We’ve all heard about how we should get off our devices and go outside more. In fact, we’ve probably said it once or twice ourselves. But how often do we take this advice? Why don’t we put our phones down more often? Does this mean we’re truly addicted to our smartphones, or is that just something we say?
“Technology in small doses works really well for specific purposes that are positive. But when you have technology in your back pocket, as many teenagers do, the temptation to eat from it all day like junk food is there and is way too strong for any teenager to say ‘Let me just stop.’” —Arlene Pellicane, Parenting Pivot Challenge
Smartphones act as a gateway to seemingly infinite amounts of information. They allow us to play games, have conversations with a long-distance friend, join clubs of people with similar interests, and so much more. No wonder it's so hard to put them down! In our Parent’s Guide to Smartphone Addiction, we explore different types of addiction, and why we so easily get addicted to our phones. By the end of this post, you’ll better understand you and your teen’s relationship with smartphones and why it’s so hard to give them up.
Are smartphones really addictive?
The term “addiction” is usually associated with substances like drugs and alcohol. But addiction can describe compulsive behaviors as well:
The compulsion to continually engage in an activity or behavior despite the negative impact on the person’s ability to remain mentally and/or physically healthy…defines behavioral addiction. The person may find the behavior rewarding psychologically or get a “high” while engaged in the activity but may later feel guilt, remorse, or even overwhelmed by the consequences of that continued choice.
The more we learn about our brains, the more we realize how nuanced addiction is. Researchers used to believe that certain substances (think meth) are so powerfully addictive on their own that anyone who took them consistently would be hooked, no matter who they are or what their environment is like. But this isn’t the case.
Researchers started wondering why elderly patients were able to use hardcore narcotics to manage pain after surgery without becoming addicts. Cue the famous rat studies. In phase one, rats were placed in cages with two water bottles, one with plain water and the other with meth-laced water. As expected, the rats loved the meth-water and died quickly. But one key factor was overlooked for a long time. The rats were alone with nothing meaningful or interesting to do. That’s when a researcher decided to create “Rat Paradise” with toys and other rat friends and whatever else rats dream of. In Rat Paradise, the rats didn’t drink the meth-infused water. They didn’t need more dopamine because they were already quite content. Interesting, right?
For us, this sense of contentment (or not) is generally determined by what Johann Hari calls humanity’s innate needs, things we need for a sense of fulfillment:
- Autonomy – the ability to make choices that matter.
- Intimacy – feeling seen and known.
- Belonging – feeling wanted.
- Mastery – the ability to develop meaningful skills.
There are tons of wonderful ways to meet these needs. Unfortunately, there are lots of destructive ways to try to meet them that feel good in the moment but backfire later.
When we check our smartphones 10 times in two minutes, what are we looking for? When we scroll through Instagram for an hour, even though we told ourselves we wouldn’t do that again, what are we hoping to find?
The rat studies show that addiction is a signal about our unmet needs. It indicates that something is amiss. So instead of focusing on the addictive process or substance (drugs or the smartphone), we should look deeper into our pain and ask some questions:
- Why am I feeling this way?
- What is missing in my life?
- What am I not handling well?
Meth addicts are rarely under the illusion that drugs are healthy. Users know that their addiction is destroying them. In the same way, most of us are aware that smartphones not only won’t, but can’t give us what we’re looking for. Some of us are trying to meet legitimate, basic needs with something that was never designed to fulfill us. An adage from the 12-Step Program notes, “You can never get enough of something that’s not quite enough.”
Most of us aren’t actually addicted to our phones in the truest sense of the word “addiction.” If we went without our phones for 24+ hours we might feel uneasy or like we’re missing something, but we wouldn’t experience withdrawal symptoms like shaking or having a panic attack. So a better phrase for “smartphone addiction” is probably “smartphone overuse.”
“What researchers do agree on is the fact that adolescents are more likely to demonstrate addiction-like symptoms with their cell phone use than other age groups. Studies show that cell phone use peaks during the teen years and gradually declines thereafter. Excessive cell phone use among teens is so common that 33 percent of 13-year-olds never turn off their phone, day or night. And the younger a teen acquires a phone, the more likely they are to develop problematic use patterns.”
Either way, we can develop a healthier relationship with our pocket rectangles, whether this involves overcoming literal, clinical addiction, or developing healthier rhythms when we feel like our phones are encroaching on things that really matter.
Our teens desire the things that are deep, true, and real; smartphone overuse can hijack those desires. Like all of us, our teens want to look back at their lives with fondness, excitement, and gratitude. They ache for community—for the kinds of friendships that swim the full length of the pool…laughing uproariously at a stupid meme one minute and then seamlessly moving to the deep end to talk about a song that made them cry the other day, or their fear of not finding a job in a world that’s falling apart.
These deepest and truest and best human connections are hard to cultivate. They take time. And we’re impatient. So we use technology as a shortcut for quick hits of dopamine and serotonin (the brain’s pleasure chemicals). This is why smartphone design is so influential.
How to overcome smartphone addiction
Encourage self-evaluation. Help your teen figure out what they use their phone for, and then evaluate whether their habits are matching the purpose of their phone. Ask lots of questions and try not to talk too much. Encourage them to come to their own conclusions. Here are a few questions to start with:
- What do you love about your phone?
- What do you dislike about your phone?
- What is your phone’s purpose?
- How much time do you think is healthy to spend on our phones each day?
Practice emotional intelligence. These should be our guiding questions when engaging with media generally, and smartphones specifically:
- What do I need?
- What do I want?
- What am I looking for?
Help your teen develop the ability to understand why they are turning to their phone and to figure out what they are looking for; to notice their emotional state whenever they’re on Instagram, and to ask what that emotion is telling them.
Try this: For 1–3 days, every time you unlock your phone name one emotion that you’re feeling. If it’s hard to figure out how you feel, use this emotion wheel. Do you notice any patterns? Are there certain emotional states that drive you to look at your phone more often? How do you feel after you’ve been on your phone?
Embrace boredom. Unstructured time is where creativity happens (read our Parent’s Guide to Boredom if you want to learn more). This is time with nothing to do (counterintuitive in our productivity-driven culture!). Create tech-free zones so that you and your teen have space to process the continuous inputs that come at you all day long (music, books, podcasts, etc.). This can look like a long walk, time just sitting around, driving with the radio off….
Embrace limitation. Phones, and especially social media, promise omnipresence, that we can be in multiple places at once. But to be human is to be limited. We are always missing out on something. And in a way, this is true freedom. Embracing the present moment fully, because that’s all we actually have.
(P.S. For a full list of ideas, check out our Parent’s Guide to Smartphone Addiction!)
Looking for more information on smartphone addiction? Read the full version of this Parent Guide with the purchase of the All Axis Pass to learn more about why we spend so much time on our phones, how we can resist smartphone addiction, and much more.