The Insidious Nature of Smartphone Addiction
Do you have a healthy relationship with your phone?
Steve Jobs wouldn’t let his children use an iPad
In 2010 Jobs said to a reporter from the New York Times, “We limit how much technology our kids use in the home.”1
Ev Williams, founder of Twitter, Blogger, and Medium, allowed his children books (hundreds of them) but no digital devices.2
Two of the most influential people in the world of technology wouldn’t let their kids have easy access to the internet.
What did they know early on about technology addiction that is only now beginning to be talked about in mainstream media?
In 2010 smartphone connectivity was still in its nascent stages. That’s one reason why Steve Jobs was talking about keeping the iPad – not the iPhone – away from his kids.
But in 2019 it’s through the small but infinite window of our smartphones that most of us are exposed to the addiction of an endless number of dopamine triggers.
The problem is that even if we suspect we’re addicted, it’s hard to stop. That’s the essence of addiction.
Why I'm writing this article:
I Had a Problem with My Phone
Howdy, my name is L.R. 🙂
In early 2018 I became increasingly aware that my relationship with my smartphone was a problem for me.
As a single guy who worked nights, I would come home and get in bed at 11 or 12. Of course I’d have my phone with me.
Every night I would end up scrolling through social media feeds, often for an hour or two. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, check email for good measure. Then repeat.
(This cycle of being in a comfortable, low-energy state while moving through different apps and scrolling is similar to what a gambler feels sitting at a slot machine. This trancelike condition has been termed a “ludic loop.”)
In the morning I would either wake up naturally or with my alarm, but if I didn’t have anywhere I needed to be (though I may have had things I wanted to do) I would end up on my phone again.
In addition to “friends’” updates in my social feeds I would have the added fodder of overnight emails as well as articles published while I slept.
This wasn’t new behavior for me. For years I went to bed with either my phone or my laptop, or both.
I can’t say I was ever happy about this behavior. But last year I began to be weighed down by it.
The shame around my time-sucking phone use became great enough and my awareness around my behavior became clear enough that I was able to do something about it.
But before I talk about recovery – mine and possibly yours – let’s get clear on addiction.
Part I: Behavioral Addiction
Addiction Goes Viral
Here's the deal in 2019:
Because everyone has a smartphone, addiction is mainstream.
It’s much harder to recognize. It's everywhere.
A heroin addict or an alcoholic has a hard time functioning in society. It’s hard not to notice someone nodding off on a bench or stumbling down the sidewalk.
Drunkenness was mentioned in the Old Testament and in Greek history. It’s always been noteworthy and, for the most part, socially unacceptable.
New World Order
We live in a world where everyone usually has at arm's reach a device that facilitates behavioral addiction.
Not only are more people suffering from addiction, but the addicts look the same as everyone else.
I’ve used the words “addiction” and “behavior” at least a few times each. Before moving forward, let's define some terms.
Definition of Addiction
The ASAM Definition of Addiction
According to the 2011 “Public Policy Statement: Definition of Addiction” from the American Society of Addiction Medicine:
Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors. 3
When this definition came out it was noteworthy because it defined addiction as a disease of the brain, not as a behavioral problem (whether that behavior involved substances or not). The disease is “reflected” by the pursuit of substances and/or behaviors.
The definition continues:
Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.4
Most people think of addiction as a substance abuse problem.
If the definition is extended to behavioral addiction at all, it’s most often associated with gambling, and sometimes with shopping or with sex.
But there are many disorders that are characterized by similar signs and symptoms including social media addiction and other technology addictions.
By characterizing addiction as a brain disease, the ASAM definition makes allowances for these tech-related disorders.
Have You Ever Wondered:
What's the Difference Between a Sign and a Symptom?
If so, wonder no more 🙂
Sign: something that can be observed externally. Examples include heart rate, temperature, and perspiration.
Symptom: something that is felt internally. For example, dizziness or nausea.
If we’re talking about a social media addiction...
a craving to take a smartphone out and open the Facebook app would be a symptom of addiction...
...while someone scrolling through their Facebook feed for two hours might be a sign of addiction.
The ASAM characterizes addiction in an ABCDE mneumonic form:
A. Inability to consistently Abstain;
B. Impairment in Behavioral control;
C. Craving; or increased “hunger” for drugs or rewarding experiences;
D. Diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships; and
E. A dysfunctional Emotional response.5
Can You Relate?
