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Are we addicted to our smartphones?

19th May 2021 Print

Nomophobia. We’re so afraid of being without our phones that they had to invent a word for it. 

It’s that sense of panic when your battery’s at 4%. Or you’re at the cinema and, for the length of the movie (if you’re not a terrible person), those messages vibrating into your pocket will have to go unanswered. Or you accidentally leave your phone at home, and you just feel like there’s something… missing. 

Sometimes fear of being without a phone is justified – if you’re in a cabin in the woods and it’s 25 years to the day that a masked maniac tortured five hot teens in the basement, for instance. But it’s unlikely that an over-reliance on your smartphone is borne out of any genuine worry for your safety, or even the fear of missing an important call. 

Most theories around why the average person spends more than three hours a day staring at their phone are about habit, brain chemistry and a subconscious need to feel connected in an increasingly isolated world. 

In a study by the London School of Economics and Political Science in December 2020, a group of 21–29-year-olds were filmed, tracking their phone use over the course of a day. In the study, 89% of interactions with their phones were prompted by the user and were not in response to any kind of notification. When watching the footage, some participants said they couldn’t even remember picking their phones up. This suggested “an urge to interact with their phone that seemed to occur in an unconscious and almost automatic manner”. In other words, it’s a compulsion, a reflex, muscle memory, perhaps. 

So, what exactly is it that keeps us coming back to our phones every other minute? 

It’s well documented that our brain releases dopamine when we get a like, a notification or a message. It’s the same high we get from other positive experiences, and we’re wired to seek out that reward again and again. You could raise your dopamine levels through exercise, but it’s easier to check your phone than hit the treadmill. 

As well as a chemical craving, our phones are designed to create a psychological habit. Like gambling, we’re sucked in by the prospect that our phones are going to reward us at some point - we just don’t know how or when. We keep checking in the hope that we’ll find a laugh-out-loud video on TikTok, our dream house on Right Move or an email that’ll change our life. Every quick look is another roll of the dice. And it’s easy to get stuck in a loop of scrolling, refreshing, and hopping between apps.

If smartphone addiction is taking over YOUR life, you can check into phone rehab. Really. But for most of us that’s probably a little extreme. However, when Apple launched its Screen Time feature in 2018, it certainly revealed some unpleasant home truths, spelling out exactly how many times you reached for your phone in a day, and how long you were spending on it.

Smartphones have become a comfort blanket for kids and adults alike and it’s time to break the obsession. 

While you’re unlikely to want to give up your phone full time, there are lots of ways to do a digital detox…

Put your phone out of reach: Stop considering it an extension of your hand and leave it across the room, or better yet, in another room altogether. You’ll be fine. 

Let yourself be bored: Don’t find out ‘Where the cast of Tracy Beaker are now’ while you’re waiting for the toast to pop up, give your brain 4 minutes off. 

Remember books? If you want to keep your brain and hands engaged, find something else to do that doesn’t involve tapping at your phone. The podcasts app doesn’t count. 

Set yourself some boundaries: Screen Time lets you set daily limits on your apps and experts recommend putting your phone down at least 30 minutes before bed if you want to get a good night’s sleep. 

As well as changing our behaviours in a micro sense, we could also change the way we think about our phones altogether. If your phone is your little £1,000 baby that you won’t let out of your sight, you’re going to think about it all the time, and dropping it on the bathroom floor is going to induce palpitations. It’s not particularly healthy to be so attached to an inanimate object. But what if we didn’t really own the phone at all? Would we be less addicted? Raylo are offering a whole new way to get a phone - leasing. You pay monthly for your handset, then when you’re done, send it back. You don’t own the phone, but does it matter when it’s just a tool for all the stuff you need to do every day? 

If we stop looking at our phones as objects of desire or our prized possessions maybe, we’ll start to loosen our grip on them a little - and vice versa. 

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