Phone addiction is one of the biggest non-drug addictions in human history. Studies show that excessive phone use is linked to procrastination, suicide (example), spoilt sleep, food and water neglect, headaches, lower productivity, unstable relationships, poor physical health (eye strain, body aches, posture, hand strain), and poor mental health (depression, anxiety, stress). Some of these problems can be both causes and effects of phone addiction (procrastination, anxiety, unstable relationships, etc.).
So what can we do about phone addiction in a world that loves the internet so much? After all, it helps older people stay independent, gratifies our social needs, comforts us from stress, and helps us learn (common interest groups, affinity spaces).
Trivia: When you are bored in face-to-face conversations or don’t want to interact with others, do you slowly start using your phone and divert your attention away from the person? Snubbing another person in favor of your phone is called phubbing (phone + snubbing) and it is a common complaint in relationships. Phubbing your partner is called Pphubbing or Partner phubbing and research acknowledges that it worsens relationship satisfaction and life satisfaction, and could also add to depression. Phubbing could be a form of social exclusion and researchers argue that even watching others phub can induce stress and reduce respect for the phubbers.
- What is phone addiction?
- Statistics on phone and internet use
- Important research highlights on phone addiction
9 Ways to overcome phone addiction and reduce screen time
- Basics: Quick actions to make the phone less addictive
- 1. Schedule a time for un-monitored phone use
- 2. Interrupt your habitual routine
- 3. Introspect about your expectations
- 4. Replace your first phone routine
- 5. Delete apps, switch off your phone, or limit your notifications
- 6. Categorize your phone activities and assign a time per activity
- 7. Figure out & work on your social needs
- 8. Manage your need for distractions and stimulation
- 9. Practice phone-down routines
- Quick fixes
What is phone addiction?
Let’s first understand what phone addiction is and what counts as excessive phone use. Phone addiction or compulsive phone use goes alongside internet addiction and social media addiction. Psychologists also call it “problematic phone use.” For this post, we will consider them together. Cell phones are habit-forming – once you go down that rabbit hole, you use them more and more. Like drugs, one can get hooked to a phone or an activity on the phone that leads to addiction. There is abuse without control, changes in mood, excessive desire to use, withdrawals like irritability and anger when you can’t use the phone, low tolerance to avoid the phone, and the phone interferes with life in a negative way.
Strictly speaking, addiction is “the loss of control, the establishment of a dependent relationship, tolerance, the need for progressively more time and dedication, and severe interference with daily life (Echeburua et al., 2009).” Phones, internet-based activities, and any technology for that matter can become an addiction in the truest sense (even though many disagree). And sometimes, phone addicts need rehabilitation in a hospital.
Not all phone use is a sign of addiction, even if the volume of use is high. A loss of control over how the phone is used and psychological dependency are 2 indicators of addiction. Recreational phone use and productive phone use is not the problem, it’s the inability to regulate usage. And unhealthy coping for larger problems usually makes screen time problematic. If you are addicted to your phone, you probably can’t let go of phone-related activities no matter how often you tell yourself you need to let go.
People often get addicted to the phone because they want to escape from reality, gain social karma, cope with stress caused by social anxiety and low self-esteem, follow their greed for social validation, likes, and other types of rewards, or play rewarding games. The constant flow of digital rewards and information can pull a person into addiction and day-to-day difficulties can push a person toward addiction. Social media addiction usually comes down to these “internet reward points.”
Indicators of problematic phone use
There is no cut-off point to show you are addicted to your phone which everyone agrees to but here are some indicators.
- You spend continuous hours on the phone to play games, scroll through social media, open and close apps, text people to invite a chat, etc.
- You frequently pick up the phone without any aim to check for notifications or see if something has changed in your social feeds.
- Your online and offline behavior gets more integrated and you don’t know what you did in the digital reality or the material reality.
- You get restless if your phone is dead or has a low battery, is out-of-coverage, or is low on data/balance.
- You treat your phone as a security blanket without which you get uncomfortable in social gatherings.
- Your day-to-day activities take a backseat, relationships are strained, and you can’t focus and commit to the important things in your life.
- You feel bad about yourself and you go online to feel good but you end up feeling worse looking at what others are doing. Such compulsive phone use is likely to emerge from other mental health issues.
Common examples of problematic phone use
- Infinitely scrolling through Instagram.
- Playing Call of Duty or PubG for hours while social activities contain little to no honest communication.
- Excessive display of hurt, loneliness, attention-seeking behavior, hate, jealousy, and disapproval on social media.
- Social needs are not met (sexual intimacy, close friendship, physical touch, etc.) and online alternatives are used to compensate for poor social health (chatbots, echo chambers, porn, social gaming, virtual reality social games like second life, camming relationships).
- Inability to feel pleasure and excitement in the offline world but excessive emotions are tied to online rewards like gambling, likes, shares, followers, sexting, masturbation to porn, etc.