When I was using my smartphone to check out social media in bed every night and every morning, I was exhibiting the ASAM's ABCDE.
A, B, and C were all evident the moment I picked up my phone off my bedstand even though I was trying to read. I had a craving and couldn’t abstain, as evidenced in my behavior.
My problem wasn’t so severe that I was neglecting anything too major, but it still took me some time – years – to recognize that I had problem (D). And I’m not sure if shame counts as a dysfunctional emotional response (E), but I definitely was ashamed.
Dopamine: Overused Buzzword?
Here's a question for you:
Why does the word dopamine get thrown around so much in pop-psychiatry-type articles about technology addiction?
It turns out that there’s good reason.
A Harvard Medical School article has the following to say:
In the brain, pleasure has a distinct signature: the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, a cluster of nerve cells lying underneath the cerebral cortex.6
Pleasure Center Geography | Source: Harvard Medical School
Dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens is so consistently tied with pleasure that neuroscientists refer to the region as the brain's pleasure center.7
The pleasure center! Yes!
The author notes that the brain acts the same regardless of the cause of the pleasure. The causes might be:
- psychoactive drugs
- monetary rewards
- sexual encounters
- satisfying meals8
Addictive drugs provide a shortcut to the brain's reward system by flooding the nucleus accumbens with dopamine. The hippocampus lays down memories of this rapid sense of satisfaction, and the amygdala creates a conditioned response to certain stimuli.9
The hippocampus' creation of memories is what makes dopamine so important:
Dopamine not only contributes to the experience of pleasure, but also plays a role in learning and memory — two key elements in the transition from liking something to becoming addicted to it.10
When something gives us pleasure, it’s because of the release of dopamine to certain parts of the brain. But we get hooked because of our ability to remember what it was that gave us that sensation, which allows us to seek it out again.
We become addicted because our brains are evolved.
- We do something that triggers a release of dopamine.
- The dopamine creates a sensation of pleasure.
- The dopamine also helps create a memory of what it was that triggered its release.
- We seek out that feeling again.
From an evolutionary standpoint it makes total sense. Sugar, fat, sex — we’re designed to seek out anything that gives us a better chance of survival.
(Sugar, fat, and sex = energy and procreation, in case you're wondering.)
Right now you might be wondering:
How does all this relate to our smartphones?
Part II: Behavioral Addiction, Smartphones & Social Media
This graph was actually the least sensationalistic example I could find; several others put smartphone usage at over four or five hours. It depends on who’s doing the research and what point they’re trying to make.
How could we be spending so much time on our smartphones?
There are some incredibly smart people who are taking advantage of our stores of dopamine. They are the ones who are driving this rising trend of time-spent-on-mobile.
A former product manager and design ethicist at Google named Tristan Harris stated it this way:
“There are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self regulation you have.”12
Greg Hachmuth, one of the founding engineers of Instagram, said,
“There’s always another hashtag to click on. Then it takes on it’s own life, like an organism, and people can become obsessive.”13
Breaking It Down: Components of Behavioral Addiction
According to Adam Alter, the author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, there are six components that make up behavioral addiction:
- compelling goals that are just beyond reach
- irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback
- a sense of incremental progress and improvement
- tasks that become slowly more difficult over time
- unresolved tensions that demand resolution
- strong social connections14
If you think for just a second you probably see how many of the basic features of social media platforms make use of these addicting triggers.
All video games contain 1, 2, and 4, while the Likes on a Facebook or Instagram Post integrate 2, 5, and 6.
It’s not an accident that one of your posts may garner almost no Likes while a similar post will seem to be a hit — it’s intentionally unpredictable.
Big Life Moments
You may have noticed that "big life moments" such as couples getting engaged and babies being born garner huge numbers of Likes and other "reactions".
I've not done any research but I'd like to propose that social media platforms recognize key words and show the posts of these life moments to a much greater number of people than a photo of my avocado toast with sunflower seeds.
If you leave a comment on someone's post, you naturally want to find out if you were responded to, so you’ll find yourself checking in, maybe without even thinking about it.
That’s unresolved tension (#5 on Alter's list) with a strong social connection (#6).
But it’s not just the social media companies that utilize this type of behavioral design.
