How to fix phone addiction for good
Suffering from phone addiction is the worst feeling. Opening Reddit when bored, then closing it and immediately opening it again. For a lot of people, phone addiction can feel paralyzing, preventing them from cleaning, studying, and being productive at work. There are a million better things to do than scrolling which most often doesn't even feel satisfying because it only fuels your procrastination.
When I talk about phone addiction, I mean the uncontrollable urge to scroll when you have more important things to do. That feeling of not being in control and having a bad habit that harms your daily life and happiness.
There is nothing wrong with using your phone if it makes you happy. Not every single moment needs to be productive. If you're constantly on your phone and can't stop, that's when you have a problem. To fix your addiction, you need to learn how to understand its underlying biological mechanism and causes to learn how to break the endless cycle of scrolling.
Signs and symptoms of a phone addiction
I'm certain that smartphone addiction will be eventually classified as a large-scale mental health issue when more and more people discover how harmful it is. A severe smartphone addiction may lead to the following symptoms:
Poor ability to concentrate
How do you know if your phone addiction is severe, then? Well, generally the best case scenario is you admit that you have a problem with it, but to some it isn't that obvious. Many addicts often deny that they have any issue and just say "I can stop, I just don't want to". That's textbook addict behavior right there. Here are a few signs that you be suffering from a phone addiction:
You're lying about your smartphone use
Your family and friends are concerned about it
You neglect or struggle to complete your duties at work, home or school
You use your phone daily for several hours
You become irritated if your phone use is interrupted or you cant use it
You immediately reach for your phone when you are alone, bored or not doing anything (such as when you are waiting for something)
You struggle to limit phone use
You have a fear of missing out when not using your phone
Phone addiction leads to worse cognition
According to recent research published in 2020, a severe smartphone addiction alters the brain as it is linked to a decrease in gray matter. Both regular drug abuse and high alcohol use are linked to significant reductions in gray matter volume as well.
The direct effects of gray matter reduction are not exact as gray matter is present in different areas of the brain responsible for different mechanisms. Gray matter is located in the regions of the brain involved in muscle control, sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control. In other words, a severe phone addiction reduces your ability to think and focus. Getting rid of my phone addiction was like stepping out of a fog: I could suddenly focus on studying and other demanding tasks for much longer with less effort.
What about social media addiction and FOMO?
Fear of missing out (FOMO) can be very real when first limiting your phone use – missing those important stories from your friends on Instagram and Facebook can initially feel really bad and like you're totally out of the loop. However, I've noticed that the less I spend time on social media the less interested I become.
The same stories and posts seem to get released on an almost seasonal basis: Beach and vacation pictures in the summer, getting coffee together pictures, restaurant pictures, and outdoors pictures in the fall and winter. I've now noticed that I'm actually interested in only 5–10 % of the posts in my feed now that I'm more disillusioned by not looking at social media for hours on end.
Also, social media might not be good for you. This is something that people are generally waking up to now, but obsessing over likes, reactions and engagement online is definitely something that will be harmful for your mental health in the long run.
Why dopamine is related to phone addiction
Dopamine is a very misunderstood concept. It is not the "feel-good" chemical (that's mostly serotonin and endorphins), but it does lead to pleasure. Dopamine is the motivator to get the reward. It tells you if an outcome is worth doing. Back in the hunter-gatherer era seeing a deer would create dopamine to motivate you to kill it for food. Dopamine is like a mental sign pointing towards a reward (be it food, sex or something else rewarding) telling you that getting it is a good idea.
Our dopamine systems don't always work well in modern society: One of the most potent sources of this motivating stimuli is food, as energy was the most important thing for our survival. Now, our dopamine system is still as sensitive as back then which is why the urge to eat a fast food burger meal is so strong. Your life doesn't depend on it, though.
With phone addiction, the apps and messages in your phone quickly create a strong source for this stimuli: You hear a notification sound and your brain immediately predicts that it might be something that creates pleasure. Maybe it could be a new video or a text from your friend? This anticipation creates the dopamine spike that motivates you to check your phone and react.
