Phone addiction is haunting an entire generation. Hannah Penny discusses her experiences and gives advice on how to overcome it.
The year is 2009 and I am eight years old. I am sat on the lawn of my garden watching how the trail of ants bulge and swells when it meets a mound of moss. It only takes a few moments before the one who seems to be in charge paves a new route. I watch the meandering queue behind them adapt to their new path, I notice the green grass is still damp with morning dew. I grow bored of the ants and turn my attention to the sky.
In the thirteen years that have elapsed since then I don’t suppose I’ve noticed more than a handful of ants, or a couple of birds, much nice architecture, or elephant clouds in the sky. The sunsets I’ve adored have been on Instagram stories and the bird songs I’ve enjoyed have come from an app.
‘Nomophobia‘ is a behavioural addiction surrounding a fear of being without a mobile phone
My life experiences now originate from my phone. Phone addiction is on the rise, largely in young people, and I am doing what I can to nip it in the bud. ‘Nomophobia’ is a behavioural addiction surrounding a fear of being without a mobile phone and its consequences are serious.
It can cause impaired relationships and sleep, lowered concentration and creativity, it amplifies anxiety, loneliness and stress. Most frighteningly it has been shown to lead to GABA dysfunction and a loss of grey matter in the brain. GABA is used to reward and reinforce addictive behaviours, such as scrolling and getting likes. When people with phone addictions were studied, their brains mirrored drug users in its changed shape and size.
Is there any way to break free from screens?
Whilst large swathes of society are happy to demonise addiction to alcohol or drugs, these same people are likely also addicts. In our new, and ever-terrifying, digital age is there any way to break free from screens? Much of our socialising, education, news, banking, shopping, working, and entertainment lives within our devices. Most palpable is our sense of phones as a means of safety. I certainly view my phone as a lifeline, and our ability to access help is one of the many benefits of having a mobile device.
Is it that capitalist tech giants such as Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook and Jeff Bezos have monopolised off the pandemic and the ‘Metaverse’ it is driving us towards? After months spent inside in isolation, phones became not only useful but mandatory. To connect with others, to get Coronavirus test results, to order shopping, to work from home, everything requires a dependency on phones. Some suggest that it is easier to quit cigarettes than it is to quit social media.
It is no coincidence that we are so glued to them, they are quite literally designed to create addicted users. A former Google employee, Tristan Harris, notes how the “pull to refresh” feature is mimicking slot machines. He writes: “When we get sucked into our smartphones or distracted, we think it’s just an accident and our responsibility. But it’s not. It’s also because smartphones and apps hijack our innate psychological biases and vulnerabilities.”
Our human brains were not designed for this
Phrases like “TikTok hole” have become common place to describe the brainless, never-ending scroll through unimaginable realms of content, to the point where you forget where you are, what time it is and what you are meant to be doing. We are experiencing all heights of emotion from joy to despair in moments, we have a week’s worth of emotions in an hour. Our human brains were not designed for this.
Phone addiction is not a one-type-fits-all, and it isn’t just about your screen time. The Addiction Centre suggests that if you are lying about your smartphone use, get up in the night to check your phone, get irritated if your phone use is interrupted or hear phantom vibrations these could be possible signs of a phone addiction.
Unfortunately, it is not feasible that we all throw our phones out of the window and dance into the sunset, which is partly what makes breaking these habits so hard. Here are some suggestions that I too need to work to embrace.
Try and be present with what you’re doing
Stop using your phone when you are already busy. If you’re brushing your teeth, walking to university, writing an essay, cooking your dinner, just try and be present with what you’re doing. That way your phone use is intentional.
Delete apps that do not serve you, and silence notifications for apps that you may find yourself distracted by. I deleted Twitter a few months ago and after a few days stopped instinctively reaching for the app on my phone. There’s also the option to delete an app without deactivating your account. Try deleting Instagram with the knowledge that you can find it on the internet if you want to!
When walking somewhere put your phone in your backpack rather than your pocket or try setting up time limits on apps like TikTok. You can also keep your phone on Do Not Disturb. It’s possible to allow your favourite emergency contacts to ring you if you are worried about somebody needing you urgently.
Where possible opt for the in-person version. Need to grab some more shampoo, catch up with a friend, or attend a lecture? See if you can rewrite your instinct to do it online. This will also help you to get outside more and bask in nature, or even just fresh air.
Most importantly, don’t beat yourself up about it. Everyone is on their phone more than they would like, it is near impossible to get by without it. If you feel that you cannot begin to cut down or take a step back, there is more rigorous help out there from cognitive behavioural therapy to medication-assisted treatments.
Maybe one day soon I will notice another little stream of ants, hum along to a real bird song, or watch a marmalade sunset and thank myself for managing to break free of my online avatar and re-enter the real world, as human.
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