- FOMO (fear of missing out) and Nomophobia (no-mobile phobia) cause mental and physical discomfort.
- You frequently experience Ringxiety or Textaphrenia or Phantom notifications – the feeling that you received a notification when you actually did not.
Statistics on phone and internet use
- Almost 6.4 billion people (81% population) use a smartphone in 2021.
- According to a 2019 report, the average person spends about 3.5 hours on their phone in a day with the top 20% of people spending more than 4.5 hours a day. The quarantine has increased these numbers – many users report over 8 hours a day.
- The 2019 report also says that 70% of all phone use lasts lesser than 2 minutes and 50% of all phone pickups occur within 3 minutes of the previous pickup.
- 68% of 18-34 year-olds can’t go an hour without their phone and 71% sleep next to it.
- 96% of Gen Z Americans won’t go to the toilet without their phone.
- Another 2019 report (2018 data) says at least 3.3 billion people use the internet and social media from their phones.
- Comscore’s 2019 Global state of mobile report says 70% of all digital media engagement in the US happens from a smartphone. So TV, games, laptops, gaming consoles, theatres, etc. are all squeezed into the tiny remainder of 30%.
Important research highlights on phone addiction
One important reason phones are addictive is that they act as a source of unexpected and expected rewards via apps. In psychology, the principle of variable-ratio-variable-reward reinforcement states that we maximize a behavior (like picking up the phone) when we get random rewards at random intervals. So to increase the number of rewards, we are motivated to increase the behavior. These rewards are usually texts, snaps, likes, comments, shares, app notifications, enjoyment, content release, escape from current stress, laughs and relatability from reels, memes, and shorts, etc. When they are predictable rewards, our behavior adjusts to when those rewards are likely to occur. But when they are random rewards at random times, we instinctively pick up the phone, open apps, to see if the reward is there as much as we can. And when it is there, we repeat. But if it isn’t there, we are mildly frustrated and repeat the action to reduce that frustration.
When the volume of rewards and their associated satisfaction isn’t enough from real life, we seek it from the phone. The lack of rewards is considered a threat to the self, and then a person undergoes a “self-affirmation” process to nullify that threat and seek rewards to feel better. In a simpler sense, a lack of rewards in life creates a bad mood, and then we are driven to repair that mood – a basic mental process called emotional regulation.
Phone addiction goes hand in hand with anxiety and that anxiety often lowers the motivation to engage with people in real life. This is a huge problem because meaningfully connecting with people in the offline world is a solution to addiction that improves the quality of life. The unnecessary drop in motivation because of addiction makes it that much harder to maintain social health.
Phone addiction can cause poor cognitive performance in day-to-day life. That means poor attention, poor memory, poor reasoning skills, bad decision-making, etc. One of the main reasons is poor sleep which disrupts overall cognitive functioning. Addiction can disturb sleep and sleep worsens cognitive performance. However, self-regulation (personal control, commitment to healthy choices, tolerating negative emotions) can counter the negative effects of addiction and that can help you overcome it.
A dysfunctional family can push children into addiction and one reason is social anxiety. A broken family or unhealthy parenting like neglect or excessive control can often hamper emotional growth. Children might fail to learn how to behave in social settings. There may be a fear of ridicule, disapproval, disappointment, etc., or simply a looming belief like “I am not good enough” or “I am a bad child” that creates pressure on children. These fears or thoughts transfer into the real world and children cope with the social anxiety it causes by withdrawing into their phones – where the fantasy digital world rescues them from their real life. Fortunately, mindfulness – being aware of your actions and living in the moment as an observer – can reduce the negative impact of phone addiction.
Underlying mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and attachment issues can increase the risk of phone addiction. And improving mental health can counter addiction. Proneness to boredom can increase the likelihood of problematic phone use but not the frequency of phone use. This ultimately makes boredom a pathway between problematic phone use and anxiety or depression.
Related: You may want to explore how apps serve 8 psychological functions that keep users hooked.
9 Ways to overcome phone addiction and reduce screen time
Basics: Quick actions to make the phone less addictive
The tips recommended below are steps you can take today to make your phone less addictive.
1. Schedule a time for un-monitored phone use
Grant yourself as much time as you want within a fixed daily limit at a specific hour of the day. As long as you can first demonstrate some output. Random notifications and random experiences are potent in pulling you to check your phone precisely because they are random. Unpredictable notifications and call-to-actions are hard to anticipate so the brain maximizes its potential reward (feeling great) by constantly creating the urge to pick up the phone and check. Schedule an hour to commit to your phone or make it a rule to check it every 45 minutes. That way, the rewards will be hard to anticipate but they will occur at a known time and your brain will find it easier to adjust than completely abandoning your phone.
