There was one point during the third UK lockdown – maybe in February or so – when I thought “Nah, I've actually lost it.” I'd picked up my phone, checked my notifications, put it down, picked it up, refreshed again, put it down, picked it up… Before long an hour had passed, then another. How much time did I waste daily doing this? Couldn't I be doing something else? This is my one life, I thought, and I'm spending it with a glowing, inanimate object.
Smartphone addiction – often referred to as “nomophobia”, meaning fear of living without your phone – sounds like a term invented by boomers who still think selfies are “deranged”. But a lot of us can probably relate to being stuck to our phones, even before lockdown. In 2019, a King’s College London study found that 23 percent of young people exhibited signs of withdrawal when denied their phones, such as feeling panicky or upset. Way back in 2016, Apple revealed that, on average, iPhone users were unlocking their device every 10 mins, or around 80 times a day.
The pandemic seems to have accelerated this attachment. In May 2020, phone company EE found that, after lockdown, usage of communication apps like WhatsApp and Zoom soared by 45 percent. In early March, another King’s College London study of 1,043 students aged 18-30 found that nearly four in 10 were “addicted to their smartphones”, meaning they were using their phone after midnight, suffering poor sleep and neglecting other areas in their life.
But what are we supposed to do about this? Throw our phones out and have little connection with the outside world until lockdown lifts? Accept defeat and keep furiously checking Instagram? I called up Dr Ben Carter, co-author of the aforementioned paper and senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience at King’s, to see if he could shed any light on how we could tackle our phone addictions before lockdown lifts.
IDENTIFY WHETHER YOUR PHONE USE IS UNHEALTHY
Smartphone addiction is complicated, says Carter, because a lot of psychologists and scientists disagree on whether it's a real thing. A lot of this, he adds, is because some researchers – psychologists funded by apps, for example – have a vested interest. Instead, we need to look at what addiction means and whether it applies to how we use our phones.
“We have to ask 'What would addiction look like if they were addicted to their phones?'” says Carter. “It would be things like: having an intense desire to use the device, using it more over time, you'd have a withdrawal problem when it was away from you. How do you feel when your battery gets to about 2 percent? The same is true of an alcoholic – if you go to their house, it's filled with booze.
“The ultimate one, of course, is: continued use despite harm. Why would anyone continue to use something that is harmful? What we found from our study is that, in the adult population, a lot of them are ticking a lot of these domains.”
KEEP AN EYE ON NIGHTTIME USAGE
A lot of us track our general "phone usage” as a useful measurement to see how attached we are to our phones. This is flawed, says Carter, because many of us use screen time for work and checking our emails, and that's not necessarily problematic in and of itself. Instead, we need to look at how much we're using our phones outside of those normal uses.
“The big key message of this paper is that you shouldn't be looking at daytime usage, because it's a bad measure,” he explains. “Say I'm a 21-year-old and most of my work is through my phone – six-hour usage during the daytime, that's pretty normal. Six-hour usage starting at 8 or 9PM, that's not normal.”
“We need to move away from 'overall usage' and think about 'problematic usage',” he continues. “Problematic usage is often using your device when you know you shouldn't be. Why do people use their phone when they're driving? It clearly has the potential to harm, but enough people do it. Why do people feel the need to have their phone while eating dinner, like a security blanket or some form of protection?”
PUT YOUR PHONE IN ANOTHER ROOM BEFORE YOU SLEEP
According to Carter's research, it's not just using your phone late at night which can affect your sleep, but even having it nearby. “If you put a group of people into those who didn't use their device in the bedroom; those that used their device in the bedroom; and those that had it in the bedroom but didn't use it, all of those who took their device into the bedroom suffered poor sleep quality, quantity and had increased daytime sleepiness,” he says. If you want better sleep, then, put your phone outside the bedroom in the evening. Out of sight, out of mind.
Similar strategies can apply when going out for dinner with friends and you feel yourself itching to check your phone. “Ideas that have been suggested are putting all your phones together – called 'phone stacking' – when you go to a restaurant. The evidence for that is unclear, but there are a variety of ways which you could try to cut down your usage.”
TURN OFF NOTIFICATIONS
When we speak about being addicted to our smartphones, what we're really speaking about is addiction to notifications. “They're waiting to get a response, whether it's emails or Instagram. It's the interaction that people are craving. There's the variable reward schedule, and that's what pins down a lot of the addictive behaviours and that's what the social media companies actually thrive on.”
Social media apps don't impose barriers on their notifications, says Carter, because it doesn't fit into their business model. They want you to use the app as much as possible. Instead, impose those barriers yourself. “Take back control by taking away the defaults – you've got your notifications. Take them off. You're taking that variable award schedule away.”
YOU DON'T HAVE TO THROW OUT YOUR PHONE COMPLETELY
While some of us might be tempted to throw away our smartphones and swap them for a cheap burner, Carter says it's possible to own a smart device without being addicted.
How do we know when we’ve curbed our habits? What indicates healthy usage? “You start going back to doing activities that you once did and you were no longer doing,” he says. “You might find yourself less anxious, less depressed. Sleep is the most obvious one. If people stopped using their phones at about 9PM at night, they would, over a course of time, feel their sleep improve, if phones were the cause of poor sleep. They would feel more able to initiate sleep earlier.”