Yes, You’re Addicted to Your Phone (and what to do about it)

How much time do you spend each day on your phone? You’d be surprised. Believe it or not, you literally are addicted to your phone, as your brain floods your system with the same chemicals associated with other addictions. But you're not stuck - fortunately, you can do something about it and gain control over your life.

Are you addicted to your phone? You may not want to admit it – but you are.

No, you protest. Your phone is a necessity and you use it that way. You're the one in control, not that little device that fits in your pocket.

And yet . . . that little device is often the first thing you check upon waking in the morning. It’s with you throughout the day. It’s often the last thing you check at night. Some of you may check it during meetings instead of attending to your work. Some of you may be scrolling even as critical deadlines loom.

Some of you may look at it intently during your family dinner when you could instead be spending quality time with your loved ones (although they just as likely are glued to their screens). Some of you may even text or glance at it while driving, even though you well know the potential consequences of taking your eyes off the road even for a second.

That sounds like addictive behavior to me.

And the truth is that it’s not your fault. Our phones are incredibly powerful. The average smartphone has more power and memory and can do more than the most advanced computer IBM could produce just 35 years ago.

In other words, that little device you’re holding in your hand, if used intentionally, can give you capabilities and access to knowledge that presidents and kings could scarcely have dreamed of a generation ago. No wonder your brain struggles in your phone’s presence.

And yet, it’s not ultimately about your phone’s power, but the power it has over you. When you use your phone, your brain secretes a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine can be very useful in the right circumstances. It provides a sense of pleasure as a short-term reward, and shows up in activities such as eating and sexual activity.

If your brain gives you a shot of dopamine, and a consequent pleasurable feeling, when you are engaging in an activity you want to repeat and reinforce, it can work wonders. But when the dopamine in your brain encourages you to repeat and reinforce the wrong activities, it can be a disaster.

Dopamine looms large in addictive activities such as gambling and alcohol and drug abuse. Cocaine, one of the most addictive drugs around, actually supplies the brain with an artificial version of dopamine. While the medical community still debates the exact relationship of dopamine to addictive behaviors, what is clear is that dopamine reinforces pleasurable behaviors, including those that are addictive.

And one of those addictive behaviors, at least for many of us, is using our phones.

Consider the following:

  • Pervasive phone use has given rise to new terms that describe various pathologies. Among them – nomophobia (the fear of going without your phone), textaphrenia (the fear that you can’t send or receive texts) and phantom vibrations (a feeling that your phone is alerting you when it isn’t). These aren’t simply multi-syllabic terms created in a vacuum by mental health practitioners. The terms exist because they describe real phenomena actually experienced by a significant number of phone users.

  • A study cited by Psychology Today found that 94% of participants reported feeling troubled when they didn’t have their phone with them, 80% felt jealous when someone else held their phone and 70% expected to feel depressed, panicked and helpless if their phone was stolen.

  • In a study of young adults, 46% said they would prefer a broken bone to a broken phone, and many of the other 54% had to think long and hard about their decision.

All of these behaviors are hallmarks of addiction. If you think you’re immune, notice the emotional and even physical feeling you get as you grab your phone immediately upon waking up. Observe how often you opt to continue looking at your phone in family or social situations rather than interacting with real, live human beings.

Become aware of that glazed, dopamine-induced look you have as you continue to scroll or text on your phone, oblivious to the world around you. Or how you mindlessly reach for your phone whenever you hear that familiar ping notifying you that there’s something new (if you pay close attention, you’ll actually feel the dopamine rush as it happens).

How to Take Back Control of Your Phone (and Your Life)

Not only do phones massively impact our brains and our lives. They also are pervasive throughout our lives. Unlike more standard addictions, it’s all but impossible to go cold turkey with your phone. Unless you’re living as a hermit on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere (and even then), you likely need your phone just to function in the world.

Fortunately though, you have several options to take back control over your phone, and instead put your phone to work in powerful and constructive ways.

1. Use technology to become more aware of your use of technology. Most of us are unaware just how much we use our phones. When we discover that, yes, we really did spend 3 1/2 hours of our day checking Facebook or WhatsApp, we’re likely to become more mindful of how and how much we interact with our phones. The first step in breaking any addiction, or even changing a habit, is to become aware of our actual behavior. Only then can we do something about it.

There are numerous phone tracking apps you can use that will monitor your total phone time, when you use your phone, and which apps you use the most. Good phone tracking apps include Moment, AppDetox, BreakFree, RealizD and Checky.

Simply by having an app that is tracking your usage, you'll tend to spend less time on your phone, and specifically on those phone activities that waste your time. When you know you’re going to get a report at the end of the day that shows in detail what you did on your phone, you’ll want that report to look good and will naturally curtail your usage. 2. Determine your phone usage in advance. If you create ground rules in advance, then you have a solid framework from which to monitor and cut needless phone usage. Of course, nothing’s stopping you from breaking your own rules. But you’ll have a much better shot at it if you at least have rules to break.

For example, you could set limits on how much time you will allow yourself to check social media, watch videos or play games on your phone. You can then check your phone monitoring app to see how you measured up. You can also determine in advance that you will use your phone for certain activities and not for others - for example, curtailing your consumption of multiple consecutive videos.

3. Make your phone just a little less accessible. When you’re working on any task that requires your sustained attention, turn your phone upside down so you don’t see the screen. Even better, place it a little beyond arms reach so you have to work to get it. If you’re taking a walk, put the phone away in a pocket or compartment of your bag so you can’t just pick it up and start scrolling while you're strolling.

There’s solid research, which confirms common sense, that when you make temptations less accessible and less visible, you succumb to them far less. If you deliberately do this with your phone, you’ll likely save hours each day that can be used more productively.

4. Find another activity for your first 30 minutes of the day. What you do when you first awake sets the tone for your day. If you spend the first 30 minutes of your day reading or meditating or planning your day, you’ll find that you’re in a much better frame of mind to take on your day than if you spend that time mindlessly scrolling through emails and news reports.

You may be so accustomed to picking up your phone first thing that you can’t imagine doing something else. But ask yourself – What bad things would happen if you delayed checking emails, looking at the news or logging into your social media accounts by just 30 minutes. Very likely – nothing. 5. Schedule phone-free intervals. This is particularly helpful if you are working on projects that optimally require blocks of time to accomplish. You can simply turn your phone off for an hour while you write that report, exercise in the gym or study new material. Schedule phone-free intervals in advance. Literally put it on your calendar. You’ll be surprised at how productive you can be if you’re not checking your phone.