There’s a universe at your fingertips, brimming with promises of digital delights. How hard it is to resist the lure of bright lights, shiny icons and pleasant pings! Every aspect of this universe is the deliberate result of Silicon Valley exploiting behavioural psychology to hijack our habit-forming tendencies. Knowing how to stop being addicted to your phone seems an impossible task.
Our phones may be in the palm of our hands, but the truth is, we’re the ones under the thumb. I’m all too familiar with the iPhone’s gravitational pull. There have been occasions where I see a familiar glow in my peripheral vision. My attention immediately diverts, only to realise the screen was alight because I’d pressed the ‘home’ button seconds before, like a dull, first-person Black Mirror.
Sometimes, I catch myself in the middle of a disturbing ritual; I unlock, scroll through the icon screen, open ‘photos’, close, open WhatsApp (despite no notifications), scroll, open an old conversation, close, open Instagram, no new notifications, scroll, close. Then I realise what I’m doing and feel mild shame.
The human equivalent of a dog chasing its tail.
Although embarrassing to admit, I’m not alone in this bizarre ritual. Research suggests we touch, swipe or click 2,617 times every day, spread across 150 sessions. Holland Haiis, a digital detox expert, refers to technological addiction as “the new 21st century addiction.” Without a doubt, my tail-chasing icon-swiping is a sign of addiction — I’m seeking salvation from boredom.
Proactively checking vs. reacting to notifications
Notifications are highly distracting. Studies have illustrated this for a while, and more and more of us are turning off notifications to reduce stress. However, obsessive phone checking is proactive. Often I unlock my phone when I don’t have new notifications, consciously aware I won’t find what I’m looking for.
I follow a similar process on my laptop — checking for new emails, logging onto Facebook or browsing BBC football without purpose. However, this behaviour is much, much more prominent when associated with a mobile device. The UX universe becomes a black hole of temptation in my pocket.
Am I setting myself up for a fall by turning off notifications, allowing space for a perpetual “what if” mindset?
I’ve made steps to reduce this behaviour. I receive notifications for messages on WhatsApp, Telegram, iMessage, or SMS (from one friend — you know who you are). But I don’t have Facebook on my phone, and don’t receive notifications from any other apps, including Instagram and Twitter.
Most studies focus on the distraction of checking our phones when notified. But why do I find myself opening an app without notifications? Am I setting myself up for a fall by turning off notifications, allowing space for a perpetual “what if” mindset? Would it be better if I actually knew, for sure, whenever something occurs in iPhone universe?
Opening WhatsApp and scrolling aimlessly through old conversations, unconsciously browsing old photos, mindlessly swiping the icon screen, double tapping ‘home’ and closing apps for no apparent reason… That’s just weird. I know it is. Clearly, there’s more to obsessive phone checking than a thirst for notifications.
Is a problem a problem if you don’t think it’s a problem?
This behavioural loop is subtle, and identifying it as a problem is… a problem. If your addiction is deeply intrusive — injecting yourself with heroin or blowing your life’s savings on a 10-match final score accumulator in the Romanian second-division — alarm bells will ring.
These types of addiction pacify deep-rooted, intense emotional states such as clinical depression. But what about feelings on the “slightly below average” part of the emotional spectrum? Boredom? Restlessness? Frustration? Agitation? These states induce behaviour matching their tenacity.
“There are those of us where addiction has completely taken control of our lives,” Valerie Mason-John, author of Eight Step Recovery, told MindThatEgo. “Then there are those of us where addictions are hidden. We don’t even acknowledge them as addictions,” she added. Obsessive phone checking is in this category, subtle, easy to dismiss.
The balancing act of dopamine and subtle emotional states
Dopamine is the reward chemical flooding our brains when we have sex, eat, exercise and socialise successfully (not at the same time, though I’m sure combining these activities would feel great). Clinical depression may lead to an attempt to “balance” the state with a heavy dose, turning a Class A drug such as cocaine. Boredom, however, may be balanced the tiny hit of dopamine our phones provide.
“If you understand people’s internal triggers, you can try to satiate them,” Nir Eyal, author of Hooked, told Wired. Eyal specialises in creating “habit-building” products. “If you’re feeling lonely, we can help you connect. If you’re feeling bored, we can help entertain.” Creating a landscape primed to form habits, whilst promising connection, has manifested the inevitable. A 2014 study discovered cell-phone addiction (CPA) is driven by the urge to connect socially.