The most basic features of your smartphone’s operating systems take advantage of these components of behavioral addiction.
The notification badge that tell you how many emails you have? Similar to commenting on a post, that’s a social connection (#6) with unresolved tension that demands resolution (#5 again).
The ding or buzz that alerts you to a text message?
This video links common SMS (text) messaging into dopamine and behavioral addiction.
The Early Days of "Social Media" Addiction
In 1996(!) Dr. Kimberly S. Young became one of the first people to bring clinical attention to the issue of internet addiction.
Her patient was a non-technologically oriented 43-year-old homemaker with a content homelife and no prior addiction or psychiatric history, who within three months of discovering chat rooms was spending up to 60 hours per week online. The patient reported feeling excited in front of the computer and dysphoric and irritable when she would log off. She described having an addiction to the medium like one would to alcohol.15
In 1996 the internet was still in the phase of audible dial-up; America Online was distributing CDs by the millions to entice people to sign up for its service.
At the time, access to the internet was $9.95 per month for five hours, then it was $2.95 per hour.
Dr. Young’s patient was spending up to 60 hours a week online.
In 2000 Dr. Mark Griffiths, an expert in the psychology of gaming, defined technological addiction as “non-chemical (behavioral) addictions that involve human-machine interaction,” placing them as a subset of behavioral addictions.16
- We know what behavioral addiction is
- We hopefully agree that smartphone and social media usage is a type of behavioral addiction, as shown through both clinical and anecdotal studies.
The question now is: How does this affect us?
Part III: Consequences of Smartphone and Social Media Addiction
Technology and Distractibility
The Attention Span of a Goldfish
In 2015 Microsoft Canada undertook a study to understand the changing nature of attention as related to technology usage.
The study received a lot of...attention :)...because a statement in the report compared the eight second attention span of a human in 2013 with the supposed nine second span of a goldfish.17
That particular claim wasn't based on studies they performed and it's hard to tell on what evidence their quoted source based the claim. But they got a lot of press because of it, and maybe that's why it was there.
If it was just an attention grab, that's unfortunate, because the results of the studies Microsoft performed are super interesting, even if only one result was remotely surprising.
So: What did they find?
Inability to Focus
The researchers measured the effects different factors had on sustained attention, selective attention, and alternating attention.
Not surprisingly, these behaviors are also highly correlated with each other as well. While age is also correlated with these behaviours, it isn’t significantly tied to sustained attention.” 18
The study found that heavy users of technology and social media had less of an ability to focus for longer periods of time.
Long-term focus ability | Source: Consumer Insights, Microsoft Canada
Here’s the somewhat unexpected, interesting part:
“While they may have lower sustained attention overall, moderate to heavy social media users have more intermittent bursts of attention (high intensity for short durations) in the short term.” 19
“In both environments [interactive (digital) and passive (TV)] their bursts of attention allow heavier users of social media to process information and encode it to memory more efficiently.” 20
Our brains are changing in several ways. Depending on what your values are, this could be seen as good or bad.
The researchers concluded that “Overall, digital lifestyles have a negative impact on prolonged focus.” 21
From a survival standpoint, the ability to process information efficiently could be great news.
But from a social and cultural perspective – if we assume that sustained focus is necessary to do deep work – it would seem that we now have a decreased ability to answer difficult questions and make significant contributions to society.
Smartphones and Cognitive Ability
Proximity to Your Smartphone Reduces Your Cognitive Ability
Research conducted at the University of Texas found that “the mere presence of (one’s own smartphone) reduces available cognitive capacity.”22
The cognitive capacity that’s referred to includes learning ability, logical reasoning, abstract thinking, problem-solving, and creative abilities.
548 students were tested on their ability to focus on a single task and solve unfamiliar problems.
The students were divided into three groups:
- One group kept their smartphones on the desk
- One group kept their smartphones in a pocket or backpack
- One group put their smartphones in a separate room23
“Nearly all the students in the experiment reported not being distracted by their phones…. [But students] who kept their phones on the desk performed the worst on the tests followed by those who kept their phones in a pocket or backpack. The highest performers were the students who left their phones in a separate room.”
