Are Irish people predisposed to ‘smartphone addiction’?
Irish people check their phones 46 per cent more than the European average. Why?
Cathy Martin: ‘According to my screen time analysis, I use Instagram and email the most, followed by WhatsApp and iMessage. I’m on it for six to eight hours at least’
Is there such a thing as “iPhone finger”? I only ask because I’ve noticed an indent on the inner little finger of my right hand; a small nook where my phone spends more time than it probably should.
But there are other, perhaps more obvious signs that my relationship with my iPhone is less than healthy. I’ve missed bus stops because I’ve been lurking on Instagram. A sneaky peek during the 4am night feed with my daughter turns into an hour-long scroll on social media. I go to news sites and realise I’ve read all the news stories already. I’ve run out of levels on the game Two Dots. When visiting friends, I wonder how polite is it to ask for the wifi code. I’ve forked out €20 to use wifi on long-haul flights, in case anyone needs me. (No one ever needs me.)
Depending on who you ask, we smartphone users are sleepwalking into the next large-scale health crisis. It’s rather telling, for a start, that tech giants like Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs decided to raise their own children tech-free. Another former Facebook exec, Chamath Palihapitiya, expressed dismay at how social media is impacting the health and wellbeing of a whole new generation.
Research commissioned last year by Deloitte shows that 90 per cent of 18- to 75-year-olds - or about three million people in Ireland - now own or have access to a smartphone, a figure which ranks among the highest in Europe. Deloitte’s researchers also found that 16 per cent of those aged 25 to 34 said they have arguments once or several times a week with their partners over mobile phone usage.
Irish people check their smartphone 55 times a day on average, compared with the European average of 41 times. Fifty-six per cent of respondents feel they use their phones excessively.
Smartphone addiction has become such a hot-button issue that a number of books are predictably entering the market with advice on how to curb our use. Irish psychotherapist Hilda Burke, author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, can provide something of a unique perspective on smartphone addiction, having worked in the telecoms industry for more than a decade.
“I was working in the industry in the earliest days of the smartphone era, and I remember the overriding feeling was that the future was very bright indeed,” she recalls. “I definitely got swept along with it all, and could see the positives in what telecoms could do.”
Yet when Burke moved into her psychotherapy practice full-time, she realised that all was not quite as it seemed.
“I really became aware of something else afoot,” she admits. “Clients came in saying, ‘I can’t stop looking at my ex on Facebook’ and so on. Of course, the phone is merely the gateway for this behaviour, but previously, you might have gotten rid of an ex’s photos. Now, you can’t because you’re probably in the same social groups together.”
We love a bit of begrudgery and it’s really in our culture to take someone down a step or two, especially someone on Instagram or Twitter who is really bigging themselves up
When Burke became more immersed in researching phone and social media addiction, she uncovered some disturbing statistics. Irish people check their phones 46 per cent more than the European average. What’s more, the proportion of those checking their phone more than 100 times per day in Ireland is higher than the European average: 13 per cent versus 8 per cent.
Burke believes there is something in the Irish mentality that suits the tribalism of social media and smartphone use.
“We tend to engage more and pass comment more than, say, the Brits,” she reasons. “We’ve long done it verbally - we chat to strangers and neighbours, but now it’s been transferred onto the phone. We love a bit of begrudgery and it’s really in our culture to take someone down a step or two, especially someone on Instagram or Twitter who is really bigging themselves up.
“We love a comments section - social media is a really potent outlet for that impulse, and to get to have your say in a very covert way, without having to put your face to it, is clearly very attractive. Whether or not our behaviour is any different now is hard to say, but we’ve definitely had that sort of social instinct before.
“In Ireland, we would be particularly good at meeting up, and at phone calls across the board, but we don’t really do that so much anymore,” she says. “During Lent I switched data off on my phone for Saturdays and Sundays, and when I rang people on the phone, most of them would answer by going, ‘what’s wrong?’”
Our 24/7 work culture, seemingly the root of much of the epidemic, is only part of the story: “One client would check her phone in the middle of the night and couldn’t concentrate during the day because her sleep cycle was disrupted,” says Burke. “She mentioned not wanting to let her boss down, but behind it was a more basic desire: wanting to be liked, or needed and appreciated.”