2. Interrupt your habitual routine
Habits are hard to break because neurons in your brain rigidly fire a certain way. Once an action is repeated enough, neural circuits become efficient. They then direct and dictate behavior automatically. Countering those tendencies becomes harder. Higher the repetitions, the more stable those neurons get. These neural circuits fire in a predictable way and they fire automatically with almost no external push. You may have little to no awareness about the start of habitual actions. However, breaking a habit means you have to change how those neurons behave, and the only way to do that is to ensure a change in the neural circuit. You can do that by changing 3 things:
- The context in which the habit occurs – Identify how your mood is when you get into the phone-use black hole and do an activity that changes the mood. Instead of sitting and scrolling, start cleaning up or begin work, and occasionally take a phone break.
- Interrupting the trigger that kick-starts the habit – Identify the triggers and immediately distract yourself, change the room, go for a bath, etc.
- The verbal narrative about that habit – Change your self-talk about phone addiction. For example, change “I need to use my phone, I want to do that right now” to “I can use a strategy to use my phone in a limited way so I don’t stay an addict and still enjoy it.”
For example – If you have a habit of staring at your phone right after writing an email, change the context by doing a physical stretch. Interrupt the trigger by clicking send and then switching off your phone immediately. And change the narrative by telling yourself something like “The email was not the end of my work, I can start another task and then go on Instagram.” Even if this just delays your phone use by a few minutes, it’s progress.
3. Introspect about your expectations
Continuous short-interval phone checking may have a lot to do with what you are expecting out of phone usage. It would help to introspect and ask yourself what you expect – is it a rewarding experience? is it a social interaction? are you waiting for someone to approach you? are you wishing for some exciting change? do you want a flood of notifications but not get any? These questions will help you figure out what psychological needs your phone is compensating for. Maybe it’s the need for belongingness or social approval or a need to feel desired. Try to satisfy those needs in healthier ways. Usually, interacting with people in person and doing some meaningful activity will satisfy those needs.
4. Replace your first phone routine
Replace your first habitual phone routine with something else like using a notepad + pen to list 10 important to-dos. If to-do stuff is too bland for you, replace it with 5 affirmations. This is ideal if you first spend time on your phone before you begin your task or shortly after preparing.
5. Delete apps, switch off your phone, or limit your notifications
Delete apps if there is something particular that triggers usage. You could also keep your phone away. You could turn off notifications if deleting is too much. If this makes you very uncomfortable, your phone use most likely indicates shortcomings in your social and personal life. Your physical and psychological needs could be unsatisfied and you may feel powerless in social situations. But those situations are required to fulfill your social needs. So start slow and keep a purpose for your phone use. Spend your energy to satisfy your needs in the material world.
6. Categorize your phone activities and assign a time per activity
Break down your smartphone activity into categories and dedicate 2-5 minutes to each category. Do this at least 1+ hour after waking up and 1+ hour before sleeping. This will help you disconnect the phone behavior from sleep onset and waking. In between, you can do a filler activity that is gratifying (serving your brain’s reward system in a healthier way). Ignore all pointless activities and just do the top 2 activities. For example, if you want to check Instagram updates for a particular profile, do that. Ignore the scrolling. If you want to Snapchat with someone, just do that. Leave aside reposting those snaps on IG.
Reddit, Instagram, Facebook, and Youtube could be fulfilling a social deficit you have in real life, such as loneliness. If that is the case, you could engage yourself in a social mental play that is productive (how you can approach new people, initiate conversations, etc.) If possible, you could increase the amount of meaningful social interactions you have. Spend time with a person talking on the phone with headphones or meet in person. Try to have a good time in a way you feel your social needs are met. Avoid satisfying all your social needs on social media. Social media use and mental health have a complex relationship, you might want to learn more about that here. Social support is a defense against addiction.
8. Manage your need for distractions and stimulation
You might have a need for passive sensory stimulation. The colors, fonts, interactions, etc., all add stimulation and the brain expects it after a while. You can reduce phone stimulation through other tricks like using minimalistic themes, black and white icons, reducing notifications, etc. You could then give your brain a better, richer replacement like learning a new skill, socializing, healthy gaming, sports, dating, grooming, cooking, reading, etc. If you must use your phone and need that additional distraction, change the type of phone activity. Perhaps a background game of chess or sudoku can provide that stimulation. Even journaling can help (writing down your thoughts in a diary form). That’ll ensure you get your stimulation/distraction and it doesn’t become a counterproductive habit.
9. Practice phone-down routines
Whenever you are hanging out with your friends and all show excessive phone use, put an alarm on your phone and observe a phone-down routine. You can start with 15 minutes and increase it later. Simply keep your phones facing down on a table. Make it fun by keeping a tally or conditions like “whoever picks up the phone first, buys one person a coffee.”
Addiction should always be treated holistically, so work on HEPAS – Healthy eating, Physical activity, and good quality Sleep. Don’t forget to drink water and maintain personal hygiene. Identify and counter nutritional deficiencies like B12 and Vitamin D too as they both affect memory and depression. Coping with addiction means improving the quality of life.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced in Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, a few books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m an applied psychologist from Bangalore, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play the guitar.