By Taylor Ferreira
We have heard all about it. We know cell-phone use in the 21st century is out of control, taking valuable time and headspace out of the lives of all those who own one. Yet we still can’t find the desire to take the earbuds out and put the phone away. Why is it so hard to leave it untouched? This may come to your surprise, but it goes beyond simply wanting to entertain yourself in a moment of boredom. Cell-phones have frighteningly addicting qualities, which are easily masked under their attractive exterior and seemingly harmless capabilities.
Like all addictions, this epidemic begins in the brain. A study presented at the 2017 meeting of the Radiological Society of North America showed that teens who spend more than three hours on their phone per day have displayed an actual change or imbalance in their brain chemistry. This usage showed to have deeply ingrained effects on their social lives, their sleep patterns, attention span, and is now known to be a major contributor to the prevalent anxiety and depression in teens.
This issue however, spreads beyond the teenage population. A survey from the media analytics company comScore shows that the average American adult spent approximately 2 hours and 51 minutes on their smartphone every single day in 2017. This added up to an average lifetime’s worth of social media and internet surfing creates a whopping total of 5 years and 4 months spent on a screen. To put that in perspective, it’s 36% more time than any of us spend eating and drinking in our lifetime.
This information is daunting, and may cause you to feel guilty for the time spent on social media – but don’t blame your willpower, these programs are designed to hook you. A book called How to Break Up With Your Phone, by journalist Catherine Price, dives into how the designers for Smartphone apps are trained in manipulating brain chemistry, and expertly engineer the apps to produce the very responses that elicit addictive behaviors. For example, Price explained how Instagram uses a code “that deliberately holds back on showing users new ‘likes’ so that it can deliver a bunch of them in a sudden rush at the most effective moment possible—meaning the moment at which seeing new likes will discourage you from closing the app.” Snapchat has mastered this technique of hooking its users with the creation of the “streak”. This is one of the biggest reasons that keep people from deleting the app, for they aren’t willing to end the stream of photos they had kept for so long.
She also describes the effect psychologists call “intermittent rewards” or the irresistible feeling of unpredictability that comes when anticipating a potential text from a friend, or wondering how many likes or views a recent post has received. She compared this feeling to that one feels when playing a slot machine. That hopeful anticipation that a cash reward may come with the next game, in which keeps the player coming back for more, similarly to the way we continually check the lock screen on our phones for recent alerts.
Typically, the phone is used as a form of distraction – from a class, when waiting in a line, or even at a social event when the pressure to socialize feels like a weight. This may feel like an innocent motive at the time, but the format of cell-phone use is designed to rewire your brain to keep you distracted, and according to Price it “is particularly good at doing so.” The constant ads and pop-up clickbait that appear when focusing deeply into what is on the screen creates “a contradiction of terms: an intensely focused form of distraction.” This inhibits the user’s ability to separate the distraction from the information they are trying to absorb, greatly impacting this generation’s ability to retain knowledge. On top of this, the 24/7 availability of answers to our questions has allowed us to skip the hassle of memorizing information, greatly affecting how we learn, process, and read.
Did you know that most tech producers don’t allow their children to have smart devices? It’s much like the typically vegetarian workers at meat processing plants; they know all about what goes into it, and therefore never want to consume it. The producers are well aware with the addictive qualities these devices provide, and don’t want their kids falling into this downward spiral of wasted time and dissatisfaction.
So how are we supposed to combat this addiction when it seems that all factors are working against us? It is definitely a process, but I assure you, spending less time on the screen will declutter your mind, bring you peace, and allow you more time to focus on the things that make you truly happy.
I want to emphasize that this is an effort to control cell-phone use, not delete it entirely. Social media has been greatly integrated into education and the workplace, and understanding its potential is necessary in order to thrive in this era. The trick is understanding moderation and when the usage becomes excessive and harmful.
There are two ways to approach this: dropping social media cold turkey (this means deleting the apps for a time until you feel you can add parts back in), or making slow progress one app at a time. The first step to this process is turning off your notifications for apps like Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter. Without having the constant buzzing from your phone will keep your thoughts focused on your present task, and will eventually reduce the amount of times you open your lock screen.
Next is to separate the essential from the inessential. The apps needed for school, work, and contacting others should be in a place for quick availability, while apps like YouTube, SnapChat, Pinterest, Netflix, and other medias should be kept in a folder or page that can’t be seen at the first glance of your home screen. To further this step, these apps could be designated for a certain device separate from the phone you carry with you on a daily basis, like a tablet or laptop.
Another way to reduce your time spent on social media is by having someone hold you accountable. Sending a snap to your streaks telling them that you are taking a break from social media, or asking someone to take a break with you will decrease the number of messages you receive and therefore the temptation to open the apps.
There are many other resources available to help with this process. Simply search “how to get rid of cell-phone addiction” and many will pop up with small steps you can take on this journey to simplify your life. I do have to add that this transition isn’t easy. Just like any other addiction, there are actual bodily responses and withdrawals when the attachment to the device is strong. The only way to combat this is by staying busy. Do things that you enjoy and that you haven’t had time to do before, pay attention to how your thoughts may change with this adjustment, and enjoy a rare moment of silence with just you and your thoughts. Try switching the focus of your time from consuming to creating, and contribute something of your own, not for the purpose of sharing, but for the purpose of enjoying it.
The true first step is awareness – awareness of self, of mind, of relationships. Tune in to the negative feelings of dissatisfaction, and then notice when those feelings are gone. It takes time, but the ability to control what you consume is well worth the work, especially when your mental health is the reward.