But is there harm in mindlessly picking up the phone and swiping? Are we nullifying human traits and striving for Jesus-like perfection? Let’s return to those mildly unpleasant states. The same study compared smartphone addiction to shopping or internet addiction. These addictions begin in a benign manner, until a “tipping point” is reached and a few dopamine-seeking swipes down the line, you’re dependent.
Dependency and seeking low-risk comfort
This dependency is the real issue. Valerie Mason-John refers to this process as “seeking refuge” — the source of addiction becomes a place of comfort, a coping mechanism to escape troubling emotions. You choose your smartphone because it has provided comfort in the past; the timeline of dopamine rewards become hardwired into the subconscious. Chemically, smartphone addiction creates an imbalance in the brain.
Unlike drug, alcohol or gambling addictions, checking your phone is about as low-cost as it gets.
Trevor Haynes, of Harvard Medical School, likens obsessive phone checking to a psychological framework known as the “variable reward principle.” Habits form easily when we believe we will be rewarded at random (in this case, new likes, followers or messages) and the cost of seeking the reward is minimal. Unlike drug, alcohol or gambling addictions, checking your phone is about as low-cost as it gets.
Whilst writing this article I’ve stopped to check my phone numerous times. This behaviour isn’t much different from someone leaving their desk every 30 minutes to smoke. The hit of nicotine is replaced by the hit from a new notification. These moments reinforce the behaviour. When the tiny buzz wears off, as it always does, I’m back to square one. Swiping. Clicking. Tapping.
How to stop being addicted to your phone
Break the cycle by journaling habits
So how do we break the cycle? Begin by catching yourself when you pick up your phone. You may find yourself suddenly staring at the home screen with no recollection of how you got there — I feel you, I do it too. But the more you become aware of the process, the more you seize control of auto-pilot. Try this for one week. Journal how many times this happens in a day. Use meditation and mindfulness to increase space between thoughts and action.
After detecting moments of obsessive checking, explore your underlying thoughts, emotions or desires. Return to your journal and note the context of each moment. For example: “Today I realised I habitually reach for my phone when I’m tired. It’s almost like I need a pick me up, something to stimulate my brain. Thoughts usually centre around the hope of someone contacting me with something amusing to brighten my day. A little laughter would give me energy.”
Explore the context of underlying thoughts and emotions
Next, challenge your perspective. Look at the bigger picture and reframe. Using the above example: “I didn’t get much sleep so I was more tired than usual. Tiredness is more of an issue than I thought; I definitely rely on others to pick me up whenever I feel drowsy… It’s as if I’m running away from the feeling of drowsiness.”
In Buddhist philosophy, seeking pleasure to avoid pain is a prime cause of suffering. To free ourselves, we need to embrace the impermanent nature of craving. Then, confront our emotional triggers.
“I’ve associated drowsiness as something inherently bad. Like I shouldn’t feel that way. That makes me feel restless and I get the impulse to turn to my phone. In reality, drowsiness is fine, it’s part of being human. To help, I can sleep more and eat better. I’ll pay attention to fluctuations in energy without magnifying the lows. Now I think of it, many times I perk up after a spell of drowsiness.”
What are you expecting to find?
Another technique is to explore your expectations. When you pick up your phone, what are you expecting? A reply you’ve been waiting for from a friend? A retweet from the celebrity you mentioned on Twitter? Likes on your latest Instagram photo?
Looking at your expectations can shine a light on what you’re seeking. Maybe you are lonely. Maybe there’s social anxiety around the selfie you shared, and you’re awaiting a like or a comment for validation.
There are practical steps, such as using apps to limit mobile usage. Apple even introduced “Screen Time” as part of iOS. As useful as they are, these apps don’t stop you picking up your phone and checking. Until smartphones can physically restrain users, we’ll need to consider another option.
I always put my phone in another room when I’m working. On days when I’m particularly weak, I turn it off and hide it from myself (sometimes in my sock drawer or food cupboard!) and set a time when I’ll consciously check-in. I bought an old-school alarm clock and I turn my phone off an hour or so before bed. I won’t check it until I’ve eaten my morning oats — at the earliest.
You may find your own tricks, and please let me know if you do. The universe at your fingertips is intoxicating, but with a little conscious effort, it doesn’t have to control us.
Hang on a sec, my phone’s glowing, I think I have a new mes-… never mind.