Phone addiction is making me sad and anxious, but so is the idea of quitting

As many people do over the holidays, I tried to spend less time on my phone. I tried to be more present with the people in front of me. But occasionally, after 10 or 15 minutes sitting in the same spot, my mind wandered a bit, as did my hand, towards the phone sitting face down on the table in front of me. I'll just look —

"Dan, are you bored?" My mom, breaking from a conversation with my wife, asked me directly. I'd been scrolling through Twitter for over two minutes, but I was convinced it had only been a few seconds. I completely lost that time — time that I won't be able to get back. Was it worth it? In the moment it felt like the right thing to do, to surreptitiously pick up my phone and respond to someone on the internet who wanted my attention.

Over the past few years, I've noticed my own attention wavering more easily, even when my phone isn't nearby. Just the knowledge that there are notifications to check and people to communicate with is often enough to take me out of myself, even for a moment. My phone is the first thing I look at in the morning as it lays unassuming next to my head on the bedside table. It's the dopamine hit I need in the lulling mid-afternoon hours and the easiest way to look busy when I want to avoid that awkward conversation.

These are dangerous behaviors if left to propagate undeterred. I want to be able to use my phone as a tool, as a means to get work done or enjoy a few moments to myself, to scroll through Twitter or read an article or play a quick game or whatever one does with a smartphone. When I put my phone down, I want to feel good about what I just did. I want to avoid the feeling that I'm not in control.

And according to recent research into the topic, I'm not alone.

Have you noticed that you can't pay attention to things as well as you used to? You're not alone.

In an article (opens in new tab) published in The Globe and Mail over the weekend called "Your smartphone is making you stupid, antisocial and unhealthy. So why can't you put it down?", author Eric Andrew-Gee posits that millions of people are dealing with the negative effects of smartphone use.

What these people say – and what their research shows – is that smartphones are causing real damage to our minds and relationships, measurable in seconds shaved off the average attention span, reduced brain power, declines in work-life balance and hours less of family time.They have impaired our ability to remember. They make it more difficult to daydream and think creatively. They make us more vulnerable to anxiety. They make parents ignore their children. And they are addictive, if not in the contested clinical sense then for all intents and purposes.

The problem is not the phones themselves. These are marvels of technology, able to instantly provide us with the tools to complete tasks we would have thought impossible with a handheld only a few years ago. The issue is with our brains, and how we respond to the constant stimuli that developers have integrated into the apps and services we use every day.

To ensure that our eyes remain firmly glued to our screens, our smartphones – and the digital worlds they connect us to – internet giants have become little virtuosos of persuasion, cajoling us into checking them again and again – and for longer than we intend. Average users look at their phones about 150 times a day, according to some estimates, and about twice as often as they think they do, according to a 2015 study by British psychologists.These companies have persuaded us to give over so much of our lives by exploiting a handful of human frailties. One of them is called novelty bias. It means our brains are suckers for the new. That's why social media apps nag you to turn notifications on. They know that once the icons start flashing onto your lock screen, you won't be able to ignore them. It's also why Facebook switched the colour of its notifications from a mild blue to attention-grabbing red.

The more awareness we have of this physiological limitation, the better chance we have of metering our use and finding equilibrium — digital compromise — with this incredible tool. Inevitably, people will say that the problem isn't with the phone but me, my weakness, that the screen is just amplifying a tendency for distraction, for displeasure with the status quo, with myself. Yes, yes, and yes.

Phones are not inherently bad, but they bring out our brains' worst tendencies.

But what I'm quickly discovering is that this isn't a problem unique to me, nor is it something that I should be keeping to myself. Much has been made about the positive impacts of smartphones in people's lives — hell, were it not for their proliferation, I probably wouldn't have this amazing job — and as an optimist, I tend to think they're doing far more good than harm.

But here we are, ten years after the smartphone revolution, and we're finally taking stock of its negative implications, too. If such a reckoning leads to a calming of my brain, a lessening of anxiety, and higher-quality time spent with the people I love, I will see it as a success.

That's why I'm committing to doing more with less in 2018, to find a balance between dopamine and responsibility. I can't, and don't want to, stop using a smartphone every day — it's the central nervous system of my personal and professional lives — but in the moments when it's easy to escape into it, I will challenge myself to be present, and own any discomfort that comes with it.

Elsewhere, it's CES 2018 and much of the Mobile Nations crew has descended on sunny (and coming from the east coast, much warmer) Las Vegas. While there isn't a single category or company that seems destined to dominate the conversation in 2018, it's interesting that Google appears to be everywhere.

