A doll with a phone cord wrapped around her
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

LIFE HONESTLY

Smartphone addiction made me restless, anxious and muddled

When Sali Hughes finally realised that her phone was damaging her health, she knew something had to change

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By Sali Hughes on

Just over a year ago, I began to struggle with life. After several years’ respite, my anxiety returned and, soon after, so did my insomnia. By day, I found it extremely hard to concentrate. Reading – a lifetime passion – became an irregular chore as I failed to switch off and immerse myself in the stories. I felt constantly restless, anxious, muddled in my thoughts. I’d sit down to work and my brain would fill with white noise and panic. My short-term memory took a notable turn for the worse and I seemed unable to feel “flow” – that blissful state where one is fully and fluidly immersed in a task. I felt permanently wired.

I became so distressed by the suddenness and severity of the change that, at one point, I was convinced I had early-onset dementia. Later, I had a panic attack and was so frightened that I went back in to therapy for the first time in 10 years. My therapist looked at my schedule and workaholic tendencies and said I was just burnt out. I’d just finished another book, was bereaved, was doing too much, as per. I needed to take some time out, she said, maybe even consider a career change. I dismissed both out of hand – not only because I’ve no desire to quit work, but because I knew this was something else, something more complicated and certainly less familiar than simple fatigue. As I sat in therapy, week after week, frustrated by my lack of progress, blaming Trump, terrorism, Brexit and anything else we could think of, it never occurred to either of us that my real problem was buzzing gently away in my back pocket.

I was addicted to my smartphone. And if you think that sounds dramatic, I also think you’re addicted to yours. This isn’t just my suspicion – it’s supported by evidence. On average, we check our phones (not just for the time, but by accessing our home screens) around 47 times a day (18- to 24-year-olds do it 82 times). We typically spend over four hours per day on our phones, which equates to 56 full days a year. Thirty-eight per cent of British people think they use their smartphones too much, 79 per cent of us check apps before going to sleep and over half of us look at our phones within the first waking hour of every day. Dr David Greenfield, an American psychiatry professor specialising in technology addiction, has developed a simple test for identifying smartphone compulsion (sample question: “Do you seem to lose track of time when on your smartphone?”. I mean, duh) and, as I read my own damning results, I realised I knew not a single person who’d pass unashamed.

It took over a year and one book – old-fashioned black print on white paper – to identify that my problem lay not just in my head, but in the palm of my hand. When the publishers of science journalist Catherine Price’s new book How To Break Up With Your Phone (out Feb 8) got in touch and asked me to read it, I politely said, “Sure,” while thinking, “No chance.” My job requires me to be on Twitter and Instagram, to be on top of news stories, to interact with readers online. I don’t work in an office and am constantly on the move. Without my iPhone, I can’t read or respond to my 2.5K emails per week, do last-minute radio items, conduct and record interviews to write up – and I’m effectively unemployed. Besides, I enjoy talking to my friends when all of us are too busy for as many real meet-ups as we’d like. I like the jokes, the convenience of instantly being able to look things up, book the table or tickets, identify the song, buy the frock. I didn’t want to break up with my phone permanently, even though, in bingeing daily, I suspected it was damaging my health.

It took over a year and one book - old fashioned black print on white paper - to identify that my problem lay not just in my head, but in the palm of my hand

Within 10 minutes of picking up the book on Boxing Day, I knew something had to change. Price explained that just as ending one dysfunctional relationship doesn’t mean you can never date again, we often just need to call time on a messed-up dynamic with our phone in order to restart with a more healthy approach. She showed how the status quo was literally changing how my brain worked. Every time we pick up our phone, click for updates and likes, and find something new, however unimportant, our brain releases a little dopamine that makes us feel happier and more excited for a fleeting moment. Gradually, like lab rats handed treats after an electric shock, we crave the reward, regardless of the long-term damage we’re self-inflicting. Our restless brains’ ability to concentrate, remember and engage become impaired. We spend train journeys not looking out of the window or reading a book, but staring at a screen, cycling aimlessly through apps, chasing another hit. Instead of experiencing boredom, clarity and calm, we’re in a constant state of stimulation, where there’s simply not enough room for new memories, ideas, fantasies or plans (according to the experts, multitasking is a myth. Every time you move from an IM chat to your work, you unavoidably lose concentration and damage productivity). Meanwhile, apps and smartphones are painstakingly designed to keep us on them for as long as possible, in order to gather our data and expose us to targeted advertising, while heavy users are becoming more depressed.

Having spent a whole day shouting, “OH, MY GOD!” and reading passages of the book aloud, I enthusiastically began adopting How To Break Up With Your Phone’s plan to restore sanity to my phone use. Like a smoker throwing their fags in a skip, I deleted my most-used social apps (Facebook and Twitter) so, whenever tempted to use them, I’d have to decide if I could be bothered to log in on the websites (usually not). I disabled notifications on WhatsApp and Messenger, and reorganised these and my dozens of other apps, tiling my home screen with neat folders, like Travel, Work Essentials and Games, so the myriad colourful icons weren’t constantly staring, pleading at me. I downloaded the Moment app, which tracks your phone use and sets offline targets (most people, I’ve realised, don’t have the foggiest idea how heavy their phone use is). On Price’s instruction, I stopped using my phone as an alarm clock and plugged in the charger away from the bed. I read papers only on my laptop or in physical form from the newsagents. All the while, crucially, I give myself space to feel the smartphone cravings, allowing them to wash over me, to notice them happening but waiting for them to pass. I am mindful never to check my phone either first or last thing, nor during TV programmes, or while faced with an actual human.

The transformation has been extraordinary. My phone use is down to under two hours (often much less) per day and, gradually, I feel like I’m getting my brain, and myself, back. My sleep is dramatically improved. What has been more difficult is seeing the extent of the problem around me. I recently went for lunch and noticed that, at one point, I was the only person around a table of six not on their phone. I’ve become frustrated with my husband, who I constantly catch checking Twitter or football results when I thought we were watching TV. As I attempt to engage verbally with phone users, I’m acutely aware of how distant I too must frequently have seemed. I panicked when my eldest son, a keen artist, told me he was “blocked” and couldn’t concentrate on his cartooning, and immediately handed him Catherine Price’s book in return for his iPad. I’m pleading with loved ones to join me in breaking up with their devices, but know the nature of screen addiction is that you’re lost in likes, retweets and genuine denial.

The other challenge, of course, is that, when something as time-consuming as a part-time job suddenly goes, a vacancy presents itself. Everyone has countless things they say they’re too busy to achieve. We all of us have an unwritten novel, film or sitcom, a language we’d like to learn, a skill we wish we’d acquired, an instrument we’d love to be able to play. When we suddenly find ourselves with plenty of time, which of us will actually do it? Smartphone addiction, while not life endangering, is, in one critical respect, the same as any other – it represents a form of escape, a way to engage, if only in the short term, in a less challenging, more instantly gratifying, reality. It’s hard enough to let that go. It’s even harder to accept that when it comes to achieving meaningful happiness and true satisfaction, there is no app and no keyboard shortcut.

How To Break Up With Your Phone is out February 9th, pre-order it here. For more information, visit the website

@SaliHughes

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