The designers of various apps have revealed recently that keeping a user hooked on using them is now deliberately designed into many platforms and apps
While the overriding narrative about screen time tends to hone in on youngsters, smartphone overuse is very much a trans-generational phenomenon. Use among the 65+ demographic is growing inexorably, Burke says.
“You’d definitely hear lots of people complaining about their kids and grandkids, but the older generation has certainly woken up to the appeal of the smartphone, too.”
Regardless of age, the likely reason for smartphone dependency is much the same. By their very design, smartphones light up the “pleasure centres” in the brain, offering a dopamine (feel-good chemical) hit every time we get a notification, like, or comment on social media.
But when does simple social approval end and something more resembling an addiction begin?
“Very simply, it’s a dopamine-craving activity,” explains Burke. “The pleasure seeking part of ourselves wants a reward. And some of us are more susceptible to that, in the same way that some people can have two drinks, and some people have 15. Most of us do like getting likes or the validation that we get from social media, but there are definitely situations that lead us to crave it that bit more.”
The designers of various apps have revealed recently that keeping a user hooked on using them is now deliberately designed into many platforms and apps.
Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting
“It’s as if they’re taking behavioural cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface, and that’s the thing that keeps you like coming back and back and back,” former Mozilla and Jawbone employee Aza Raskin told BBC Panorama.
“Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting.”
Infinite scroll allows users to endlessly swipe down through content without clicking.
“If you don’t give your brain time to catch up with your impulses,” Raskin said, “you just keep scrolling.”
The innovation keeps users looking at their phones far longer than necessary, Raskin said, and Burke’s research also bears this out.
“Apparently the brain releases more dopamine when it anticipates a reward, but doesn’t know when it’s going to arrive,” she explains. “In gambling, a roulette spinning around will result in a peak dopamine release. We’re really at the height of a dopamine rush when the reward hasn’t yet arrived and it’s really all ahead of us.
“I’d heard that on Instagram, for instance, you don’t get the notifications right away. I’d always wondered why they hadn’t fixed or changed that, but then I realised it’s a really important part of its design. They delay the gratification, and it keeps us there for longer.”
Yet if everyone sees the same interface, how come some people are more susceptible than others to smartphone dependency?
Happy people don’t become addicts. If we don’t want to be left with ourselves, we want to fill that emptiness
“A huge driver for any addiction, whether it’s food, or gambling or alcohol, is boredom,” Burke says. “It’s the need to fill a void and stave off any sort of unwanted feelings like sadness, regret, guilt or pain. Happy people don’t become addicts. If we don’t want to be left with ourselves, we want to fill that emptiness.
“It may be more obvious when someone uses cocaine or gambles, but the problem with smartphones is that it’s so much more socially acceptable, and therefore less easy to spot if there’s a problem. It can go on and on in a way that other addictions are not tolerated.”
Of course, the question begs to be answered: while it’s easy to see why a person might crave likes, approval or validation, why exactly might a person engage in something as masochistic as lurking on an ex’s page, seeking information on an ex’s new lover, or even looking at Instagram models or celebrities that may just make them feel even worse about themselves?
“I would say it’s almost like an emotional self-harm,” Burke replies. “If, for instance, a person has had a mother who shamed them about being slim or pretty, that person will have that internal voice on board, and will actually create the conditions that will make them feel worse. It might be about following a bunch of Victoria’s Secret models - there’s something about the familiar that we like to create. Even if it’s toxic, it feels like home.”
Burke isn’t “anti” smartphones, nor does she encourage the “detoxing” mentality favoured by many experts.
“I’m certainly not advocating that people get rid of phones, but when I see people walking down the street looking at their phones without ever looking up, that’s evidence that we are abusing the phone’s functionality.”
Confessions of a smartphone addict: ‘I feel very slightly jittery when I have to put my phone away’
Cathy Martin has a busy life. In addition to being a parent and PR/talent agent, she also runs Belfast Fashion Week, so it’s no surprise to find that she’s a fervent phone user.
