Growing Up Online Are We Addicted to Smartphones?

How much time did your kids spend with their smartphones yesterday? When was the last time you checked yours? If contemplating these questions makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone. Cellphones dominate our lives in part because they are designed to do precisely that according to Tristran Harris, a tech entrepreneur who worked for a while as Product Ethicist at Google. He now runs TimeWellSpent, a non-profit that points out how smartphones and their apps hijack our attention. The group urges tech designers to take the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath and encourages consumers to make more mindful decisions about when, how and where to use their phones.

Harris isn’t the only expert concerned about smartphone overuse. Some researchers have noted that brains scans of people who spend a lot of time online are disconcertingly similar to those of people with substance abuse problems. In a recent NPR report, Dr. Anna Lembke, an assistant professor in addiction medicine at Standford, noted that Internet use can follow a classic pattern—“intermittent to recreational use, then progresses into daily use, and then progresses into consequential use.” Here are a few consequences you may recognize in yourself or your kids:

  • Time – Devoting more and more time to smartphone activities, partly because the person looses track of time and partly because it takes longer to feel satisfied.
  • Obsession — Thinking about being online even when the person is offline. Failure to cut back despite resolutions.
  • Mood – Feeling anxious, restless, irritable or even angry when online activities are interrupted or when the person has to be offline.
  • Social – Withdrawal from friends and real life social activities. The feeling that online relationships are more significant and genuine.
  • Interference – Spending time online even when it interferes with other important activities including employment, schoolwork, chores, exercise, family time and sleep.
  • Deception. Lying to oneself or others about how much time is spent with the phone.

For most people, of course, smartphone use doesn’t rise to the level of addiction. Still, many parents have the uneasy feeling that phones take too big a chunk of family life. In contemporary culture, total abstinence isn’t realistic for adults or teens but there are ways to become more deliberate about when and how we use our phones. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Evaluate activities. Pay attention to what you and your kids are doing on your phones. Some activities—games, social media, news—are designed to be endless. Others—gambling, shopping, looking at porn—are associated with off-line addictions. Identify activities that are productive and/or enjoyable. How much time should be allotted to each? Develop a budget that guides how you spend your online time. Use the timer on your phone–or ask other family members—to hold you accountable.
  2. Create an Essential Home Screen. Harris suggests sorting apps into three categories: Tools help you complete essential tasks—calendar, camera, etc. Bottomless Bowls are apps that encourage you to binge. Aspirations are things you’d like to do. Create a homescreen that includes ONLY indispensible tools and realistic aspirations. Hide other apps in folders where you won’t see seductive icons. Having a folder called News, Games or Social forces you to think, even briefly, about whether you really want to engage in that activity.
  3. Identify triggers. Addictive behavior often starts with uncomfortable feelings such as depression or anxiety. Talking about feelings helps children and adults recognize their emotions and make more conscious decisions about how to manage them. If a family member is upset because of something that happened at school or work, he or she may get temporary relief from playing a game or binge-watching YouTube. That’s not necessarily a problem—if the person eventually thinks through the basic problem and comes up with ideas about how to address it. Without that kind of emotional intelligence, kids and grownups may habitually turn to the phone simply to escape their feelings.
  4. Customize notifications. The ding from a smartphone is like a slot machine. Most of the time, it’s meaningless but occasionally there’s a big payoff. Assign special ringtones to family members and other people so you won’t miss genuinely important messages. Then turn off notifications from everything else. As Harris points out that there will always be breaking news, urgent e-mails and fresh information on social media. You won’t know everything about everybody all the time, so put an end to FOMO (Fear of Missing Out.) Attention is valuable. Don’t squander it.
  5. Create rich off-line lives. Seek out tech-free experiences that are rewarding for family members. Take every opportunity to be physically active, outdoors if possible. Ride bikes, take walks, play sports. Cultivate face to face social skills by giving children lots of opportunities to meet and interact with other people. Get to know neighbors. Join a faith community or other community organizations. Invite friends and extended family over for meals or game nights. Collect smartphones at the door.
  6. Get an alarm clock. Using a smartphone as an alarm makes it the last thing you see before you fall asleep and the first thing you check in the morning. It may even interrupt sleep with notifications that matter much less than being rested. Claim the luxury of thinking your own thoughts as you drift off to sleep. Take a little time in the morning to wake up fully before engaging with whatever is on your phone.

Finally, appreciate what’s good about smartphones. Some researchers, for example, have noted that use of drugs and alcohol among teens has declined over the same period that smartphone use increased. They speculate that interactive media may satisfy adolescent cravings for independence, risk-taking and sensation seeking without the devastating consequences of other addictions. In other words, smartphones like so many other technologies, can make lives better or worse. It’s up to parents to pay attention to that uneasy feeling about phones, so we can gently take corrective actions that restore them to their proper place.