If you’ve ever read a comic strip in which people are complaining about the youth of today, it’s likely that one of the key features was a teenager who was hopelessly smartphone-addicted. Now complaining about the youth is nothing new – Aristotle was doing it in the 4th Century B.C.E. However, it’s worth asking the question – do we, in fact, have a problematic relationship with our smartphones? And that’s “we” as a society, mind you, not “we” as in the youth (I haven’t been the youth for a number of years now).
Why are smartphones so addictive?
Part of the reason smartphone addiction is a difficult problem to solve is that in terms of human history, it’s a relatively recent one. True, there have always been distractions – but never before have we had such easy access to a distraction of this scale. Imagine if you told someone 50 years ago that they could hold, in their hand, a supercomputer with access to that vast majority of all songs that have ever been recorded, all movies that have ever been filmed, and all books that have ever been written. Imagine telling them that they could use that supercomputer to access news from every nation in the world, communicate with their family living abroad in a picture-perfect video call, and discuss their interests and passions with thousands of like-minded people they’ve never even met, and never have to. True, they might still wonder if we ever got around to inventing the hoverboard, but more likely than that, I think they’d wonder why we’d ever choose to be apart from this magical device. And ultimately, we rarely are. When was the last time you left home without your phone? When was the last time you went to bed without it on your bedside table? Some research suggests that the average Australian spends between 2.8 and 7.3 hours of time per day looking at their phone, increasing with each successive generation, and averaging out at around 5.5 hours across all Australians surveyed. It may sound shocking, but it may be even more shocking to find out that it appears to be well below the global average.
Ultimately, smartphones are addictive because they’re very good at meeting our needs and our perceived needs, and as a result, they’re very good at causing chemical responses in our brains. Connecting with others and being entertained are two things that a smartphone allows, both of which make us feel good – they cause the release of dopamine into our brains. Likewise, phones provide a (short-term) distraction from anxiety and dread. In doing so, they also provide relief from unpleasant feelings. The absence of unpleasant emotions, just like the presence of pleasant ones, acts as a reinforcer – when we get it, we want to seek out the source and get it again and again.
What are the downsides to smartphones being so addictive?
Smartphones are virtually essential in today’s world, and they bring with them many benefits. However, as with anything which is capable of meeting our needs and perceived needs, they also carry with them a number of costs. Problematic smartphone use has been linked with depressive symptoms, social anxiety, poorer overall subjective psychological wellbeing, and poorer physical health symptoms, particularly in the area of sleep. Some of these relationships may well be bi-directional – people with poorer mental health may seek out their smartphones more frequently as a distraction, but it appear likely that the reverse is also true. When our smartphone use is problematic, we have less time and energy to devote to activities that provide meaning and long-term pleasure, and such activities form the bedrock of behavioural treatments for depression.
What are some things I can do about it?
1. Don’t use your phone in bed.
Using your phone in bed is dangerous both from the perspective of smartphone addiction, but also from the perspective of sleep quality. The more things we do in the bed that aren’t sleep, the muddier the association gets between the physical location of the bed, and the behaviour of sleep (you can find out more about sleep in other NLC Psychology blog posts!). Having clear boundaries to where we will and will not use our phones can help in curtailing excessive use, and the bed is an excellent place to start. Also, if you use your phone for alarms, placing it in a location out of the reach of your bed can also help you to avoid sleeping through alarms in the morning. It’s much harder to go back to sleep when you’ve had to physically get up to turn your alarm off!
2. Delete apps which you find too distracting.
As a general rule, if there’s something we want to have done, it’s best to have as few barriers as possible between the decision and the result. If you want to go to the gym more often, you want a gym close to your house – an extra five minutes of driving to a further location is an extra five minutes of time to decide not to go. Likewise, if there’s something we want to do less, we want to put as many barriers as possible in between the decision and the result. By deleting apps and forcing ourselves to access sites like Facebook and Reddit through an internet browser, we make it less convenient, and less automatic. Much of our time spent on our phones is spent idly switching between one app to another – that’s much harder to do through a web browser that asks you to sign in every time.
3. Set concrete goals for other activities which are meaningful and values-resonant.
As we discussed above, smartphones are so addictive in part because they’re so good at causing a dopamine release in our brains. When we have other sources of that release that are consistent with our values and sustainable in the long term, we tend to need our smartphones less and less. It’s easier said than done, but if we can come up with a few goals towards which we can make incremental progress when we have 15-20 minutes of free time, we can diversify the sources of that dopamine release. Activities like crocheting, gardening, learning a skill – these can all be good options, so long as they’re consistent with who you want to be. It doesn’t even have to be achievement, you can just plan a pleasant event that’s more in line with how you want to have spent your time – reading a book, drawing, playing a board game, anything really. We rarely look back on a day of phone use and feel great about how the day went. When we have activities already in motion that we can engage in when we have free time, it can provide a happiness and fulfilment that’s more sustainable. In doing so, we can reduce our phone time to one of many pleasant activities in which we can engage, rather than something which momentarily fulfils a need which it has itself created, and leaves us feeling unsatisfied and frustrated.
Pera, A. 2020. The Psychology of Addictive Smartphone Behavior in Young Adults: Problematic Use, Social Anxiety, and Depressive Stress. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11.
Elhai, J. D., Levine., J. C., & Hall, B. J. The relationship between anxiety symptom severity and problematic smartphone use: A review of the literature and conceptual frameworks. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 62, 45-52.
Shoukat S. (2019). Cell phone addiction and psychological and physiological health in adolescents. EXCLI journal, 18, 47–50.Smartphones