14 Mar 2024 News in English

Do You Have a Phone Addiction?

During a recent executive program, we conducted a micro-experiment. Participants opted to surrender their mobile phones for one evening and get them back the next morning. During the experiment, they reflected on their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

The next morning was full of discussion: Some had noticed themselves reaching for their phones mindlessly, coupled with jolts of “panic” when finding it missing; some felt irritable or frustrated about not being able to look things up on demand; some were nervous to wander the city’s streets without their GPS; while others rationalized the reasons they urgently needed their phone or felt extreme fear of missing out. At the same time, many felt liberated, noticing more around them and enjoying the freedom of not accessing work emails in the evening. Almost all learned something about themselves.

Over half of the world has a smartphone, and the devices’ evolution from a luxury to a necessity has been rapid and all-encompassing. In the professional realm, our phones are vital for communication, information access, learning and development, business operations, travel, and client management.

Mobile phones have undoubtedly brought many benefits to our work and private lives. In our personal lives, they’re a gateway to social connections, entertainment, world news, travel, and a vast ocean of personalized digital content. However, more scientific studies are highlighting that their omnipresence brings the risk of dysfunctional behavior, dependency, and overuse, which can facilitate a wealth of detrimental downstream impacts on our health, relationships, and productivity. This is when mobile phone use can become problematic.

Signs You Have a Phone Addiction

Drawing together academic research from psychology, sociology, and neuroscience, we provide insight into the signs that your phone use may be dysfunctional. When the costs start to outweigh the benefits, you might need to renegotiate your relationship with your phone.

First, consider your relationship with your phone and how you interact with it:

1. Loss of control

Do you use your phone compulsively? Do you frequently check it with no purpose? Do you feel you cannot control your usage, despite your good intentions? Your phone use is trending toward addiction if you often, automatically, and randomly pick up your phone during even brief moments of downtime or boredom like while waiting in line or during a pause in conversation. If you feel a deep and uncontrollable urge to check your phone even when you know there are no new updates or important messages, this can be a warning sign.

2. Dependence

Do you feel lost without your phone? Do you feel anxious, stressed, or irritable if you have to turn it off for periods of time? Are you preoccupied with the thought of missing a call or text? If the thought of being without your phone causes significant stress or anxiety, this can be a concern. Dependence is evident if you feel you need your phone for all daily activities, if you feel anxious or panicky when your phone is not in immediate reach, or if you can’t take your mind off a text or email when you can’t instantly respond.

3. Emotional coping

Is phone use the only way you cope with negative emotions such as boredom, frustration, or stress in your life? Is it your ticket to avoiding unpleasant experiences like social anxiety? While mobile phone use can provide temporary stress relief, it becomes problematic when it’s used as a habitual and primary coping mechanism for discomfort and keeps you from developing other methods to cope with your emotions. This can trigger a vicious cycle because mobile phone use can both help you feel relief in the short term and ignite even more anxiety, loneliness, and fear of missing out.

These addictive tendencies may not be problematic until they impede your daily functioning. Identify whether your phone use negatively impacts your emotions, cognitive performance, and social relationships:

4. Negative emotions

Simply put, does engaging with your phone make you feel bad? Do you feel heightened stress and anxiety, or more lonely after using it? Do you hide your usage from others or feel shame or guilt for using it? Do you end up feeling anxious and overloaded after just a few minutes of use? Negative emotions and moods after technology use are common — some studies have linked smartphone dependency to increased feelings of loneliness and depression, as well as negative overall well-being. Thus, if you typically feel poorly after checking your phone, it can be a sign that your habit has become problematic.

5. Compromised performance and focus

Does your phone interfere with getting important things done? Constantly distract you? Limit your ability to think clearly? While smartphones can certainly augment human cognition, the mere presence of your phone (even when not in use) can consume the cognitive resources you need to think clearly, pay attention, make clear decisions, and regulate your emotions. Interruptions and distractions from your phone (like those pesky notifications) can manifest as reduced ability to sustain attention, leading to inefficiency, mistakes, missed deadlines, and sometimes downright dangerous situations. In addition, evening phone use can affect your ability to mentally detach and recover from the stress of the workday, leaving you more depleted over time.