Like Microsoft and Apple, Google usually takes a hands-off approach to CES, disseminating its message through partner announcements and subtle, quirky installations. This year, there is nothing subtle about what Google is doing — and it's entirely to do with Google Assistant which, like Alexa did in previous years, is expanding in interesting and impressive ways. (Perhaps one way to use my phone less is to rely more on voice assistants.)

Don't expect too many phone announcements, either — and as Andrew said last week, keep your expectations in check when things are announced — but I think the most important Android-related volley will be from Huawei. That the Mate 10 Pro will be sold by a carrier is a big deal, and while the details aren't yet finalized, a partnership with AT&T is likely forthcoming. It's going to take a lot of education and marketing dollars for Huawei to make a peep in the U.S., and the notion of dethroning Samsung is ludicrous at this point — especially with the sorry state of EMUI — but the third-largest handset maker in the world is literally the only company that has a chance.

You can catch all of the CES 2018 announcements right here at AC, but if you want the good stuff, the weird behind-the-scenes stuff, follow us on Instagram and check out our story.

That's it from me — hope you had a safe and happy new year!


Daniel Bader

Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central. 

  • I'm an addict.
  • Step number 1
  • Step number 2: Delete Facebook.
  • I purposely never joined Twitter and routinely block apps from pushing notifications to avoid or minimize the distraction. I am the one who decides when and where I put my attention.
  • I agree. I've got a Twitter account and some others... Managing notifications became a necessity - otherwise I was a slave to 'junk' input. The phone is still a necessity for communication, information etc. But I also have 'Do Not Disturb' enabled with exceptions.
  • Agreed. Only phone calls, text messages from the significant other, and work emails during the workday give me an audible notification. Also, Twitter is a cesspool that is best left to rot away these days so I cut ties years ago.
  • I think the same happened when books became available to everyone
  • Exactly!!! Print Media had exactly the same impact as Electronic Media now.
  • That's correct. Actually, I remember my family receiving the newspaper at home. Everyone taking a portion of the whole thing (mine were comics and sports), then we sat like zombies reading for hours. Nobody complained about that "antisocial" behavior.
  • Two different animals. My family did the same thing with the Sunday paper, but that was once a week. I doubt it was hours. Big difference picking up your phone multiple times an hour because you might think you are missing out on something.
  • What about picking a book because you're bored? I had problems with my girlfriend because I was reading too much. Every chance I had, I grabbed my PDA (my beloved Palm IIIc) to continue the book I was reading. No alerts, no notifications, no news feed, I just wanted to know what was about to happen with the story I was reading, and that became more important than my girlfriend. On my smartphone, I only receive notifications from WhatsApp and SMS, and BTW, I only have 53 contacts (and no groups), but from time to time I grab the phone just to read some random article from Wikipedia. And I must say, that's not addiction, that is boredom.
  • The difference is that the print media couldn't physically and audibly alert you to something that you "needed" to read.
  • Wish I had a problem with putting a book down.
  • You can if you're reading on your phone 👌🏾
  • I've had this image for years, and it definitely seems to be more and more accurate as time goes on....
  • OMG... That nails it.
  • Ya that's it😂.
  • Pretty good.
  • I'm just excited for phones with three cameras so I can get the wide-angle standard and telephoto all-in-one device
  • I'll be honest. I couldn't even make it through the whole article.
  • I'm an addict also. To help reduce screen time, make sure you know what your most important tasks of the day are - whether it's work (do X task), or social (spend time with family). Keeping that in mind helps you feel guilty if you're just dicking around your phone (and some of us are self-aware enough to realize when we're doing this).
  • The people in front of you are more important than the morons online. Put down the phone and talk to the people in front of you. The opinions of idiots online are all meaningless, as well as the number of likes, the number of friends/people following you.
  • Amen to that. On that note, I also believe the top influences in your life should be people you know, not bloggers on YouTube. Just saying.
  • Amen to that. I occasionally watch the vloggers on YouTube, but I don't subscribe to them nor do I take what they say as gospel. They're fun to watch when I'm interested in getting a device, but that's about it.
  • We agree on something. Nice.
  • 👍
  • Best thing I've ever done on my phone is disable all notifications except calls, texts and emails from family (thanks Google Inbox). I still use my phone far too much but at least now it's more of a tool and less of an attention-seeking child.
  • Same.
  • Same here best thing I've ever done.
  • Solution: Buy a 100$ phone. Performance is definetely a little slower and mine even has an inferior touch panel, it's not as accurate. But the phone is still perfectly usable, it just isn't as fun. Since I don't need it for work related stuff constantly, no big deal. I'm absolutely using it less. Btw, you save money.
  • And that’s where they’ll draw the line. 🤣
