Signs you're actually addicted to your phone – and how to break the habit

Jennifer Savin
·5-min read
Photo credit: Alice Cowling | Getty
Photo credit: Alice Cowling | Getty

From Cosmopolitan

Photo credit: Alice Cowling | Getty
Photo credit: Alice Cowling | Getty

Given that we're back in lockdown, it's easier than ever to slip into a cycle of doomscrolling, swiping and screen-staring morning, noon and night (same). Hey, it's not like there's a whole tonne else to be doing... right? But if you're starting to feel like your phone habits are more in control of you than you are of them, it could be worth seeing if you're showing any of the signs of phone addiction. Yup, it's a thing.

Pamela Roberts, a Priory psychotherapist at the Priory’s Woking Hospital in Surrey, explains that it's not only substances, but behaviours, that can leave you trapped in a vicious cycle. "We are increasingly aware that behaviours, not just substances, can become addictive, and this raises the question of whether a phone is ‘addictive’ (and certainly smartphone apps are built to encourage more-ish behaviour), or whether the person has an addictive personality."

She continues, "If we are strongly attracted to something, or someone, our behaviour towards them is repeated many times and this can lead to a feeling we have lost our capacity to control behaviour." Addiction, Roberts also notes, can be a way of soothing or ‘uplifting’ our emotions. "This can create negative consequences which, in turn, cause shame, regret, and remorse, and the way to get away from those deep, negative emotions can be to ‘use’ again – in this case reach for the phone."

Photo credit: Yiu Yu Hoi - Getty Images
Photo credit: Yiu Yu Hoi - Getty Images

She points out that these behaviours can arise if a person is experiencing a difficult time, too (for instance... being trapped in your home for months on end due to a pandemic?). "If you are experiencing a tough time, for example in a relationship, are you constantly reaching for the phone? If you are experiencing any mild to serious issues or discomfort in your life, are you reaching for the phone? It is becoming a cultural norm to use the phone regularly; we see that in certain younger age groups. The pandemic has accelerated the use of online and smartphone time as a way of staying connected, but at what cost?"

What are the signs I'm addicted to my phone?

If you think you could fall into the category of smartphone addiction, Roberts says some helpful questions to ask yourself include:

  • Does your phone seriously interfere with sleep?

  • Are you constantly checking it?

  • Has certain behaviour become the norm (such as compulsively texting rather than talking to people around you, to the exclusion of other things in your life)?

  • Is your relationship or work or health suffering?

  • Are you constantly checking for messages or checking in on apps?

She also explains the criteria for addiction includes needing to "use" more to achieve the desired effect (e.g. are you scrolling for longer to get your social media fix?), wanting to cut down but failing, sacrificing most other activities as a result and feeling depressed and irritable when you can't use your phone. "You could also feel really angry when people don’t instantly return your texts," Roberts says.

Other questions to ask yourself are:

  • Have you put yourself or someone else at risk as a result of using it (walking into the road while checking it for example, or cycling and texting at the same time)?

  • Are you not attentive to friends or family because you are constantly checking and scrolling for the sake of scrolling?

  • Have you set timers for your use and failed, and do you get really irritated when people point out your behaviour?

  • Does your use seriously disrupt your life and relationships (do you get little else done?)

  • Do you read and re-read messages to the exclusion of other things?

Viewing your phone as an "emotional crutch" is also a possibility, says Roberts. "Sometimes that is ok, but for some people who have addictive tendencies, this reduces their resilience and eventually any twinge of emotion becomes the cue to reach for the phone."

Photo credit: Catherine Falls Commercial - Getty Images
Photo credit: Catherine Falls Commercial - Getty Images

How can I break my phone addiction?

If there's one woman who can answer that, it's Tanya Goodin, founder of digital wellbeing movement Time To Log Off. She advises the following:

  • Have 'no-go' zones

It's tricky trying implement a rule that says you put your phone down at 8pm every day, for instance. It's easier and more realistic to set boundaries around specific rooms in the house where screens don’t belong, then train yourself to leave them behind when you enter them, she says. "Everyone always thinks about bedrooms here, but actually bathrooms should be your priority." So stop scrolling aimlessly on the loo and make it a no-go zone for screens.

  • Swap video for audio

With the exponential rise of Zoom, it's more important than ever to get a handle on screen time time in 2021. Whenever you’re invited on a video call, ask if you can swap it for audio instead. "Unless it's a big group, there's no need to be staring at a screen while you talk – fix your eyes outside for a bit and stare at something green while you chat," says Goodin. Trying swapping TV in the evenings (yes, Netflix counts as screen time!), after a whole day spent on your laptop, for a new podcast series while you go for a walk too.

  • Keep your hands busy

You may be one of those people who think baking, crafting or puzzling all sounds a bit lame, but don’t knock it until you try it. "Finding something really absorbing to do with both your hands is a brilliant way of stopping you picking up your phone reflexively and scrolling with no purpose," explains Goodin. "Just an hour’s pause each day on a jigsaw kept me sane last year and really rested my eyes."

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