Are We Addicted to Cell Phones?

How much time did your kids spend with their cellphones yesterday? When was the last time you checked yours? If contemplating these questions makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone. Cellphones dominate our lives in part because they are designed to do precisely that according to Tristran Harris, a tech entrepreneur who worked for a while as Product Ethicist at Google. He now runs “TimeWellSpent”, a non-profit that points out how cellphones and their apps hijack our attention. Some researchers have noted that brains scans of people who spend a lot of time online are disconcertingly similar to those of people with substance abuse problems.  Here are a few consequences you may recognize in yourself or your kids:

  • Time – Devoting more and more time to cellphone activities, partly because the person looses track of time and partly because it takes longer to feel satisfied.
  • Obsession — Thinking about being online even when the person is offline. Failure to cut back despite resolutions.
  • Mood – Feeling anxious, restless, irritable or even angry when online activities are interrupted or when the person has to be offline.
  • Social – Withdrawal from friends and real life social activities. The feeling that online relationships are more significant and genuine.
  • Interference – Spending time online even when it interferes with other important activities including employment, schoolwork, chores, exercise, family time and sleep.
  • Deception – Lying to oneself or others about how much time is spent with the phone.

For most people, of course, cellphone use doesn’t rise to the level of addiction. Still, many parents have the uneasy feeling that phones take too big a chunk of family life.  In contemporary culture, total abstinence isn’t realistic for adults or teens but there are ways to become more deliberate about when and how we use our phones. Here are a few suggestions:


  1. Evaluate activities. Pay attention to what you and your kids are doing on your phones. Some activities—games, social media, news—are designed to be endless. Others—gambling, shopping, looking at porn—are associated with off-line addictions.  Identify activities that are productive and/or enjoyable. How much time should be allotted to each? Develop a budget that guides how you spend your online time.  Use the timer on your phone–or ask other family members—to hold you accountable.
  1. Create an essential home screen. Harris suggests sorting apps into three categories: Tools to help you complete essential tasks—calendar, camera, etc. Bottomless Bowls are apps that encourage you to binge.  Aspirations are things you’d like to do.  Create a homescreen that includes ONLY indispensable tools and realistic aspirations. Hide other apps in folders where you won’t see seductive icons. Having a folder called News, Games or Social forces you to think, even briefly, about whether you really want to engage in that activity.
  1. Identify triggers. Addictive behavior often starts with uncomfortable feelings such as depression or anxiety. Talking about feelings helps children and adults recognize their emotions and make more conscious decisions about how to manage them. If a family member is upset because of something that happened at school or work, he or she may get temporary relief from playing a game or binge-watching YouTube. That’s not necessarily a problem—if the person eventually thinks through the basic problem and comes up with ideas about how to address it.
  1. Customize notifications. The ding from a cellphone is like a slot machine. Most of the time it’s meaningless, but occasionally there’s a big payoff.  Assign special ringtones to family members and other people so you won’t miss genuinely important messages.  Then turn off notifications from everything else.  You won’t know everything about everybody all the time, so put an end to FOMO (Fear of Missing Out.)
  1. Create rich off-line lives. Seek out tech-free experiences that are rewarding for family members.  Take every opportunity to be physically active, outdoors if possible. Ride bikes, take walks, play sports. Invite friends and extended family over for meals or game nights.  Collect cellphones at the door.
  1. Get an alarm clock. Using a cellphone as an alarm makes it the last thing you see before you fall asleep and the first thing you check in the morning. It may even interrupt sleep with notifications that matter much less than being rested. Claim the luxury of thinking your own thoughts as you drift off to sleep. Take a little time in the morning to wake up fully before engaging with whatever is on your phone.

Finally, appreciate what’s good about cellphones. Some researchers, for example, have noted that use of drugs and alcohol among teens has declined over the same period that smartphone use increased. They speculate that interactive media may satisfy adolescent cravings for independence, risk-taking and sensation seeking without the devastating consequences of other addictions.  In other words, cellphones like so many other technologies, can make lives better or worse. It’s up to parents to pay attention to that uneasy feeling about phones, so we can gently take corrective actions that restore them to their proper place. 

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing the Growing Up Online column for ten year. She is also the author of Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart.  Available at Amazon and Cooperative  @ Copyright, 2017, Carolyn Jabs.  All rights reserved.

Carolyn Jabs

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids including one with special needs. She has been writing Growing Up Online for ten years and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. Visit to read other columns. @ Copyright, 2016, Carolyn Jabs. All rights reserved.