“I always have,” she admits. “Never, hopefully, to the point of rudeness, although I have been gently asked to put my phone away or down by family and friends in the past. I promote products, people and projects across Ireland, and it takes a lot of talking, and with social media becoming more and more important in the reputation and marketing of people and products, I find myself living online quite a lot. I manage lots of my personal life on the phone too - restaurant and beauty bookings, travel, shopping, selling on eBay, and so on.
“According to my screen time analysis, I use Instagram and email the most, followed by WhatsApp and iMessage. I’m on it for six to eight hours at least. I would love to say I put my phone away at 9pm, but that is when I feel most creative and productive, so I do a lot of writing, typing and texting in the evenings, as well as scrolling through Instagram and Quora. ”
Her device use is at once a problem and a necessary part of busy modern living.
“I have to admit I feel very slightly jittery when I have to put my phone away, or if I run out of battery, so much so that I have several spare phones (all linked to my iCloud) and countless battery chargers.
I would love to say I will go on yoga retreats without phones, or that I will put mine away at 9pm each night but realistically, I am happy to work on my laptop with a podcast playing on my phone once I get my daughter to bed
“On the flip side, I am adamant that I don’t give up on human contact, and make sure to see my friends and family and to have conversations on the phone, or, even better, in person - for business and personal relationships.”
Martin’s daughter is seven, and is allowed “the odd stint” on her iPad.
“She knows how to navigate it well though, and was using voice search before she could write. She is totally zoned out to the world when she is locked in on Dance Moms or whatever slime-making tweens she is watching, to the point of ignoring me and not answering questions, so I know that’s time to set the alarm and get her back to playing with real life toys and people.
“I would love to say I will go on yoga retreats without phones, or that I will put mine away at 9pm each night and start watching some of the great drama we have on TV these days, but realistically, I am happy to work on my laptop with a good podcast playing on my phone once I get my daughter to bed.”
It’s often been said that an “addiction” is a problem if it adversely affects the life or relationships of the person in question, yet Martin is adamant her smartphone use hasn’t seriously impacted her life in any negative way.
“I haven’t ever been a long sleeper and survive on about six hours, so I don’t know if the phone has prevented me from getting more or not, but I definitely have to force myself to put it away at night, within arm’s reach for my morning alarm,” she reasons.
“And as far as comparison anxiety goes, I don’t really get anxious or envious of my peers in real life, and I don’t feel that way about others’ online lives either. I’m savvy enough to know that what is posted online is only a snippet, and a very curated one at that. I certainly wouldn’t follow people whose views I don’t agree with, or whose content I find offensive or anxiety-inducing.”
Six ways to curb smartphone addiction
1. “First things first, you need to quantify exactly what you are dealing with and monitor exactly how much time you use for phone in a day,” says Hilda Burke. Apps like Checky will do this, and many Apple devices have a function where you can monitor your screentime. “When people are told how much they use it, the amount is way higher than their estimate. Often that’s enough of a wakeup call.”
2. Think of the things that you’ve said you never have time for. “Often we will say, we don’t have enough time to exercise, but when you look at how much time you spend on a phone, the reality can be very sobering,” says Burke.
3. There’s no need to go cold turkey. “Start small. I created ‘zones’ where my phone wasn’t on my person. I committed to a certain amount of time in the day where I wouldn’t have my phone, like the dog walk. You start to see the benefits, like speaking to more people in the park.”
4. In a social situation, turn the phone off, not just to silent. “When you go to the toilet or out for a cigarette, it takes longer for the phone that’s off to boot back up again. You may not be inclined to switch it back on.”
5. Look at your behaviours beyond your phone use. “Keep a note of what’s going on through the day - are you feeling sad, bored, tired, hungover? Notice what triggers you to spend time on your phone.”
6. Keep phones out of the bedroom, and buy an old-school alarm clock instead. “One couple in my practise had told me that they’d gotten out of the habit of kissing each other, and when I asked them when that started, both of them said, ‘when we got our phones’,” says Burke. “They’d have reached for each other first thing, and now that their phones are on the bedside table, that’s what they reached for first.
The Phone Addiction Workbook by Hilda Burke is published by Ulysses Press