The visibility of the phone’s screen and whether the phone was silent or powered off made little difference in cognitive capacity, suggesting that “intuitive ‘fixes’ such as placing one’s phone face down or turning it off are likely futile.”24
This is kind of not surprising...but still incredible! This thing we choose to carry around with us draws power away from what we are intentionally focusing on!
Meditation and Smartphones
The path that led me eventually to writing this article started with two things:
- Using my smartphone in bed
- Meditating using my phone as a timer
The short version of the story is that when I woke up from a night's sleep or came out of my meditation practice, I would find my phone in my hand.
From there it doesn't take long to get sucked into social media, email, etc.
Once I started using a physical timer for meditation, my practice felt so much better.
It's because each night I put my phone in another room, and when I practiced in the morning, I hadn't had contact with it yet.
The disappearance of its grip on my cognitive capacity was noticeable, just like the University of Texas study shows.
Get your phone away from your (meditation) cushion! (And, while you're at it, out of your bedroom.)
Smartphones and Sleep Hygiene
Technology Usage Makes for Poor Sleep Hygiene
Melatonin is a hormone that influences your circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is your biological clock — your natural system that regulates when you feel alert or sleepy.
Exposure to any light at night – even very low levels of light, such as a nightlight – suppresses the secretion of melatonin, thereby interfering with your circadian rhythm.”25
You can probably see where this is going.
Your phone happens to emit light. That’s part of its sex appeal — a high definition computer screen that you have with you at all times.
If you use your phone at night or in bed, not only does the light mess with your sleep — what you’re doing with your phone while in bed is keeping you awake.
The regular dopamine hits from “normal” phone activity keep your brain alert. This keeps you awake. It’s a double whammy.
It doesn’t take much to be sleep deprived. According to one study:
“Scientists have found that a small nightly decrease in sleep has serious cumulative effects; for instance, a week and a half spent sleeping just six hours per night, rather than seven to nine, can result in the same level of impairment on the tenth day as being awake for the previous 24 hours futile.”26
According to the National Institute of Health, sleep deprivation is a negative factor in:
- the ability to think clearly
- reaction time
- memory formation
- mood (leading to irritability)
- relationship problems
This is one more reason why this essay is titled “The Insidious Nature of Phone Addiction.”
It’s bad enough that excessive smartphone usage (often due to social media addiction) causes sleep deprivation, which has the effects listed above.
As we’ll see in the next section, being on social media directly causes the effects listed above.
And finally, depressingly, when we feel depressed or anxious, we look to distract ourselves from those feelings, even if the distraction contributes to those same feelings.
Most of us have a device within arms reach at all times that is a limitless source of distraction.
Phone in Bed
Have you ever lied in bed with your phone, awake and alert for much longer than you thought you would be?
I have. I can be falling asleep reading a book and then pick up my phone, open Facebook, and easily be awake for an hour or more.
I’m sure I’m doing more harm to my well-being than simply not sleeping. Not only am I losing out on sleep, but I finish those social media sessions feeling strung out.
I was having this experience most nights and most mornings.
My out-of-control smartphone use – a behavior that seemed sort of normal for years – ended up compounding to such an extent that I felt a lot of shame about how I was wasting my life.
That's how we ended up here.
Smartphones and Stress
Your Smartphone Stresses You Out
I was at The Strand bookstore in New York City casually browsing the stacks of featured books on the ground floor.
I was in the development stage with my meditation timer and alarm clock, so phone addiction and its effects were on my mind (to say the least 🙂
One of the featured books was called How to Break Up with Your Phone. It was a no-brainer purchase.
Catherine Pric#twentyeight28e wrote the book and I’ll be writing more about her and it in my next essay, which will be about healthy digital relationships.
For now I want to share a haunting paragraph in which she summarizes how crazy the world is that we live in now. It begins her chapter on stress.
In the past, if a person described herself as feeling happy, sad, excited, anxious, curious, frustrated, ignored, important, lonely, joyful, and existentially depressed within the space of five minutes, she likely would have received a diagnosis.
But give me five minutes on my phone and I can accomplish this and more.28
Stress is one of those words that we hear and use all the time, but if you were asked to put a definition into words, what would you say?
What exactly is stress?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), there are three kinds of stress: acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress.
Acute stress has to do with the “laundry list of what has gone awry in [your life].”29 You got to work but forgot your lunch, you remember that you need to pay some bills when you get home, your spouse is having a rough time at work….
