I noticed my own screen time going up as I developed achy eyes and my phone began to send me notifications about my high usage. I then questioned If this is something most people are dealing with at the moment.

I created a survey on Instagram asking people four questions surrounding their screen time and its effect on them – 30 people aged 17 to 25 answered.

What was your average screen time for last week?

The average was 6 hours and 37 minutes. The highest was 13 hours and 27 minutes, the lowest 3 hours and 25 minutes. 

How do you think lockdown has affected your screen time?

Ninety-one per cent of people said lockdown had definitely increased their screen time. Obviously major contributors to this are staying in touch with people and having to work online.  

Has this had any further effects on you?

The most common answers for this were: tiredness, sore/achy eyes, headache, being more irritable and lazy. However, it is relevant to point out some people felt they were unaffected and were being kept entertained and still able to be productive.

Do you wish you spent less time on your phone?

Seventy-seven per cent of people answered yes, but there were some other very strong answers. 

“I find it a good outlet for work and good inspiration on various platforms.”

Holly Morris, Student

So overall, most people are on their phones more than they would like to be and are feeling the negative effects.

Catherine Price, science journalist and author of How To Break Up With Your Phone, gave some advice in answer to many questions.

How do we work out what amount of screen time is right for us personally?

Catherine Price talking about how to decide the right amount of screen time individually.

Why should we break up with our phones? 

“I think that everyone’s ideal relationship is different, so I’m not saying that this is something that everyone must do. However, I also don’t think that many of us have actually considered the effects that our phone time is having on us.

“We’re Normally spending an average of four hours a day on our phone. That’s about 60 days a year—a quarter of our waking lives.”

Catherine Price, Science Journalist

“If you spend that much time doing anything, it’s going to change your brain. And in this case, the effects aren’t good: the time we spend on our phones is reducing our attention spans and weakening our memories, damaging our relationships, lowering our self-esteem, making us less creative and productive, and actually harming our physical health. In other words, our phones may seem innocuous, but they’re not. 

“And more to the point: the time we spend on our phones is time we’re not spending with the people we’re in relationships with—or the activities and experiences that bring us joy.” 

Are we really addicted to our phones? 

“In many cases, yes. The term addiction can be defined as an inability to stop engaging in a behaviour when you know it has negative effects.

“If you’re aware that you feel bad after you use your phone, or that it’s affecting your personal relationships, or your sleep – and yet you can’t seem to put it down – then yes, you are addicted.” 

Catherine Price, Science Journalist

What are some of the ways that phones and apps are designed to addict us? 

“Phones and apps are packed with triggers for dopamine, which is a chemical that tells our brains when something is worth doing again. Dopamine is evolutionarily essential—it’s released, for example, when we eat or have sex. It’s also a key player in addictions.

“Two of the strongest dopamine triggers are novelty and unpredictability—the more unpredictable and novel something is, the more we’re going to want to do it again.

Person holding mobile phone.

“When we check our phones, we usually find something new waiting for us—which makes our brains release dopamine, which teaches us that checking our phones is worth repeating, which makes us want to check our phones even more.

“Conversely, once this dopamine link has been established, we begin to release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol when we can’t check our phones. We feel twitchy and irritable, and we keep reaching for our phones even if we know they’re not there. In other words, we begin to exhibit signs of withdrawal.  

“Indeed, the closer you look at your phone, the more similarities you’ll notice between our phones/apps and slot machines, which are widely considered to be one of the most addictive machines ever to have been invented. Essentially, our phones are like slot machines that we keep in our products.”

Is it really true that our phones are ruining our attention spans?

“In a word: yes. Our brains are naturally wired to seek distraction. This makes sense if you think about it: in nature, you want to be easily distractible, because a change in your environment (say, a rustle in the grass) might indicate a threat.

“It’s extremely difficult to get our minds to stay focused on just one thing because doing so requires us to ignore every other stimulus that is flooding our senses. (Reading, which requires sustaining your attention and deciphering symbols into words and meaning, is a particularly amazing feat!)

“By offering constant distractions, our phones are encouraging our brains to slip back to their default states of distraction.”

Catherine Price, Science Journalist

“The more you use your phone, the more you’re likely to notice this happening—a vague feeling that you’re just not able to focus the way you used to. The good news is that this is reversible, but it takes work. It’s like exercise: it’s a lot easier to sit on the couch than it is to get into/stay in good shape.”

Why shouldn’t we use our phones if we’re bored? 

“We’re becoming intolerant of moments of time that pass without the arrival of new stimuli. That’s a part of human nature in general, and phones are only making it worse. That’s why I personally make a point of NOT checking my phone during my pockets of free time—at the doctor, in an Uber, etc.

“I think this is an essential practice for anyone who wants to be creative or productive. When you’re constantly filling up your brain with things you saw on social media, you don’t give it the space and time it needs for creativity or insight. Or, for that matter, just to relax.”

What are your top three tips that we can use to start separating us from our phones?

  1. “Figure out how much time you’re actually spending on it. Next, ask yourself whether you think your relationship is healthy. Also, ask someone who loves you what they think about how you interact with your phone. You’re trying to get a sense of where you are now, before you try to change.
  2. Get in the habit of noticing when you’re about to reach for your phone – and asking yourself whether you actually want to do so.
  3. Figure out what you WANT to do with the time you’ll be reclaiming.  Unless you know what you actually want to be spending your time doing, you’re going to drift right back to your phone.”

“Also, it’s worth remembering that our lives are what we pay attention to. We only experience what we pay attention to. We only remember what we pay attention to. When we make a decision in the moment about how to spend our attention, we are making a broader decision about how we want to spend our lives.”