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Can You Break Phone Addiction?

Appropriate to post this today with Apple releasing the details on their new phone lineup later in the day. Half of all smartphone users admit they are addicted to their handset. It reduces mental health, adds to anxiety, reduces productivity/income, and the addiction has many other negative live impacts. this addiction happens to both low income families and upper income Americans.

This addiction doesn’t happen by accident: everything about your phone is designed to keep you swiping and tapping. It’s a massively useful piece of technology — but surely you shouldn’t feel stressed and anxious if you don’t look at it? Surely the addiction should not decrease your productivity, thereby hurting your household income. If you’d like to break the cycle of smartphone addiction, you need to understand how designers and developers work together to steal your time and attention.

Anyone who works with addicts knows that there are two kinds of addiction: physical and psychological. If you are addicted to alcohol or drugs, then you’ll go through withdrawal when you stop because of the physical changes that happen in your body. But you’ll also struggle with knowing how to cope or with imagining life without your addiction. There are also addiction to money, material goods, attention, lying, and pursuit of money.

Psychological dependence is hard to break because you find it difficult to envision an alternative. But surely if you’re addicted to your phone, that’s just psychological? Not at all. Phones are designed to influence your brain chemistry so that you form habits without even realizing. The under-educated can have their brain adjusted as can the mostly highly educated, well off people in this country.

When you achieve a goal, you get a rush of dopamine. This hormone activates the reward centers in your brain and gives you a feeling of pleasure. Goals can be targets you’ve set for yourself, but many are hardwired into your brain, such as eating, travelling, having sex, gambling, eating, accomplishing work goals,  and being liked or accepted. Goals may be financial in nature, such as making a million dollars or getting a new, better higher paying job.

Personally, I get a rush from travelling and seeing the country and world. Nothing like rush from the time I walked through Alcatraz, or walked the Cliffs of Moher or Vatican. Or climbing the sitars in the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona. That is living…living is not being addicted to a phone. I get a rush from knowing I am financially secure, from meaningful, thoughtful and topical conversations with intelligent people, from hitting past goals I set, exercise, and more. Staring at my fun does not give me a feeling of pleasure…in fact I feel bad about myself when I do that as I think it is “sad” living life in a phone as so many people do.

When you read a tweet that you identify with, or get likes for your Facebook post or Instagram picture, the part of your brain that’s evolved to help you be sociable and live in a community will be activated. Your reward centers get a hit of dopamine, and you feel good. You want to keep feeling good, so you try and recreate the experience. So you post something else or keep on scrolling through hundreds of tweets or Instagram posts, trying to regain that sense of wellbeing.

Phones also manipulate your anxieties. You’re familiar with FOMO (fear of missing out) but do you realize that the apps you use every day are designed to increase it? The reason you have so many notifications on your phone is that app designers are conditioning you to expect something, which is the same technique you’d use to train a dog: you teach them to foresee a reward.

When your phone buzzes, the social part of your brain starts to expect a reward. If you don’t satisfy that need immediately, then you begin to feel anxious. You’re anticipating something good, but you’re not getting it, and that makes you feel bad instead. You don’t want to feel bad, so you stop whatever you’re doing to check your phone.

Break addiction to phone

Breaking your addiction to your phone means breaking this cycle of reward and anxiety. You can become productive, work more, increase your income and standing in life. Get outside, go for a walk, get some fresh air. I find it sad how many people waste hours per day on their phone…staring at some tiny screen. That is not living life.

You won’t cut down screen time if you’re not getting a reward from elsewhere, so begin by switching your phone off while you’re doing something you enjoy. That might be spending time with friends, which can be even more fun if you’re giving them your full attention, or a hobby such as cooking, gardening or doing something artistic or creative. Or for many people, get a hobby! Or go to school, learn something, or get a job.

Turn off your phone at night. Some people put their phone on their bed, nightstand, or under their pillow. That is sad. What is worse is they even respond to messages in the middle of the night…for some reason for those who get notifications in the middle of the night which is sketchy/weird in itself. Turn off the phone, get some sleep, clear your mind. It will put your mind at ease and help you get a good night sleep, thereby increasing productivity and maybe income.

These are not only things that will provide you with a dopamine rush when you achieve a goal, but they’ll also keep your hands as well as your mind busy. It’s much harder to check your phone with your fingers covered in flour or paint! That also helps to break the psychological addiction; you begin to learn that time away from your phone can be rewarding.

Reducing anxiety can be hard. Psychologists know that tension reaches a peak and then declines; it may feel as though the stress is going to get worse and worse but if you persist it will decrease. Take note of how often you check your phone and then set a time limit for not looking at it. For instance, if you look at it every 30 minutes, set a timer for 45 minutes or an hour and don’t touch your phone until then. Once you can manage this, increase the time limit. You will find that your anxiety will peak and then begin to reduce. Obviously, if you need to answer a call do so, but then put your phone away without clicking on anything else. Meditate to reduce anxiety.

It’s easier to put your phone away if you don’t see anything to tempt you in. So think about whether you need notifications that appear on your lock screen – and put apps into a folder and away from your home screen. Change your notification settings. If a sound or a buzz activates the reward system in your brain (which is another sad story in itself) how about turning off sounds and vibration for some apps? And if your response to these ideas is immediate anxiety, you’ve already been conditioned to dread that you might be missing something. Ask yourself: is this urgent? Will anyone die or be seriously hurt if I don’t check my phone? Will it cause me any harm at all if I see this notification in an hour rather than right now?

You can break your addiction to your phone if you understand that it was created to keep you hooked. Apps are designed to give you an addictive rush of dopamine and to increase your anxiety by making you expect a reward. When you decide to turn off your phone for a while, do something that will make you feel good. If it feels hard not checking it, then remember that anxiety increases initially but then decreases. Change settings on your phone so that it doesn’t bombard you with notifications. Remember that it’s you, not your phone, who should be in charge of your life. This is of course true about your phone and everything else in your life.


Jon McNamara is the CEO of needhelppayingbills.com, a company that he started in 2008 and that specializes in helping low income families as well as those who are in a financial hardship. He also found NHPB LLC, a company committed to helping the less fortunate. Jon and his team also provide free financial advice to help people learn about as well as manage their money. Every piece of content on this website has been reviewed by him before publishing and many of the articles he has personally written. Jon is the leading author for needhelppayingbils.

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