Acute stress is normal life stress. It’s a part of nearly everyone’s life.
Acute stress can be good. It’s how we grow.
This is because acute stress triggers our immune function.30
The APA has a succinct list of the most common symptoms of acute stress:
- Emotional distress — some combination of anger or irritability, anxiety and depression, the three stress emotions
- Muscular problems including tension headache, back pain, jaw pain and the muscular tensions that lead to pulled muscles and tendon and ligament problems
- Stomach, gut and bowel problems such as heartburn, acid stomach, flatulence, diarrhea, constipation and irritable bowel syndrome
- Transient overarousal leads to elevation in blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, heart palpitations, dizziness, migraine headaches, cold hands or feet, shortness of breath and chest pain31
Episodic acute stress is, essentially, always suffering from acute stress.
One person might have a bout of non-episodic acute stress because they are running late for work because they got a phone call right before they left the house.
The person suffering from episodic acute stress, on the other hand, is always late, always over-committed.
Lastly, there is chronic stress. “Chronic” means “persisting for a long time or constantly recurring”32
Chronic stress comes when a person never sees a way out of a miserable situation. It's the stress of unrelenting demands and pressures for seemingly interminable periods of time. With no hope, the individual gives up searching for solutions.33
Chronic stress kills, whether that’s through violence inflicted on others, or on the self, or through medical conditions such as a heart attack or a stroke.34
How do these kinds of stress relate to smartphone addiction?
One final takeaway from the APA.
In their annual “Stress in America” survey the APA found that 43% of Americans constantly check their emails, texts, or social media accounts.
This segment of the population reported having a higher stress level than non-constant checkers (5.5 on a scale from 1 to 10, compared to 4.4 for those who don’t check as frequently).35
The report doesn’t dive into exactly what causes the stress. It also doesn’t try to correlate whether stressed people tend to check their phone more often or if the act of checking one’s phone causes stress.
But according to the APA’s own definitions, it seems that smartphone usage could be a significant cause of each of the three kinds of stress that I outlined in the previous section.
For some people it causes acute stress through the occasional text or email that “needs” to be dealt with immediately. Social media posting and responding and checking could cause small, “normal” bouts of stress as well.
For a small percentage of those who are more strongly caught up in the cycle of behavioral addiction, the constant stimuli from repeated phone checking could cause episodic acute stress.
I know that I’ve suffered from tension headaches and migraines from periods of time when I was more enmeshed in the “hooked” cycle.
It doesn’t seem like a stretch to imagine that there are those who are so completely addicted that they are persistently over aroused and need professional help.
The attendant symptoms of chronic stress – anxiety and depression – deserve their own section.
Smartphones, Depression, and Suicide
Depression, and Suicide caused by smartphone and social media addiction
Unfortunately (unsurprisingly?), the technology “advances” of the past ten to fifteen years have more serious consequences than the occasional need to respond to a text right away.
Several studies have shown a correlation between smartphone use and depression. 36
But these studies do not show causation. It may simply be that if a person is depressed or anxious, they turn to their smartphone for escape.
It’s not a huge mental leap to suppose that a downward spiral occurs. Depression leads to a desire to escape, and the addictive nature of the escape mechanism (the smartphone and social media) exacerbates the depression.
The depression that is possibly caused by the escape has two parts.
One source of shame is the inability to stop using the phone.
But the "escape" itself – the social media feed – is second source of shame and discomfort. What most of us do when we're on social is compare ourselves to others.
Because of the nature of the medium – that we publish interesting, "good" moments from our lives much more often than mundane moments or challenging, uncomfortable conversations – we're comparing ourselves unfavorably to the curated lives we're witnessing.
Therefore, a depressed person lying in bed scrolling through Facebook is suffering on two levels:#thirtyseven
First, that they feel they shouldn't be doing what they're doing; and
Second, the content they're consuming is causing them to feel inadequate.
iGen and Screentime
A recent (2017) academic study that involved over a half million students in grades eight through 12 showed that “depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates increased between 2010 and 2015.”37
A suicide related outcome is defined as suicidal ideation, plans, and attempts.