This also happens when browsing or watching entertainment: You keep going down the page in Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, or some other platform in hopes of seeing something funny, interesting or crazy. Because your brain is so used to receiving this dopamine all the time, your "tolerance" to it increases. Studying, cleaning, and working create dopamine too, but in smaller amounts compared to phone addiction. Because you spend so much time on your phone, there is no way that your duties can ever match the levels of dopamine that phone addiction is giving you.
To put it simply, your brain is not addicted to the content that's on your phone. It's addicted to the temptation that it might experience something pleasurable if you check your phone and start using it.
What is a dopamine detox? Should I try it?
Some people do a drastic (but temporary) lifestyle change by doing a "dopamine detox" where they intentionally forbid themselves from using their phone, browsing the internet, playing games, gambling, shopping, and so on. The idea is that you're purposefully avoiding anything and everything that tends to give you a lot of dopamine. However, this practice is not scientifically validated and its effects are mostly anecdotal. You don't necessarily need to do a detox to quit your phone addiction, even though many swear by it.
I think that dopamine detoxing is feasible, although mostly realistic during the weekends. Even then I'd like to be available if a friend or family member has something really important or urgent business. I suppose that it's just a matter of informing them about your smartphone break and getting used to the fact that you can't contact anyone within that period.
Methods to quit phone addiction forever
First things first: never bring your phone to bed
As ridiculous as it sounds, making your bedroom a phone-free space should be your #1 goal. I've been doing it for a long time myself and I can definitely recommend it to absolutely everyone. Because of it I just simply can't browse my phone in bed before going to sleep, and I tend to fall asleep within 5–10 minutes on average. I put my phone in the living room to charge, and make sure that my alarm is loud enough. It also helps me wake up as I need to get up and walk to the living room so I can turn it off. My preference is not an opinion, either. Its effects are 100 % backed up by research:
According to a recent study, leaving smartphones out of the bedroom increases happiness, quality of life, reduces risk of smartphone addiction, improves your sleep, relationships, focus, and well-being. 93% of participants in the study either "might" or "would" consider not sleeping with their phone again after trying it for the first time. If that doesn't convince you to leave your phone away from your bed for the night, I don't know what will!
The early bird gets the much more than just the worm
Now that you've got your phone tucked in for the night, we need to think about how you can start taking back control. There sadly isn't much research related to phone addiction and early risers, but we can draw some relevant conclusions from related studies. According to Harvard Business Review, students who rate themselves as morning people tend to also be more proactive. This leads to better job performance, career success and higher wages.
Alright, that's a platitude about success but what does it have to do with phone addiction? The thing is that when you get your addiction in control by putting your phone away first thing in the morning, you're already on track to beat the rest of the day. I tend to wake up, walk to my phone, turn my alarm off, and then immediately do my morning routine. No checking morning notifications or getting lost in Youtube. I just walk away from the device even though I'm so tempted to check who might have messaged me overnight or what new things have happened around the world.
This way I won't be slowing down my morning routine with my phone so I'm much faster at getting through my tasks. After I'm done with morning hygiene, eating breakfast and dressing up, I briefly check my and answer my messages and check my notifications and then put my phone away to start studying, or head out to the office.
Use the rubber band method to recognize your triggers
To prevent this attempt from becoming yet another failed try, you need to coordinate your approach: Figure out what most often triggers your phone use so you know how best approach the problem.
An efficient way to discover these worst habits is to make your phone "slower to access". This can be done with a rubber band around the phone or putting it in a bag. This way you can't immediately just open your phone. When you get the urge to use it you see the rubber band and you are immediately reminded why so you become aware of why you want to use it.
When I first did this I was stunned by how crazy my phone habits were: I learned that I have an unconditional need to have my phone with me when going to the bathroom so there would be no way I'd get bored. I could not go to the bathroom without first thinking about where my phone is getting it which is absolutely insane.
