‘I check my phone hundreds of times a day. Is there a way to treat screen addiction?’

There are at least three ways to reduce your phone use


I have my phone with me at all times and check it hundreds of times a day. Are there any proven ways to treat screen addiction?


Our work, social lives and entertainment have become inextricably tied to our devices. Not all smartphone use is bad, of course. Sometimes, smartphones “make us happier, enriched and connect us to other people,” said Adam Alter, a marketing and psychology professor. But many people want to cut back, and experts say there are effective ways to do it.

Can you be addicted to a smartphone?

Smartphone overuse can manifest in many ways. Maybe you regularly stay up late scrolling through Instagram or TikTok. Or the allure of your smartphone makes it difficult to be fully present for yourself, your work or those around you.

Phone or screen overuse isn’t officially recognised as an addiction (or a substance use disorder, as experts call it), but “there is a growing number of mental health specialists who recognise that people can get addicted to their smartphones,” said Anna Lembke, an addiction expert and a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Stanford University.


Prof Lembke noted that an addiction is partly defined by the three Cs:

  • Control: using a substance or performing a behaviour (such as gambling) in ways that would be considered out of control or more frequent than intended.
  • Compulsion: being intensely mentally preoccupied with and using a substance (or performing a behaviour) automatically, without actively deciding to do so.
  • Consequences: continued use despite negative social, physical and mental consequences.

Many of us can recognise some of these behaviours in our own phone use.

Alter, on the other hand, doesn’t consider smartphone or screen overuse as a true addiction, and both he and Prof Lembke noted that there is disagreement within the health community about this. “I don’t think it rises to the level of a medical addiction,” Alter said. “To me, it’s more of a cultural malady than anything.”

Regardless of how you define it, both experts say there are ways to reduce your phone use.

‘Screen fast’

One approach Prof Lembke has found to be highly effective in her clinical practice is to completely avoid using all screens, not just phones, for anywhere from a day to a month. This strategy hasn’t been formally studied in screen overuse patients in particular, she said, but the evidence for its use with other types of addictions, such as alcoholism, suggests it can be effective.

How long you decide to fast will depend on your level of use, Prof Lembke said. The average person might start with a 24-hour fast, for example, while someone with a more severe case of screen overuse may want to avoid screens for longer. Of course, a true fast may not be practical for many people, whether because of work or personal reasons, but the goal is to get as close to full avoidance as possible.

Prof Lembke warned that many people – even those with milder screen overuse – may notice withdrawal symptoms initially, such as irritability or insomnia, but that over time they’ll start feeling better. In her 25 years of seeing patients, Prof Lembke has noticed that by the end of a one-month fast, the majority of her patients usually “report less anxiety, less depression, sleeping better, more energy, getting more done, as well as being able to look back and see in a more clear-eyed way exactly how their screen use was affecting their lives,” she said. Those who fast for less than a month will still see benefits, she said, although the benefits most likely won’t be as dramatic.

After abstaining from screens for a period, she recommended reflecting on how you want your relationship with your devices to look like going forward.

Set rules

Besides a screen fast, Prof Lembke and Alter recommended finding other, less stringent ways to distance yourself from your phone each day. That might mean allotting times of the day or days of the week when you don’t use your phone at all, such as before and after work. It may also mean leaving your phone in the other room, keeping it out of your bedroom or putting everyone’s phone in a box outside of the kitchen during dinnertime.

“It sounds trivial, like an old-fashioned analogue solution. But we know from decades of psychology that things closest to us in physical space have the biggest effect on us psychologically,” Alter said. “If you allow your phone to join you in every experience, you’re going to be drawn to it, and you’re going to use it. Whereas if you can’t physically reach it, you’re going to use it less.”

Less appealing

You can also make your phone less visually engaging, by changing the screen to grayscale or turning off notifications, for example. Alter suggested periodically rearranging the apps on your phone so that they become harder to find and less likely to lure you into a mindless loop of checking and rechecking simply out of habit.

Both experts advised deleting certain types of apps – especially the ones you know that you have a hard time avoiding. (If you don’t want to delete those apps, you can move them to the last screen on your phone to make them less accessible.)

“Use apps that enrich your life, that add value and meaning or that you need for work, not ones that take you down a rabbit hole,” Prof Lembke said. And if the apps that add value to your life are the same ones that you feel addicted to, Prof Lembke recommended creating some space using the tips above.

“The big question to ask yourself with screens is, ‘what else could I be doing right now’?” Alter said. – This article originally appeared in the New York Times

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