Adults and smartphones: ‘I lose about six to eight hours a day on my phone’

More than half of adults wish they spent less time on their smartphones, a study found

Six in 10 adults use a smartphone as soon as they wake up, and half of adults stay awake later than planned because they are using devices into the night. That’s according to a study published by Deloitte in 2022.

We may be used to associating the overuse of smartphones with teenagers, but more than half of adults wish they spent less time on their devices, according to the same report.

Sheena Crean is one such adult. “WhatsApp, I feel, is like a ball around my ankle”, she says. “It’s buzzing the whole time it’s on and I kind of feel I’ll miss out on something, like a play date for the kids, or a notification of a fantastic new camp that’s going live now. Hours of my day is on WhatsApp.” Crean says she’s mostly having the chats and the craic on it. “Some of it is practical,” she adds, mentioning her neighbourhood WhatsApp groups.

She recently went on holiday with her family, and after notifying the people who needed to know that she would be uncontactable in the usual way, she deleted WhatsApp from her phone for the week. “It was an absolute revelation. I felt my heart rate came down. I felt I chilled out more. It was incredible. I was back on it the next week because we were meeting up with friends in west Cork, so from a practical point of view, I felt I needed it.”


But WhatsApp is not Crean’s only downfall, she explains. “Instagram, Facebook, email, it’s constant. The weird thing is I don’t have an addictive personality. There’s nothing else that’s a problem in my life.

“If I wake up in the middle of the night, four o’clock, I’m on, scrolling on Instagram. And then you lose an hour to it. It’s horrific. I don’t know what I’m going to do. The one thing I’m strict about is, when I’m in company, I put it away. If we’re out for a meal and it’s beside me on the table, and if it lights up, I’m gone.”

Crean, who is on a career break from work, says it’s when she’s alone in the house that she loses most time to her phone. “Two hours on Instagram, and it’s just such a waste of time. The worst part of it, I feel, is that you start thinking that everybody has a better life than you. And that is not true, because we have a great life, with a great social circle,” she adds. Crean describes watching one social media influencer who was away on holiday with her children. As Ireland experienced its wettest July on record, Crean watched the influencer, basking in the sunshine with tanned, “slim, no-cellulite thighs, by the pool, and it just eats into you”, she says honestly.

“I lose about six to eight hours a day,” Crean says of the time spent on her phone. “They [her children] call me out on it, which is great. There’s nothing like the shame inflicted on you by your own child... I don’t want them growing up thinking that it’s normal for mam to be on the phone day and night.”

John Mulligan is a sports journalist with Galway Bay FM. He says he’s probably been addicted to his phone since he first got a mobile in the late 1990s. “I use the phone all the time and it’s not unusual to be checking messages at half 11, 12, one o’clock in the morning, because people will contact you at those hours if they’ve information, or something is there that they feel you should know about.”

Mulligan knows his job plays a role in his dependency on his phone. “You will have people contact you every day of the week, seven days of the week,” he explains. But, he adds, it’s not work alone that keeps him on his phone. “I’m a bugger for social media, Twitter, Facebook, you’ll be amazed what you get when you look at that hour of the morning, even just entertainment-wise. It’s constant, to be honest.

If I hear a notification, I’m going to go ‘Oh I have to look at this’. For me, personally, I’d be afraid I’d miss something

—  John Mulligan, sports journalist

“It’s not unusual for me to look up Twitter and maybe get lost in looking up something because I maybe find some tweet that interests me, and then I want to see what the responses are like and that means you’ve got to go looking up somebody else’s response, and before you know it there’s a half an hour gone and you’ve probably forgotten what the original tweet was.”

Mulligan has two daughters and says he’s called out by his family “all the time. Ninety per cent of the time it’s justified. I might be looking at my phone and my partner Caroline will say ‘Just get off the bloody phone. For once. Just for a little while.’

“Say you’re watching the TV, you probably have your phone in your hand. It happened during the World Cup. I was following social media while the games were on... just to see what people’s thoughts were. And during the All-Ireland final I was following it, because I was fascinated to see what people thought watching in on the BBC as compared to RTÉ. You just don’t realise sometimes that you actually are scrolling and using social media while you’re doing something else, but you are.”

Mulligan puts his phone on “do not disturb” for periods of time when he’s off work to try to reduce the amount of time he spends on his phone. “Because if I hear a notification, I’m going to go ‘Oh I have to look at this’. For me, personally, I’d be afraid I’d miss something.”

Smartphone x Generation

Susi Lodola, clinical director at Susi Lodola Psychotherapy Clinic, explains that “adults can find themselves spending a significant amount of time on their smartphones, as they are caught in the grip of behavioural addictions. However, behavioural addictions, such as problematic smartphone use, challenge the conventional understanding of addiction, which has long been associated with substance use. Problematic smartphone use can lead to a loss of control and negative consequences, similar to substance addictions.”

While “smartphones themselves are not inherently addictive”, she says, “we become so attached to them because they provide hyper-social environments through apps such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. As social beings, our brains are wired to seek social interactions, and these apps offer connections to far more people than we could naturally interact with, leading to potential negative effects.

“Social media platforms are designed to keep us engaged and addicted by using a concept called ‘reward prediction error’. Our brains learn to expect rewards after certain behaviours, similar to the way a slot machine works, creating a variable reward schedule. This set-up makes us check our phones habitually, hoping that something positive might happen,” she continues.

Research has revealed excessive use of smartphones can lead to “lower social skills, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, sleeping problems, impulsivity, impaired attention and difficulty controlling your actions,” Lodola says.

Ensure you make time for activities away from screens, such as exercise, hobbies, spending time with family and friends, or pursuing personal interests

—  Susi Lodola, psychotherapist

But excessive use can also have a dramatic effect on our responsibilities in life, she adds. “Another sign of problematic use of the smartphone is neglecting responsibilities, where excessive phone use takes precedence over work, household chores and other essential tasks. This can result in decreased productivity and performance, potentially impacting one’s professional and personal life, as constant phone use creates communication barriers and distractions.”

Lodola says there are things we can do to try to get a handle on excessive phone use.

“Using two phones,” is one way, she says. She suggests using “an old phone solely for social media apps and restrict its usage to a specific limited time each day. Keep this phone at home while you’re out. Meanwhile, on your primary phone, completely remove all social media apps. This method will help you resist the temptation to use social media constantly and enable you to manage your online time more efficiently.”

Lodola also says people should take care to “prioritise offline activities. Ensure you make time for activities away from screens, such as exercise, hobbies, spending time with family and friends, or pursuing personal interests. Plan them into your diary.”

The uncomfortable truth of the number of hours spent online can provide motivation to take action. “There are tools available that can track and manage your time spent online. Some of these tools can even block distracting websites during designated hours.”

Lastly, she says, “it’s essential to be mindful of your screen time before bed. Avoid using your phone right before bedtime, as the blue light it emits can disrupt your sleep patterns. Additionally, scrolling through social media just before bedtime can bring up unwanted emotions and lead to sleep disturbances due to racing thoughts.”

Read more from our screentime series here.

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family