"Adolescents who spe#thirtyeight38nt more time on new media (including social media and electronic devices such as smartphones) were more likely to report mental health issues, and adolescents who spent more time on nonscreen activities (in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, homework, print media, and attending religious services) were less likely.”38
Screen time included social media use, internet news use, “electronic device use,” and TV viewing. Electronic device use included video games, or anything that is not school work.
“Since 2010, iGen adolescents have spent more time on new media screen activities and less time on nonscreen activities, which may account for the increases in depression and suicide.”39
This graph shows that “in terms of relative risk, adolescents using electronic devices 3 or more hours a day were 34% more likely to have at least one suicide-related outcome than those using devices 2 or fewer hours a day….”40
This study was not experimental. It drew from large sets of data available from two nationally representative surveys and U.S. CDC data on suicide deaths. As such, there was no control group of adolescents.
The researchers were comparing adolescents from one era to adolescents in another era: “Adolescents cannot be randomly assigned to experience different eras. Thus we must turn to correlational research to provide evidence.”41
Several of the conclusions were based specifically on social media use.
The study cites three previous studies that found that Facebook use led to negative moods, while negative moods did not lead to Facebook use.
“These studies suggest that at least some of the causal arrow points from social media use to mental health issues.”42
Although not definitive, the researchers are able to rule out other factors (such as economic well-being) that have been hypothesized to contribute to the rise in depressive symptoms and suicides.
Although not definitive, the researchers are able to rule out other factors (such as economic well-being) that have been hypothesized to contribute to the rise in depressive symptoms and suicides.
In conclusion, adolescent mental health issues rose sharply since 2010, especially among females. New media screen time is both associated with mental health issues and increased over this time period. Thus, it seem likely that the concomitant rise of screen time and adolescent depression and suicide is not coincidental.43
“Adolescent mental health issues rose sharply since 2010….”
2010: The same year that Steve Jobs admitted to a newspaper reporter that he wouldn’t let his kids have an iPad.
In the study featured abo#fortyfourve, lead researcher Jean Twenge coined the term “iGen,” which refers to the generation born approximately 1995-2012.44
From somewhere between birth and adolescence this generation has been exposed to technology to which our brains have had zero chance to adapt properly.
Our relationship to technology. Our children’s relationship to technology.
How do you feel about how this plays out in the coming years?
Part IV: Signs and Symptoms of Social Media and Smartphone Addiction
As we've seen, the consequences of spending too much time on our phones range from sleep deprivation and stress to the extreme of suicide.
Our next question:
What does smartphone addiction look like, as it relates to our behaviors?
Again, it’s an insidious thing. Many of us spend time online in bits and pieces.
It would be easier to see a solid 3.3 hours (our average phone time, remember?) with phone in hand as unhealthy.
In cases of addiction in general, it’s difficult for the addicted person to comprehend that they have a problem.
That’s why the cliche exists that someone admitting they have a problem is the first step to recovery.
Yes, a person is taking a step in the direction of recovery, and that’s a huge accomplishment.
But this admission is also a sign that the addict recognizes that they have a problem.
It’s not as if it was a conscious, willful denial until that moment.
It’s that many people – especially addicts – are incapable of seeing that there is anything abnormal in their abnormal behavior.
In this regard, technology addiction proves to be much more problematic than drug or alcohol addiction.
Most alcoholics know that it’s not cool to be drunk in public or at work at 11am. Most likely…no one else is drunk at that time.
The alcoholic will adapt by changing their behavior: they’ll drink only at home in the morning, or sneak drinks at work, or sleep most of the day and head out at night.
A phone addict doesn’t need to modify their behavior. Everyone has their phone at all times. This is why people can get away with it.
Everyone. All the time.
Is “epidemic” too strong a word?
New Word: Nomophobia
If epidemic is too strong a word (though it may not be), a word exists that’s a little more playful.
In 2008 the U.K. Post office commissioned a study of mobile phone use. They found that more than half of mobile phone users in Britain feel anxious when they can’t use their cell phones.
To describe the new phenomenon the polling company coined the term “nomophobia,” with “nomo” being short for “no mobile.”45
This was in 2008! The year the first smartphone came out. The poll respondents were talking about their Nokia candy bar-phones and Motorola flip-phones.
Ten years later users of the Cambridge Dictionary voted nomophobia 2018’s word of the year. The dictionary acknowledged that “Of course nomophobia isn’t a scientific word; a true phobia (extreme fear of something) is different from anxiety (extreme worry).”46
Given the popularity of the word, last year “nomophobia” was added to the online Cambridge dictionary.
