alarm clock, and those glowing screens make sleep harder to come by after lights-out.
Tell loved ones to ring your landline overnight if there’s an emergency, and read a book (remember them?) to wind down more effectively. This also sets an example for kids.
- Uninstall social media apps. It’s hard to escape FOMO when Facebook’s app keeps flashing up home screen notifications, demanding immersion in its confirmation bias loops.
Delete social apps, and log on through your phone’s web browser. This helps to reduce update fatigue – and ironically, fewer visits tend to provide more enjoyment each time.
- Find distractions. While waiting for the kettle to boil, leave the phone in your pocket and practice mindfulness. Open the post. Do some breathing exercises.
Any of these will be better for you than mindlessly scrolling and swiping. Regular breaks from electronic devices also improve concentration levels and sleep patterns.