Replace your phone addiction with a better habit
Now that you're somewhat aware of the worst aspects of your habit, you can try replacing it with a better one! I tend to browse social media or watch entertainment on my breaks, but it doesn't make me very relaxed. So, what I did instead was I'd turn to books: whenever there was a good moment I was done with work or studying, I could open my book and read a few pages! Books are a fantastic habit to replace phone addiction with, because they are generally very portable and suitable for equally small 5–15 minute breaks.
Your day doesn't have to be about maximizing productivity, either. Perhaps instead of using your phone you could try breathing exercises, people-watching or stretching to calm you down. The next time you commute you could try looking at all the people who mindlessly look at their phones. It's almost crazy – everywhere you go you see people sitting, walking, climbing stairs all while staring at their screen.
The most effective method is withdrawal
Quitting cold turkey definitely doesn't work for everyone, but it's one of the strongest solutions for phone addiction. Putting your phone on the top shelf or locked in a box raises the bar for you to go get it during the urge to use it. An even better method is to ask your family, partner or roommate to hide it somewhere in the apartment so that they won't tell you where it is until you've spent a certain amount of time without it.
One problem with this approach is that you might need your phone every now and then. It might be good to start your withdrawal with a time frame rule: make a deal with yourself that you can only use your phone every 3 hours, for 10 minutes at a time. This way you can still respond to emails and messages, but you don't get stuck browsing the phone for 30 minutes when you were only supposed to check your notifications.
Plan your home with preventing addiction in mind
Reducing phone use temporarily is actually not that tough. The problem lies with making it a temporary lifestyle change, and the bad habit can easily return if you let it. A really good solution for this is to set an area in your home where you can use your phone and keep it away from everywhere else. No using it while on the toilet, or at the dinner table, or when watching a movie with your partner. These moments are great opportunities to either be alone with your thoughts, focus, or pay attention to the people you live with.
A great solution is to designate one area, like a certain chair or room to be your phone use area, so you can't use it when eating dinner with your family or when you're supposed to be working at your desk. You will soon notice that suddenly you're in control of when and why you use your phone, and that will make you much happier.
The invisible line: how much (or little) is good enough?
When getting into cutting back phone use, I've noticed that I tend to go a bit too far. I still want to be that person who can be reached and is available so I tend to respond to messages every few hours. It's not cool to be that person who takes 3 days to respond to a simple question or invitation that is no longer relevant.
What's the ideal amount of daily screen time, then? At least on iOS devices you should be able to track screen time from the built in screen time functionality that's located in the phone settings. No universal ideal exists, but roughly 2 hours of phone use per day is a healthy amount. This is because texting, emailing, and other duties take some time if you're willing to respond to texts every few hours.
Naturally, some of that screen time is time spent on social media and entertainment, too! It's about moderation and reduction and not quitting. You can set a certain time of day when you're allowed to watch entertainment and browse social media. For me that's often in the evening, but the less I'm addicted the more I notice that when the evening comes around, I don't even want to spend it looking at social media. I could be reading a good book, watching a good series or doing something else, like walking around the neighborhood.
Internet addiction is not just smartphone addiction
Remember to stay critical! Just because you've reduced your screen time, doesn't mean that you're good to go yet. Addictions are very sneaky and can quickly manifest in other forms. Maybe you've managed to reduce phone use, but you're now browsing Reddit or Instagram on your laptop while working instead.
Be observant about your habits because these changes can be nearly unnoticeable. Especially if you're just looking at numbers and one habit. Your phone use could be down by 90 %, but if you're still checking Instagram every 15 minutes on your laptop, your problem has just changed forms. An internet addiction is still as bad as a phone addiction if you have to keep checking it for new content.
Video game addiction is a real thing as well. The thing with addictions is that you should never assess your well-being based on whether you do one thing wrong or not. You could be spending almost no time daily on your phone and instead have a game addiction playing games for several hours every day.
However, game addiction is an entirely different issue as it's not something that's equally comparable to phone addiction: you can't just bust out a session of Call of Duty or League of Legends on your phone the moment you get bored, but you can browse Instagram for 2 minutes while you wait for the bus. Or maybe you can, if you mostly play on mobile and suffer from mobile game addiction.
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