themighty logo

What to Know About Smartphone Addiction (And How to Tackle It)


Smartphones are ubiquitous nowadays. I’m sure you will be hard-pressed to find somebody who does not have a smartphone. They have become our primary form of communication, socialization and entertainment. Smartphones are excellent tools for quickly looking up information, getting directions and interacting with others.

Now that it is 12 years since the iPhone became available, it is hard to remember how we did anything before. It is also important to be aware of how much they have really changed our lives. In this post, I will be outlining the ways smartphones can have an impact on your mental health and what you can do about it.

Smartphone Addiction

Many articles and studies have cited that smartphone addiction is more likely in individuals with anxiety and depression. Why are smartphones so addictive? Smartphone usage lights up the reward center in the brain by releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine. These are the same processes that occur during other types of addiction, including drugs.

Each time a notification is received, such as a phone call, text message, email or app notification, a positive feeling occurs. We have trained ourselves to be like Pavlov’s dog. In this scenario, Pavlov studied classical conditioning by training dogs to salivate when a bell rang. Similarly, we experience anticipation and excitement whenever our phones chime with a notification.

Social media and app creators thrive on this concept. They have created algorithms and designed their apps marketing on the addictive tendencies these devices create.

Connection and Distraction As Motivators

Smartphones provide two things that are very appealing to people: Connection, and distraction/avoidance.

Connection:

Human beings are social creatures. We thrive on connecting and communicating with others because this is how we have survived for hundreds of thousands of years. Typically, social isolation leads to increased depression, anxiety and less satisfaction with life.

Your smartphone is a hub for connecting with others through text messaging, social media, YouTube videos and phone calls. There are two types of connection — active and passive. Active connection is when you are actively interacting with another human being. This includes expressing your needs and responding to inquiries. Examples of this include text messaging and phone calls.

On the other hand, most smartphone usage results from passive connection, in which you are passively watching or observing content created by others. Examples of this include social media and watching YouTube videos. There is a connective component in these activities because of the personal aspect of the content. But, it lacks the back and forth exchange of ideas present in genuine human interaction.

Distraction:

Another behavior humans often engage in is distraction, or avoidance. Especially in our modern lives, we are so used to constant stimulation from external sources. For example, television, car radios and constant access to news and information via our phones.

As a result, we have forgotten what it is like to just sit and be. We have learned to feel uncomfortable when we do not have a distraction. Some examples include standing in line, waiting in a waiting room, standing in an elevator, waiting for a meeting to start, etc. Looking at our phones has become a way of passing time, avoiding uncomfortable silence and also avoiding interaction with others.

This need for distraction and external stimulation has turned into obsessive checking behavior for some people. This type of distraction is especially helpful when you are experiencing uncomfortable emotions. Why? Because you can immediately create a different emotional experience of pleasure and excitement through checking your phone for a new notification or message.

Smartphones and Anxiety

How is anxiety connected to smartphone use? While anxiety occurs when you are experiencing uncertainty and lack of control, smartphones give you a sense of certainty and control. Whether it be through knowing the weather, knowing what your friends and family are up to or having updates on the news, these all provide you with the illusion of certainty.

So what is wrong with feeling as though you have more control and certainty? The problem is that this is false. There will never be enough certainty because the world is an uncertain place. I know this sounds very nihilistic and absolute, but it is the truth.

Therefore, as opposed to trying to falsely create this sense of control, a better approach is to learn to cope with and accept the uncertainty. This approach will better prepare children, teens and adults for the unpredictable events that occur every day whether smartphones exist or not.

A Lack of Connection

Studies have shown that rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide have increased in teens since smartphones became ubiquitous in 2011. This correlates with teens spending less time face-to-face and more behind a screen. As a result, it is very likely that this lack of genuine human connection has resulted in increased isolation and more mental health concerns.

It is always important to note that correlation does not equal causation. By this I mean it is important to be cautious when drawing definite conclusions about cause and effect.

Ultimately, whether anxious people are more likely to use their smartphones, or whether smartphones are resulting in people becoming more anxious — there is a connection. So what can and should you do about it?

Becoming More Intentional With Your Smartphone

It is highly unlikely we will be able to just throw our smartphones away and go back to using no cell phones, or non-smartphones. Although that may be possible for some people, it will likely also result in a real or imagined “fear of missing out” and disconnect from today’s society.

So, what is a more realistic way of interacting with today’s rapidly evolving technology? I understand that everybody’s situation is different. Maybe you have to be on-call for your job, or maybe you have young children which require you to have access to your phone. So please take these tips as suggestions you can modify to your life situation.

12 Tips for Outsmarting Your Smartphone

1. Be more aware of your smartphone usage. This means being aware of how often you reach for your phone, what you are using it for and how you feel afterward.

2. Track your phone usage. iPhones automatically do this for you. “Space” is an app for both Android and iOS that helps you monitor your phone usage and do things like block notifications, interrupt usage, and more.

3. Be present whenever you are talking to somebody face-to-face. If possible, keep your phone out of sight, away in a pocket or purse and pay attention to the conversation at hand.

4. This one may be obvious but do not use your phone while actively moving! This includes driving, running, walking, riding a bike, etc.

5. Put your phone away if you are trying to focus. Studies have demonstrated that just having your phone out on the table can result in you feeling more distracted and less able to focus. This may be because we are aware of the fact our phone can interrupt us at any time.

6. Turn off or put your phone in another room at night. This is especially important if you have the tendency to fall asleep and wake up on your phone. This can be helpful because you can have better and more restful sleep if you separate from your phone during bedtime.

7. On a similar note, disconnect from your phone about 30 minutes to an hour before sleep so your body is better able to relax and fall asleep without distractions.

8. Block certain app notifications. Is it necessary for you to have a notification and/or sound every time you receive a personal email? If not, then block your notifications for email or other apps so you are not distracted every time you get a new coupon or newsletter email, for example.

9. Set aside certain times of day to check things like email, Facebook notifications, Instagram, etc. This may require some level of self-control, but see if you can limit yourself to checking these or other apps only a few times a day (morning, midday, evening, etc.) to limit compulsive checking behavior.

10. Delete apps from your phone. Sometimes removing easy access can be helpful to inhibit checking behavior. If you find yourself compulsively checking Facebook, delete the app and see if the decreased accessibility decreases your checking behavior.

11. Buy an alarm clock and/or watch. Many people use their phones as alarm clocks, timers and watches. What ends up happening though, is that you go to turn off your alarm or check the time, and you become distracted by a new email or Facebook notification and get sucked down the rabbit hole. For as little as $10 to $15 you can buy a separate alarm clock, stopwatch or regular watch that will reduce your smartphone usage significantly.

12. Buy a digital camera. This may be more of an investment, but you can limit phone usage by having a separate camera with which to take pictures so you are not distracted by checking your phone and notifications if you just want to snap a quick photo.

Even if you can only incorporate one of these tips into your daily life, it can have a big impact on your mood and mental health.

Follow this journey on the author’s website.

Photo by Wladislaw Peljuchno on Unsplash