How Smartphone Addiction Shows Up in People
A 2016 study attempting to develop diagnostic criteria of smartphone addiction tested 12 symptoms and came up with six results that the researchers considered statistically significant. 47
The symptoms they proposed for future use for diagnostic purposes are:
- Recurrent failure to resist the impulse to use the smartphone
- Withdrawal: manifested as a dysphoric mood, anxiety and irritability after a period without smartphone use
- Smartphone use for a period longer than intended
- Persistent desire and/or unsuccessful attempts to cut down or reduce smartphone use
- Excessive smartphone use and/or time spent on quitting the smartphone use
- Continued excessive smartphone use despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem resulting from smartphone overuse48
When you read these over, what are your thoughts?
As I go through these one-by-one I find myself nodding to each except withdrawal (#2), and it’s possible that I simply never noticed my own symptoms.
The Challenge of Self-diagnosis
Some symptoms can be subtle.
Take for example the symptom “Loss of previous interests…as a result of smartphone use.”
I went through a period of time when I was hardcore addicted to coffee.
Sometimes I would make the choice to go to a coffee shop over going for a mountain bike ride.
I wasn’t conscious of my thought process.
But that decision wasn’t usually a direct either/or. I would kinda-sorta decide to go to a coffee shop to read or do work and then simply not have enough time to mountain bike.
Or something like that.
After quitting coffee and noticing that I was spending much less time in coffee shops, I saw the mental map of decision making that had been taking place.
I happen to have gone through and recovered from an addiction to alcohol. In part because of my experience, I’ve been able to witness subtleties around my behaviors regarding other (possible) addictions.
I’m not saying I’m perfectly self-aware 🙂 I imagine I have plenty of blind spots.
But addiction is insidious. And problematic use of technology and social media is many people's first experience with addiction.
Not everyone will be able to make these diagnoses on themselves. At least not right away.
Part V: Solution
What do You do if You’re Addicted to Your Smartphone?
The reason I wrote this essay is because if you look online for information, most of what shows up are listicles and lifehacks.
There’s a lot of sensationalism, clickbaiting, and fear-mongering.
Unfortunately, in this subject area there are good reasons to be afraid — or at least highly concerned.
My observational guess is that a large percentage of people are truly addicted to their phones.
If you’re one of them, what can you do about it?
Solutions are Forthcoming
I didn't set out to write an article that was this comprehensive.
It has taken way more time than I thought it would.
By the end of March I will publish an article that will outline varying approaches to establishing healthy boundaries with your smartphone.
I’ll cover those that make the most sense to me, not "5 Easy Ways to Break Your Phone Addiction."
Because working with addiction requires a serious commitment, the methods I’ll be sharing with you are not simple hacks or band-aids.
They take a more comprehensive approach.
None of the suggestions involve giving up your phone. For the moment – until another technology emerges – it’s obvious that smartphones are too enmeshed in our day-to-day lives to ask people to put them down completely.
The Easiest Change with the Biggest Effect: How I Curbed My Phone Addiction
When I was at my worst with my phone addiction, I did one thing that provided me massive relief and made my life immediately and immeasurably better.
I got an alarm clock and started charging my phone in another room overnight.
Every method in next month’s essay includes getting your phone out of your bedroom. This is something you can start right now.
All you need is an alarm clock.
But I needed and wanted a meditation timer along with my alarm clock. I also didn't want a loud alarm sound.
I was so inspired by the positive change in my life that I designed my own clock. In addition to waking me up, it has a meditation timer and a non-jarring alert sound.
If you meditate with a timer, the Offgrid Mindfulness Clock is your best option.
But any alarm clock will work to get your phone out of your bedroom.
Just get your phone out of your bedroom at night.
Your life will get better. I promise.
You’ll be more fulfilled. More well-rested. In a better mood.
If you have a partner, you two will likely have a totally different relationship, for better or worse 😉
You’ll be happier. And ultimately, despite our outward actions and self-sabotaging, that’s what we all want.
Thanks for reading. If anything resonated please leave a comment or drop me a line.
