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Do You Feel Helplessly Addicted to Your Phone?

May. 14, 2020 Psychology Today

We tend to check our phones every 5 minutes. My friend joked the other day that he feels more naked without his phone than without his clothes! Distraction and entertainment through our phones can be one of the most convenient things of our lives, but also can be a silent form of tyranny in itself. How often do you find yourself checking our device compulsively, automatically? Have you ever heard of NOMO (no-mobile-phobia)? It refers to how uncomfortable it feels to be without our phones. It was coined in 2010 by a study in the United Kingdom. Let’s check in:

How do you feel without your phone on you? What about when you can’t find your phone?  Or when someone else is holding it? 

This problem isn’t only you. How do you feel when you get “phubbed“? This is when someone starting messaging or scrolling on their phone when you’re talking to them. Do you normally phub others? How does it change the quality of interaction with them? Is it fueled by FOMO (fear of missing out)? Often it is, but it’s also often automaticity and mindlessness. Have you seen families together where everyone is silently on their phones? How do you feel when you see this?  

If you were addicted to your phone, how exactly would you know? The “digital police” won’t flag you when you’ve met your tech threshold, and there are no age restrictions (only “helicopter parents” for child or teen users). Constant use has become normalized, especially in these times. Of course this is what big tech companies like Apple and Google want, to keep us hooked. No wonder they continue to post increasingly soaring profits.

The increase in popularity & integration of tech in daily life prompts us to ponder their addiction potential. This post begs the question, where is the line from general use to problematic use? Did you know screen, phone, and internet use can trigger the same neurochemical that underlies Cocaine addiction, dopamine (the pleasure chemical)? Self-proclaimed phone-addicts (this is not yet recognized officially as an addiction in the DSM-V) report feeling a pleasurable mood burst or “rush” from simply checking their phone and favorite apps. These feelings of euphoria, even before the actual acting out of the addiction occurs, are linked to brain chemical changes that control our behavior ranging from a seductive psychological pull to full-blown addiction. 

Phone-addicts (perhaps most of us in the industrialized world) become conditioned to compulsively seek, crave, and recreate the sense of elation while off-line or “off-drug.” Whether it’s a few whiskeys, a string of likes an comments on your post, or betting on horse races, dopamine transmits messages to brain’s pleasure centers causing addicts to want to repeat those actions–over and over, even if the “addict” is no longer experiencing the original pleasure and is aware of negative consequences.

So, how can mindfulness help curb our ubiquitous use? 

The answer will look different for all of us. For you, what are your goals? How has it been a problem for you? Hard to sleep? Strain on your eyes? Your child is frustrated with your constant use? You just got a ticket for using your phone while driving? You’re noticing your posture is slumping like a hunchback? You find yourself too distracted by your phone and can’t focus on work? Your partner(s) are angry with you, feeling like they are in constant competition with your phone for your attention? 

Once we have a goal, then we can prioritize tracking and curbing our use using the iPhone screen-time part of the settings app. Then, every time we have an urge to use our phones beyond our desired use, we can plan small meditations, 10 seconds to 3 minutes instead. Yes, they can be short!They don’t have to be sitting. You can do walking or standing meditation too. Before you check your phone, gently ask yourself:

1) How’s my posture and body? I can’t believe how often I find myself slouching on my phone despite my attempts to have a healthy posture. Check in especially with your neck and shoulders. Make sure your whole body is comfortable, especially when you spend a long time on your phone. Hunching can worsen your emotional state too, which can lead to more unnecessary phone use, creating a harmful cycle. Having an erect, upright posture may be the best option. Also check in with your fingers, wrist, and arms. Sometimes if you tune in, you may notice them in more pain. I notice my wrist aches a little and my the skin on my fingers feels raw and irritated after too long on my phone. 

2) Why am I doing it? Before monitoring this, I found myself checking my phone numerous times without actually needing to. I still do from time to time. If it’s not because you need to send an important message, check directions, or another intentional behavior, is it from frustration? Fatigue? overwhelm? discomfort? Listlessness? boredom? Mindfulness can help us become aware of these automatic mini-compulsions and take more effective or wise action. If it is one of the latter, perhaps phone checking isn’t the best option to get your needs met. 

3) How do you feel after having been on your phone for while? Especially after mindlessly scrolling or to kill boredom? It’s vital to notice without beating yourself up. Big tech companies like Apple have created intensely addictive products. The iPhone is the most profitable product of all time. Try to see it as mere data or fodder for later, to help you get to know yourself. Perhaps texting friends is calming, but scrolling Instagram isn’t  

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