The warning signs of smartphone addiction – and what you can do about it

Smartphones and technology were already a huge part of our society, but for many people, successive coronavirus lockdowns caused their usage to skyrocket.

With people stuck in their homes, forced to work remotely, and unable to communicate with their loved ones in person, social media and the Internet have now become a dominant force in our everyday lives.

Surveys prompted about a 50-70 percent increase in Internet usage during the pandemic, with more than half of that spent on social media.

Most people check their phones an average of 58 times per day, with some spending upwards of nine hours a day in front of screens.

Social media and smartphone addiction are becoming a real concern for thousands of people, leading to a spike in mental health issues and problems at school and work.

Even Facebook has admitted there's an issue. Leaked papers reveal that the social media giant knows the impact that its apps, including Instagram, are having on people.

According to The Wall Street Journal, internal slideshows at Facebook admitted the company is aware that its products "make body image issues worse in one in three teen girls"

So how do you know if you're addicted to social media, and why should you worry? Let's take a look at how technology becomes addictive, some of the negative impacts it can have on your life, and how to take back control of your day.

How social media becomes addictive

Former employees of Google, Facebook, and Apple have openly admitted that these platforms are 'deliberately addictive', and designed to make people spend as much time as possible on them.

That's because they're funded by ads. The more time people spend looking at these apps, the more ads they see, and the more money the platforms make.

What's more, studies have shown that social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram reproduce the same chemical reactions in the brain as cocaine and recreational drugs.

Getting retweets, likes, or shares gives the brain's reward system the same boost of dopamine, meaning that social media companies are actually profiting from the addictive qualities of social media.

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Dr David Greenfield is the founder and medical director of the world's first Internet rehab and the author of 'Overcoming Internet addiction'. He believes that ease of access to Wi-Fi, smartphones, and high-speed Internet is conditioning people to become 'addicted' to the Internet.

"There's lots of reasons why the Internet becomes addictive. But the main reason is that the Internet is the world's largest slot machine, and a smartphone is the world's smallest."

Dr. Greenfield says that, like a slot machine, these apps are based on giving users dopamine, which is a chemical in the brain that stimulates pleasure. "Every time you go on an app or a website, you don't know what you're going to get or how good it's going to be, but once in a while you will see something you like."

"People are being conditioned by their devices to get those hits of dopamine."

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"I was never in the now, just an absent brainless zombie"

You don't have to look far to see the negative impacts of overusing social media. The reddit forum NoSurf is a community where people share stories of digital addiction, as well as methods for spending less time on the net.

One user said that the first two weeks of quitting social media gave them withdrawal symptoms that made them feel "physically sick".

"My screen time used to average 10 hours a day. I had no hobbies. I was terrible socially."

They added: "Most important, I lost time. I lost myself. My room was a mess. I never had time to work out or eat regularly. I ignored my family. I would run late to work. I was always stuck in my mind. […] I was never in the now, just an absent brainless zombie."

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Another user said the information you get from social media "doesn't matter".

"It's all just so empty, and the amount of time I spent on [social media] means nothing if I'm not enjoying it mutually in the presence of someone in real life, where happiness is tangible and not just this hollow thing."

Dr. Greenberg explains that the difference between addiction and overuse is that addiction has a deep negative impact on things like work, exercise, health, and social life. He believes many people are at risk due to overuse.

"Ease of access to a substance or a behaviour increases the likelihood that you'll develop an addiction. If you have plentiful access to alcohol or heroin, or the Internet, the more likely you will have issues with overusing it or at times abusing it."

Am I addicted to my smartphone?

It's important to note that frequent overuse is not the same as addiction. Many people spend up to eight or nine hours a day on screens, whether it's because of work or needing to complete basic life tasks. That's because our society forces us to do many things online.

For overuse to qualify as addiction, it has to have a real, tangible impact on your work, your life, and your relationships. Many of the signs of Internet addiction are the same as with other 'substances':

  • Constantly thinking about social media, or wanting to use social media
  • Anger or agitation when you need to step away from your device
  • Concealing your social media usage
  • Physical symptoms, such as not sleeping, weight loss or gain, or no longer paying attention to personal hygiene
  • Poor concentration and memory
  • Irritable moods or social isolation
  • Problems at work or at school
  • The emergence of other mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety

At the worst end of the spectrum, people with smartphone or Internet addiction can end up engaged in dangerous and unhealthy online habits such as pornography addiction or gambling.

Preventing and treating smartphone addiction

While total digital abstinence isn't possible in a world where we need our phones for almost everything, there are a number of methods for cutting down on your smartphone usage.

These days, most devices include a feature that automatically tracks your usage and even blocks apps after a certain amount of time spent on them. Apple devices have a 'Screen Time' feature that does this, or it's called Digital Wellbeing on Android.

Using a smartphone to cut down your smartphone usage isn't always effective, however. You could make notes of your screen time by keeping a piece of paper handy and making a tally every time you check your phone throughout the day. Before you go to bed, count up how many times you checked. (The answer may shock you!)

For Dr. Greenfield, though, the answer to smartphone and Internet addiction comes from simply setting aside screen-free time every day.

"I advocate for people forcibly separating themselves from their phone, or laptop, or tablet for some time every day. Not forever, but for enough time that you develop some connection to things outside of you. Stick your phone in the glove compartment of your car and take a walk."

He adds: "It's just easy to miss life when you've got a screen in front of your face. Friends and family are the things that make life worth living. Not anything on a screen."

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