The Offgrid Mindfulness Clock
A meditation timer & alarm clock that's NOT connected to the internet
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12Adam Alter, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, (New York, Penguin Press, 2017), 3.↑
15Kimberly S. Young and Cristiano Nabuco de Abreu, Internet Addiction: A Handbook and Guide to Evaluation and Treatment, (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons, 2011), vii.↑
16Griffiths M. D. Does Internet and computer “addiction” exist? Some case study evidence, (CyberPsychologyBehavior, 2000), 211.↑
17Attention spans, Consumer Insights, Microsoft Canada, Spring 2015, 6, https://www.scribd.com/document/265348695/Microsoft-Attention-Spans-Research-Report#download ↑
22Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos, “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity” Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, vol. 2 no. 3 (April 2017):
“Abstract.” https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/691462 ↑
24Ibid., “General Discussion.”↑
26Van Dongen HPA, et al. The Cumulative Cost of Additional Wakefulness: Dose-Response Effects on Neurobehavioral Functions and Sleep Physiology from Chronic Sleep Restriction and Total Sleep Deprivation. SLEEP. 2003; 26(2):117-126.↑
28Catherine Price, How to Break Up with Your Phone (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2018), 64.↑
36Aljohara A. Alhassan, Ethar M. Alqadhib, Nada W. Taha, Raneem A. Alahmari, Mahmoud Salam, and Adel F. Almutairi, “The relationship between addiction to smartphone usage and depression among adults: a cross sectional study,” BMC Psychiatry, May 25, 2018.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5970452/ ↑
37Jean M. Twenge, Thomas E. Joiner, Megan L. Rogers, Gabrielle N. Martin, “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time,” Clinical Psychological Science November 14, 2017. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2167702617723376 ↑
38Jean M. Twenge, Thomas E. Joiner, Megan L. Rogers, Gabrielle N. Martin, “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time,” Clinical Psychological Science November 14, 2017, Abstract. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2167702617723376 ↑
47Yu-Hsuan Lin, Chih-Lin Chiang, Po-Hsien Lin, Li-Ren Chang, Chih-Hung Ko, Yang-Han Lee, and Sheng-Hsuan Lin, “Proposed Diagnostic Criteria for Smartphone Addiction,” PLOS ONE, November 2016.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5112893/ ↑
12Adam Alter, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, (New York, Penguin Press, 2017), 3.
15Kimberly S. Young and Cristiano Nabuco de Abreu, Internet Addiction: A Handbook and Guide to Evaluation and Treatment, (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons, 2011), vii.
16Griffiths M. D. Does Internet and computer “addiction” exist? Some case study evidence, (CyberPsychologyBehavior, 2000), 211.
17Attention spans, Consumer Insights, Microsoft Canada, Spring 2015, 6, https://www.scribd.com/document/265348695/Microsoft-Attention-Spans-Research-Report#download
22Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos, “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity” Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, vol. 2 no. 3 (April 2017): “Abstract.” https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/691462
24Ibid., “General Discussion.”
26Van Dongen HPA, et al. The Cumulative Cost of Additional Wakefulness: Dose-Response Effects on Neurobehavioral Functions and Sleep Physiology from Chronic Sleep Restriction and Total Sleep Deprivation. SLEEP. 2003; 26(2):117-126.
28Catherine Price, How to Break Up with Your Phone (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2018), 64.
36Aljohara A. Alhassan, Ethar M. Alqadhib, Nada W. Taha, Raneem A. Alahmari, Mahmoud Salam, and Adel F. Almutairi, “The relationship between addiction to smartphone usage and depression among adults: a cross sectional study,” BMC Psychiatry, May 25, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5970452/
37Jean M. Twenge, Thomas E. Joiner, Megan L. Rogers, Gabrielle N. Martin, “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time,” Clinical Psychological Science November 14, 2017. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2167702617723376
38Jean M. Twenge, Thomas E. Joiner, Megan L. Rogers, Gabrielle N. Martin, “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time,” Clinical Psychological Science November 14, 2017, Abstract. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2167702617723376
47Yu-Hsuan Lin, Chih-Lin Chiang, Po-Hsien Lin, Li-Ren Chang, Chih-Hung Ko, Yang-Han Lee, and Sheng-Hsuan Lin, “Proposed Diagnostic Criteria for Smartphone Addiction,” PLOS ONE, November 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5112893/