6. Harmed social relationships

Does using your phone prevent you from listening, understanding, and engaging in face-to-face conversation? Do important people around you feel neglected because you’re attending to your phone instead of them? When you always prioritize your mobile phone over the people around you, it can harm your real-world relationships and is thus a sign of problematic use. This can include constantly checking your phone during family time, social gatherings, or important personal events. The phone becomes a barrier to meaningful engagement with others and reduces social support, one of the most important resources for coping with stress and maintaining well-being.

You Are Not Alone

If you see yourself in many of the descriptions above, you’re not alone. Using an established scale and objective indicators (such as phone pick-ups), we conducted a study of 160 working individuals (ranging from entry-level to middle and senior management or executive level) to explore the prevalence and problematic nature of mobile phone use.

We found some interesting initial results. First, we’re interrupted by our phones about every 13 minutes of our awake time — that is, respondents received on average 65 notifications on their phones per day and picked up their phones 72 times per day. Younger individuals at entry-level jobs are interrupted even more frequently, every 9.5 minutes.

Second, negative outcomes such as feelings of stress were not so much related to the actual time spent on the phone itself but rather to the experience of dependency and compulsion and the negative emotions that are wound up with them. In addition, 50% of respondents would be categorized as “at-risk users” or “problematic users” according to cyber addiction standards used for this scale. This means that potentially problematic phone use is not uncommon and needs to be regulated to avoid downstream consequences for mental health and relationships.

How to Regain Some Control

Understand and acknowledge these signs so you can better navigate the challenges posed by these important digital companions — ensuring that they serve you, rather than the other way around:

1. Self-awareness

First, learn the signs of problematic use and be honest with yourself. This might require talking to your colleagues, friends, and family to see if they’ve noticed the patterns of behavior outlined above. Then, make a commitment to change. You might start with a few experiments like the one we conducted at the executive program. Notice how you think, feel, and behave when separated from your phone.

2. Self-regulation

Establishing clear boundaries is a critical step in reducing problematic mobile phone use. This could involve designated phone-free times, such as during meals, family gatherings, or before bed. Put your phone away from your desk, dinner table, or bedside and reduce notifications while working so you’re not interrupted when doing a task that demands your attention. You can also set limits on specific apps or types of usage, or even lock away your phone.

For example, to keep from going down the rabbit hole of content consumption, you might decide to check emails only at certain times of the day or limit social media use by setting a specific end time. Enforcing these boundaries helps create a healthier balance between the benefits brought by your phone and other meaningful aspects of life. Like breaking any habit, it takes time and repetition, and starting small can feel more doable.

3. Flexible coping strategies

Rather than systematically avoiding difficult feelings, engage in alternative emotion and stress-regulation strategies. Also, don’t let your phone use erode your recovery resources, particularly your ability to psychologically detach from work. Those resources might include physical exercise, meditation, hobbies, building human relationships, or spending time in nature.

4. Professional help

In cases where your mobile phone use has become deeply compulsive or interferes significantly with your personal and professional life, seeking professional help may be necessary. This can include cognitive behavioral therapy with a mental health professional who specializes in addiction or digital dependency. They can offer personalized strategies and support to address the underlying causes of problematic phone use. Additionally, workshops or support groups focused on managing digital consumption can provide valuable tools and peer support.

In our digital age, smartphones have become a double-edged sword, offering boundless information at our fingertips while silently ensnaring us in a web of overdependence. Unchecked phone use can erode our mental well-being, dull our professional edge, and disrupt our most cherished relationships. Yet, by recognizing the stealthy creep of phone addiction, we can begin to redraw the boundaries and be more intentional about when we engage. This is not merely about cutting down screen time — it’s about reclaiming the human experience, rediscovering the joy of undistracted moments, and forging deeper, more meaningful connections in our personal and professional lives. Let’s not be mere passengers in the digital realm but thoughtful navigators, steering toward a balanced and fulfilling existence.