  • There's definitely merit to this approach. The mid-range phone market right now is pretty great if one s willing to make compromises like you have. Maybe we should treat our devices like dumbpipes instead of smartphones?
    Similarly, I purchased a Nexus 6p when it came out (~$500!!!! i basically stole a phone, you don't see that pricetag anymore..) and I don't use it to its potential. I simply receive the notifications that I dictate, and basically just use it for texting and music. It's nice to have the basic stuff presented to you quickly, but we shouldn't let the novelties out there take up too much time. Not too hard to stay unaddicted; it's a great time for smartphone use right now imho.
  • I find my phone more interesting than people so I don't feel bad
  • Completely addicted. Both phone and tablet are right next to me and I alternate. Going to try and reduce the usage this year....
  • Sometimes, I'd rather people be on their phones rather than have to deal with them.
  • Haha! So true!
  • This is also part of what a lot of jobs do to people these days. Many jobs require multi tasking, all day long. I've lost count of the amount of times I'm doing email while in a meeting while on slack while getting something done in confluence. It results in almost forgetting what it's like truly focus on something for a set amount of time, which makes it hard to truly focus on a conversation sometimes. I definitely have to decompress and switch it off to ensure I don't multi task at home.
  • It's just good old fashioned technopanic Daniel. Relax. The Luddites didn't die out when the loom was invented. They are still around, trying to kill our joy.
  • Sorry but feel like it's all just bullshit. Maybe it's because I've grown up never really having social ties to anyone but my family, or maybe my brain is just wired differently. But just seems like a load of bs. When sitting there alone, with nothing to do, the phone provides me a means to look up information on a topic I may be curious about or allows me to read/listen to a book. When someone's around, there isn't really a need to just check the phone cause someone is already occupying my time. If other people arounde are having a conversation and I get a notification, then yea why not check it. At least that may be someone who's wanting to pay attention to you instead of just being on the sidelines of a conversation you may not even want to get involved in or have the knowledge base to be involved in. If others are chatting and conversing about a topic you find boring or uninteresting, then yea, entertain yourself somehow instead of hijacking a conversation... People aren't addicted to their phones and hell most of the time not even to video games like everyone wants to swear is the case. The brain seeks out ways to keep itself occupied. If the people around you aren't enough to occupy your mind, then they probably aren't people you need to surround yourself with on a daily basis.
  • It's only a problem of you make it one. It is what it is. Try to find some balance. It's hard sometimes.
  • This issue is all in our heads and nothing more. I remember people telling me I was addicted to newspapers and magazine back in the day. I wonder if people told cave men they were addicted to hunting LoL
  • I just disabled AC notifications. I'm reclaiming my life.
  • I noticed that my attention span was diminishing and I was feeling more distracted so I quit social media and limited the notifications on my phone. It has been a year and I feel more focused, engaged and I'm back to reading books for hours. I have never used my phone during meals or at social gatherings and friends have learned that if they text me I often don't respond immediately. Still love my Note 8 though!
  • I'm a phone addict but don't really use social media other than Youtube. That keeps the addiction in check.
  • I don't Facebook or Twitter. I have notifications off. Synch is off. I check my mail when I chose to. Phone is a tool, I google stuff I want to know, I chat with friends when I have the time... Play words with friends a bit... I don't see a problem here...
  • No Facebook, Insta, Twitter for me.
  • Simple solution is to quit social media. Much like online videogames there is a 'flavor of the week' effect happening with social media. Stick to just the one that is poppin' right now (snapchat comes to mind), and don't overuse it. There is definitely a will power factor applied here, but just simply limiting social media activity can shave so much time off your schedule. downside: rejoining social media after a hiatus is like pulling teeth! How tf do I get my friends to follow me on Twitter again lol!
  • Just wait until Google screws you out of the trade-in value of your old phone. You'll not only stop trusting your phone; you'll stop using your Google Home and the search engine as well.
  • If you're walking and looking at your phone screen, get help.
  • Or catch the Lyft you're looking for. Or find the place you're walking to. Or paint with broad brushes.
  • It's a tool for me, but it replaces a lot of other items. I don't have to go downstairs to catch a late show. I don't have to pull out a laptop to do work email or check on a server. I don't have to use an MP3 player or sit plugged into a CD player for music. But what I DON'T do is rely on technology for social interaction., No facebook, no Twitter, no Snapchat. I did install Marco Polo recently after being hounded by friends, and I'm kind of regretting it after getting questionable videos from girls I know. I'm fine with talking face to face, which seems to be a lost skill, and something that social media addicts are terrified of. I've seen people mouthing off in a video session, and when they meet up with a real human, it's "deer in the headlights" time.