What not to do if you're addicted to your phone

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If you’ve already broken your New Year’s resolution to spend less time glued to your phone screen, you’re far from alone. We’ve become a society of addicts, unable to resist the magnetic pull of our apps and instant messages or the lure of mindless scrolling. Even knowing the science behind it – answering the siren call of the push notification is rewarded with dopamine, the brain chemical that makes us happy – isn’t enough to empower us to break free. Dr Anna Lembke, addiction expert and author of Dopamine Nation, has branded the smartphone the “modern-day hypodermic needle”. And most of us will know exactly what she means.

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According to data from the app monitoring company App Annie, we are now averaging 4.8 hours a day on our mobile phones – up an enormous 30 per cent since 2019. The firm’s latest annual report, The State of Mobile in 2022, says apps were downloaded 230 billion times last year, with TikTok the most downloaded app globally. Of the time spent on our phones, seven out of every 10 minutes is spent on social, photo and video apps.

Just as we know how the technology hooks us, we also know some of the harms excessive phone use can cause. Too much screen time has been linked to everything from depression, anxiety and sleep problems to cognitive changes in the brain. And still we carry on, vowing to cut down while knowing we will not.

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But is all phone use equally ill-advised, or are there ways we can limit the damage and enjoy good quality screen time? Andy Robertson, technology expert and author of Taming Gaming, argues it’s not so much about what we’re using our phones for as how we’re using them. “It’s really about a healthy balance and variety,” he says. “A sign of unhealthy use is doing the same thing all day.”

That’s not to say we can offset an hour of Instagram with a brain-training online Sudoku puzzle. This is akin to adding lettuce to a burger to neutralise its unhealthiness, Robertson suggests. The goal, rather, is to be conscious of what you’re using and how, so that you’re in control.

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One way to do this is by adjusting our phone settings – a simple enough process that many phone users just don’t get around to doing. Robertson calls it “curating” your device: working out what interrupts us and making choices about how and when it does. The conscious or mindful phone user will turn off notifications and engage with their messages and content at a time of their choosing, rather than being at the mercy of their apps. On an iPhone you can turn off the apps’ badges too, so you don’t even know how many messages or notifications you’ve received until you choose to open the app.

Then, suggests Robertson, you might consciously choose to devote a 30-minute period to engaging with your messages, rather than being constantly distracted by them. “The tools are there [to regulate how our phones interrupt us],” he says. “We should just spend an hour or two setting them up.”

While specific apps or online activities aren’t inherently good or bad, he argues the context in which we use them can be. Finding activities we can do with other people? Good. The popular online word game Wordle is a prime example: “Lots of other people are doing the same thing and it starts conversations.” Likewise creating a group or community on Facebook. Scrolling through other people’s status updates to compare their lives with yours? Arguably not so good.

It’s a poignantly modern irony that there are now apps that can help us stop using our apps to excess. The Forest app’s stated purpose is “helping you stay away from your smartphone and stay focused on your work”. It enables users to grow virtual trees by not using their phone for a certain amount of time. Robertson, who uses it, says: “It makes you more conscious of ‘oh, I’ve picked up my phone a few times’.”

Your screen time tool will also tell you how many times you have picked up your device, as well as how long you have spent on it and what the first thing you did when you picked it up was. “So [you can identify] what’s the driver, the gateway drug,” says Robertson, again instinctively reaching for the apt narcotics analogy.

“We end up taking the path of least resistance and use [our devices] mindlessly,” he adds. “All we need to do is wake up to what’s happening and then it’s relatively straightforward to take control.”

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