It’s 3 am, I can’t sleep, I take my phone from under my pillow (it has already left my bedside table to come even closer to me), and I check how many teams have registered on the Well-being Challenge platform I am responsible for. I quickly email a colleague in Australia to ensure he has completed the team’s registration on the server.
This may sound like your reality today, meaning never spending a minute without your phone and never switching it off; it was mine for a year. The watchword from our management was simple: we had to respond to all emails and all inquiries as quickly as possible, weekends included.
I understand my story can make some of you smile, especially Millennials, as, according to Harvard Business Review, 80% of them sleep with their phones. But for me, while responsiveness is important, it shouldn’t come at the expense of our health, especially not in the long run.
The use of technology creates the perception that we need to be ‘always on’; otherwise, we would risk losing a customer, a market, a friend or critical information. This hyper-reactivity comes at the expense of our well-being, blurting the lines between work and home. It leads to high expectations in terms of availability and the perception, often self-imposed, that we must be connected and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. We have become addicted to our phones and their countless potential.
Statistics on Phone Addiction
- 73% of people experience anxiety and panic attacks when they’ve misplaced their phone
- Every 4.2 minutes we check our phone over 220 times per day, meaning over 220 times spreads over 16 hours (as we hope you sleep 7-8 hours a night). It means every 4.2 minutes (TechMark study, 2016).
- One hour on screens before bedtime delays the release of melatonin by 3 hours which at its peak will be 50% lower than normal and might affect the quality of our sleep (Matthew Walker, Why We sleep, 2018).
- The more connected we become, the more likely we are to feel lonely. Or put it differently, the more connected you are, the less you are connecting...
So how about you? When was the last time you left home without your phone, consciously or by mistake? How did it make you feel? Did you experience any withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, anger or irritability, high-stress level, restlessness, cravings or even depression? Smartphone addiction, also referred to by psychologists, sociologists, and medical experts as “nomophobia” (short for “no mobile phobia”), is caused by having no access to a mobile phone. According to a systematic review on nomophobia prevalence published in 2021) 79% of the participants show signs of nomophobia, with a higher prevalence in the younger generation.
Let’s start with the ‘ugly’ before discussing what could be done to reduce phone consumption.
What Happens When We Overuse Our Phones
- Reduce sleep. 47% of adults find it difficult to fall asleep or have disturbed sleep due to excessive internet use.
- Increase stress and anxiety. Here we could argue that being without our phone could create even more stress than using it all the time. Indeed, according to a study by the University of Southern California, Millennials regard not being around their smartphones as a major anxiety trigger. However, we know that digital overload dramatically increases stress and anxiety.
- Reduce brain space and time to think (Gloria Mark, The cost of interrupted work).
- Reduce time to do what really matters to us (Anastasia Dedyukhina, TedTalk, Could you live without a smartphone)
- Reduce our attention, memory and problem-solving ability (the mere presence of a phone near us, even on silent mode).
- Reduce productivity. Digital overload reduces our productivity by 40%
- Reduce eyesight, what is called Digital Eye Strain or Computer Vision Syndrome. Digital Eye strain syndrome describes a group of eye- and vision-related problems resulting from prolonged use of cell phones, computer screens, and tablets. This syndrome is one of the leading occupational health hazards of the 21st century, with symptoms including headache, blurred vision, neck and shoulder pain, and dry eyes.
- Increase obesity and a sedentary lifestyle, with screens having a negative impact on physical activity and movement.
- Increase multitasking that increases inefficiency – only 2% of people can switch from one task to the other without wasting energy and time (Gloria Mark, The cost of interrupted work). That leaves 98% of us, myself included, who actually can’t do two things simultaneously without reducing efficiency -> 50% more likely to commit errors.
Even though we know the risks of overusing our devices, we still find it hard to reduce our consumption. Why is that? It’s a bit like cigarette smokers, fully aware of what burned tobacco does to their health and still choosing to inhale it.
This is all linked with the dopamine, a neurotransmitter (also called happy hormone) linked with reward and recognition. Social media, browsing the web, messaging friends, playing games, etc., trigger dopamine release and make us crave more. Indeed, dopamine is a happy hormone with a highly addictive potential, following the same process as any drug. It does trigger a part of our brain linked with addiction; the more we have it, the more we want it, and the more we need it (watch The Social Dilemma documentary). So don’t rely on your sole willpower to reduce your consumption, as we know, willpower can’t do much against addictive behaviour.
9 Strategies That Could Help You Take Back Control Over Your Phone Consumption
- Measure how much time you spend online. Why? We tend to underestimate the time we spend on our devices. And what gets measured gets done.
- Communicate to others how and when you are available (out-of-office messages, etc.). Why? Others will adjust accordingly.
- Create tech-free zones at home or work. Why? Not seeing your device reduces pressure on willpower and temptation and keeps you less distracted. Starting with the dinner table or the bathroom could be a great first step.
- Incorporate physical breaks into your tech routine. Take a physical break every hour to move your body for at least 5 minutes. Even quick exercise can boost blood flow, oxygen, and brain chemicals that might help you not check your phone for a while.
- Slow down and take a pause. Aim not to eat with your phone in your hand. Try not to reply immediately to a message or email. Breaking your automatic behavior pattern recreates a choice and restores your normal human rhythm instead of a fast tech-driven rhythm.
- Disable notifications and information overload and clean up your smartphone, removing pictures, Apps you don’t need. Why? You become more focused and minimize decision-making, which will help your brain be less distracted and more efficient.
- Remove color filters from your phone to only keep shades of grey. Brightly coloured LCD screens stimulate parts of our brains that can trigger addiction. In nature, bright colors mean objects of interest, and our brains are drawn to bright colors. Try changing your phone’s settings to black and white, and you will see how this affects your usage time.
- Practice staying present with a daily completely undistracted 15-minute meditation, mindfulness, relaxation, or a concentration activity. Anything requiring full focus will help build up attention and concentration, reduce stress, enhance your five senses, and strengthen self-control, memory and decision-making.
- Go (or look!) outside, ideally in nature! Attention Restoration Theory claims that being in nature is the best way to restore executive attention… A quick look at a natural landscape picture can help your brain recharge.
So yes, if you decide to practice a few, or even one of the above strategies, you may start experiencing nomophobia, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), or even worse, the new and trendy FOBO (Fear of Being Offline). Start by accepting that by limiting your phone use, you will miss out on certain news, gossip, etc. Does it really matter, will you remember it in a week's time? Accepting can be liberating, and you might be willing to look for your dopamine shot elsewhere. Often, we grab our phones because we feel bored or lonely.
Research a new hobby or an activity you would like to do to fill your time or simply embrace boredom. Even though some research shows that some people would rather prefer to administer electroshock to themselves rather than feel bored (Wilson, T. Reinhard, D.A. Westgate, E.C. Gilbert, D.T. Ellerbeck, N. Hahn, C. Brown, C.L. Shaked, A., 2014, Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science: Vol. 345. Issue 6192, 2014), we also know that being bored can enhance productivity, and increase creativity, using divergent and convergent thinking, both important elements for the creative process. The more passive the boredom, the more creative you could be.
As you can see, we are not encouraging you to bin your phone. We are instead suggesting and encouraging you to be more conscious of your consumption and, if you think it’s too much, reduce it by starting with minor changes and experiencing what it does to you when you consciously reduce your use. If lowering is really too hard, seek out some professional help, as there are now digital well-being specialists (therapists, psychologists, coaches) who can assist you.
Technology and smartphone are inherently neither good nor bad, and the key is to use them to support your goals, purpose and values rather than being used by them.