Is your phone habit an addiction? Here’s how to regain control

We use our phones for so many things in life – but for some people, their use can tip into problematic territory. Here’s how to tell if you have a phone addiction.

Chances are you’re reading this article on your phone.

In 2016, a US study found the average smartphone user interacts with their phone 2617 times each day.

That’s close to a million taps, types, swipes and clicks a year.

And those figures were for the more reserved among us, with heavy users clocking in more than 5000 touches a day.

Closer to home, research by Finder in 2022 revealed the average Aussie spends 150 minutes on their phone a day.

Sixteen per cent of us stare at our devices for more than five hours a day; 39 per cent of us for two to five hours; and 38 per cent for one to two hours, the research found.

Which all begs the question: Are we addicted to our phones – and is that a problem if we are?

Do you have a phone addiction?

If you compulsively check your phone, find yourself scrolling while in the presence of others or feel uneasy when your phone is out of reach, phone dependency could be an issue.

Psychologist and Digital Nutrition founder Jocelyn Brewer explains hiding your phone use or being unable to cut down on the time spent on your phone each day are also signs you may have an unhealthy obsession.

“Phones are a tool and we need to learn to use them in intentional and aligned ways,” Jocelyn says.

She adds while many consider phone addiction a preoccupation with the phone itself, the addiction is rooted in the activities we engage in – the phone is simply the pathway.

Like other addictions, the activities can trigger dopamine reward pathways and this has led some researchers to draw a comparison between phone dependency and substance-related addiction, she says.

How phone addiction can be like substance abuse

Phone dependency can indeed be similar to substance addiction, notes Swinburne University researcher Saqib Nawaz, who recently led a study into problematic smartphone use.

“While they might not be completely identical, these similarities can be explained by how both types of addictions affect people,” Saqib says.

Similarities include loss of control, withdrawal symptoms, craving, and desiring a sense of escapism.

A key difference is, however, unlike substance addiction, people who are addicted to their phone don’t experience chemical changes in the brain, Saqib says.

However, smartphone use can still significantly affect mental health, behaviour and cognitive processes.

“Excessive smartphone and digital device use can result in cognitive changes, such as decreased attention span,” Saqib says.

He explains smartphone dependency is linked to increased anxiety and depression too, and prolonged use can lead to a range of physical health issues.

How to use your phone more mindfully

Set usage boundaries

Saqib suggests establishing phone-free hours during the day, such as during meal times or before bed.

He says periodically taking a break from your phone can help your body recharge and your brain refocus.

Practise mindful consumption

Consciously choose the content you’re consuming.

“If you’re selective about the apps and notifications you allow, you’re less likely to be distracted by your phone,” Saqib says.

Strive for better “digital nutrition”

Jocelyn subscribes to the idea you are what you scroll, saying “we need to consider the quality and quantity of the content we consume and what the time we spend on our phones might be displacing”.

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Written by Sarah Vercoe.