Smartphone addiction: Who’s the boss of this relationship?

By Joe Elvin

Smartphones are marketed as devices that make us more productive, more connected, more successful. In most cases, they do the complete opposite.

This problem doesn’t only affect Instagram-obsessed teenagers…

The average American is addicted to their device, destroying their chances of success in business or fulfilment in their social lives.

It’s definitely possible to have smartphones work foryou. The first step is realising who’s currently boss of this often-intimate relationship.

Below, we explore why we become addicted to smartphones, how it’s ruining our lives and what we can do to retain power from these devices.

What is smartphone addiction and how many people are affected?

Addiction is defined as:

“The repeated involvement with a substance or activity, despite the substantial harm it now causes, because that involvement was (and may continue to be) pleasurable and/or valuable.”

Now, let’s look at the facts:

  • Americans check their phones 80 times a dayon average – that’s once every 12 minutes they’re awake.
  • For the millennial generation, this rises to 150 times a day.
  • The average smartphone user spends two hours a daybrowsing social media. That’s five years of the average lifespan.

Even if your smartphone usage was half of this, it could easily be defined as repeated involvement.

But does the time spent on these tiny devices really count as substantial harm? Some will argue they’re spending this time staying connected with friends. Others will say it has replaced other ‘downtime’ activities. Instead of watching TV, they’re watching YouTube. Instead of reading a book, they’re scrolling Instagram. No big deal…

Perhaps not on the surface. Maybe there’s nothing else you’re hoping to achieve in that 728 hours a year.

Yet, there’s evidence this behaviour is causing significant changes to our minds and our personalities.

Let’s explore thesubstantial harmthat repeated smartphone usage is causing…

Do smartphones cure or cause anxiety?

Mark Manson hit the nail on the head when he said: ‘Smartphones have become the new cigarettes’.

The moment we feel boredom or anxiety, out they come. An immediate escape from the real world and our negative thoughts.

Sure, it’s better than filling our lungs with cancerous tar, but it’s still far from ideal, especially when you consider the anxiety we’re developing when removed from our phones.

Six out of ten Americans feel occasional anxiety when separated from their smartphones, while 31% experience it regularly. If you’ve felt this stress, that’s a surefire sign of addiction. Many will go to extreme lengths to avoid feeling this way. A third of those polled would give up sex for a week rather than lose their phone for 24 hours. Four out of ten would prefer to lose their voice for a day.

Smartphones are a no better cure for anxiety than cigarettes or alcohol. As with these vices, the anxiety reappears as soon as the device is taken away.

This isn’t a sensation anyone experienced in the early 2000s, which begs the question: are smartphones curing our anxiety or causing it?

Whatever you’re avoiding by burying your head in a tiny screen, the best solution is to address it.

Even if it’s only boredom…

Does boredom need to be cured?

With the birth of smartphones, society no longer had to accept boredom. We are now seconds away from the newest meme or a game of Angry Birds.

But is that a good thing?

Boredom used to be the place where ideas were born. An entrepreneur thinks of a method to improve sales.  A musician would dream up some lyrics for a new song. A small child would invent a game using the power of imagination. Maybe (god forbid) some people would engage in smalltalk with a stranger sat next to them. Failing that, we’d just give our mind some time to relax…

This expectation to always be stimulated is doing serious damage to our brains. According to Nicholas Carr, author of ‘The Shallows’, we’re being re-wired to needthis micro-stimulation in order to maintain concentration. As a result, it’s becoming harder to focus on ‘deep work’, like writing a dissertation or even reading a textbook. This skill is needed to achieve anything meaningful.

Are smartphones really improving our relationships?

Perhaps you’re primarily using social media time to engage with friends, either by responding to their tweets or adding ‘Likes’ on their photos. That’s surely no bad thing?

Indeed, 52% of millennials believe that technology has improved their relationships.

The question is: do they mean in quality or quantity?

Would this generation prefer thousands of digital acquaintances, or to build meaningful connections? The type of relationships where they discuss their greatest joys and deepest insecurities. Real friendships.

It’s difficult to build these through comments left on selfies. They’re mostly built through uninterrupted one-on-one communication. They often begin via smalltalk during this ‘boredom time’ we’re so desperate for our smartphones to fill.

In his ‘Smartphones Are The New Cigarettes’ argument, Mark Manson describes the frustration of ‘attention pollution’. He shares his hatred at having to compete with someone’s smartphone whenever he’s with them. Indeed, it’s rude. It’s distracting. More importantly, it’s stopping us building real connections with the people we’re spending time with…

As a solo traveller, it breaks my heart to see a couple sat in a cafe with their noses buried in their phones. Often, I see entire friendship circles doing it. Sometimes I watch them, while wondering how much I’d pay to have a hometown buddy sat with me.

Yes, smartphones help us maintain more relationships, but most of these are extremely shallow. They’re filtered. True friendships are built by discussing the good and the badin depth. On social media, we tend to only show the former.

This can create a skewed perception of reality. When we only see the best side of our friends through social media filters, it can damage our self-esteem. This is especially true for the latest generation of teenagers, who are more emotionally vulnerable and don’t know any different from this filtered digital reality we’re all now a part of.

More worryingly though, this new world is damaging the depth of the friendships that all generations could be experiencing.

Smartphones and dopamine addiction

Social media notifications provide the main motivation to pull out our smartphones so often.

Ping! Someone sent us a message.

Ping! Someone liked our photo.

Ping! Someone followed us on Twitter.

This tunes into a human’s natural desire to feel important. Studies show we get a dopamine hit every single time it happens. The same signal that causes happiness when we drink, smoke or have sex. A highly addictive chemical.

Not convinced of your addiction? Let me ask: how does it feel when you’ve left your phone alone for a few hours and return to no notifications? Does it disappoint you when your latest status doesn’t ‘break the internet’ as well as your last one? It’s because the dopamine source has run out.

Perhaps you feel the urge to update your status again at this point? The digital equivalent of bumming a cigarette from a stranger.

Your smartphone is an unlimited source of small dopamine spikes. These cause no physical damage to your body, and they’re free! However, they do come at a mental expense, as explored above.

We want followers more than friends

‘Followers’ has become a currency of sorts.

  • If you sell products or services online, you’ll sell more if a ton of people see your social media posts.
  • Even if you sell diddly squat, you can become an ‘influencer’ once you’ve built a few thousand followers, earning you money by advertising other people’s products. (Brands will check your ‘engagement’ before they sign this deal, making Likes and comments a ‘currency’ in many ways too).
  • In some lines of work, your follower count affects your chances of landing a job. Blogs want guest authors with a significant social media audience. Models without at least 10,000 Instagram followers are getting ignored by major brands.

Still, these aren’t the reasons why the average Joe and Jessica crave followers.

The common truth is: more followers, more dopamine spikes.

I’m sure, in some circles, people gain a sense of self-worth from their follower count too.

It’s conceivable that a model with 90,000 followers would turn up her nose at a colleague who had only 9,000. In high school, where popularity means everything, it’s almost definitely being used by bullies to make others feel small. I’ve even seen dating advice suggesting that followers can help you score more dates.

On its own, there’s nothing terrible about having a huge tribe of followers.

However, the efforts to gain them often come at the expense of real-life satisfaction.

We’re losing the present moment

All live music fans have experienced the joy of the moment their heroes take to the stage in front of them.

The lights drop.

The tension builds.

The crowd erupts at the first glimpse of the headline act.

The screaming and cheers turn to ecstasy as the first notes of their hit single fill the air.

However, in recent years, this experience has been accompanied by a new sensation.

Hundreds or thousands of smartphones in the sky………

What are these people getting from this? The chance to relive the moment in lower quality later on? Maybe.

In most cases, it’s undoubtedly the opportunity to show their friends (who didn’t bother to buy a ticket themselves and enjoy the moment with them) how awesome the concert is. ……….How awesome they are…

Some will upload the song to YouTube in an effort to build subscribers. Others will add the clip to their Stories immediately, ignoring the next song to add the perfect caption.

This surely lessens the enjoyment of the experience itself, both for them and for everyone whose view they’re blocking.

Every time we attempt to capture the perfect snapshot of a moment, we deny ourselves the beauty of it.

It’s not just viewing ‘Niggas In Paris’ through an eight-inch screen. It’s your children blowing out their birthday candles. It’s the last minute goal that sends your team through to the final.

These are known as ‘peak experiences’ – the rare moments when the incessant chatter in our head subsides and we become lost in the bliss of presence.

Smartphones are denying us this sensation, which many spiritual teachers suggest is all we need to be happy.

What is the solution?

Time is our most precious resource. When we’re in charge of the relationship, our smartphones can save us a ton of it.

  • You can send important documents while sat on the train.
  • You can build an audience, share your opinions with the masses and sell products with ease.
  • You can get directions to the nearest gas station, or catch up on the latest sports results whenever you have a spare second.
  • You can meet your next romantic interest by swiping on their face (we’ll debate the hidden costs of online dating another day).

However, for the majority of users, smartphones are takingtime and givingvery little back in return.

The solution isn’t to swap your iPhone for a Nokia 3310, although adopting a minimalist approachto your device is a great idea.

It’s also recommended to designate specific time periods for social media usage. Nothing truly urgent ever pops on your news feed. If it’s urgent, they’ll call or text.

If you’re suffering badly from the symptoms of smartphone addiction, a digital detoxmight be the best solution. Just as an alcoholic removes all bottles from his house, delete all your social media apps and don’t check them for a month. Maybe invest in an old-school Nokia, like we all had to cope with in the ‘90s. Note down how your behaviour changes when you don’t have the temptation to disengage with the world. You might like it. You’ll definitely notice how often you truly needa smartphone. Far less often than you expect.

These steps will help you become the boss of your smartphone, who uses their device to serve them, rather than vice-versa.


Writer: Joe Elvin is a dating/relationships blogger based in London. His book ‘The Thrill Of The Chase’, which explains how to truly thrive in singledom, was published in 2017.  Find more info and more of his writing at 

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