Digital Detox: How to Break Free from Phone Addiction and Maintain Connections with Loved Ones 

Smartphone addiction is rapidly increasing worldwide, according to annual reports on the topic. If you’re among those who would rather spend their time doing something else, you probably know it’s not that easy to tell your family and friends you’re going off social media.
Is there a way to announce that you won’t be available as much, without them thinking something’s wrong?
In this article, we’ll try to find that out.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

phone addiction

Illustration: Milica Mijajlovic

What is phone addiction?  

Let’s start by saying that many scholars have a real problem with the expression ‘phone addiction’, claiming that we’re overusing that term and therefore belittling the seriousness of the disorder. 

Instead, we should learn to differentiate between addiction-like symptoms and real psychiatric disorder. 

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Rather than being addictive per se, smartphones are the medium that enable engagement with potentially addictive activities and are associated with poor health outcomes (…) It would be analogous to confusing addiction to the bottle with addiction to alcohol, or a fixation on the needle rather than the drug itself.

Carbonell X, Panova T and Carmona A (2022) 
Commentary: Editorial: Significant influencing factors and effective interventions of mobile phone addiction. 
Front. Psychol. 13:957163. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.957163 

In other words, we shouldn’t refer to it as addiction to phones but as addiction to the activities that can be performed with them, meaning that we should focus on the behavior and not the device itself. 

In fact, “problematic use of smartphones” is originally related to gambling, problematic use of social media or gaming. Or, more precisely, when these activities interfere with daily life. 

Now, why smartphones increase the addictive potential of certain behaviors is because they’re more available and accessible

Moreover, even if it does evolve into a disorder, people aren’t aware they should ask for professional help because everyone around them is on their smartphones as well. 

Smartphone addiction is increasing worldwide   

In spite of being the subject of many discussions over the past two decades, we lack reliable, empirical studies on smartphone addiction. 

Nonetheless, scholars have found valuable data to quantify smartphone addiction worldwide, based on a meta-analysis of studies published between 2014 and 2020 that used the Smartphone Addiction Scale. 

It was conducted on 33,831 participants aged 18-35, from 24 countries. 

These are the most important takeaways: 

  • More than 80% of the population in high-income countries owns a smartphone. 
  • Half of all smartphone users in developed countries believe they are overusing their smartphones. 
  • The highest problematic use of smartphones was noted in China and Saudi Arabia, followed by Malaysia, Brazil, South Korea, Iran, Canada, and Turkey. 

In addition, you may wonder what do all of these countries have in common. 

According to the authors of this research, they are all collectivist countries with a huge emphasis on social hierarchy and conformity. 

Moreover, they’re known to have a so-called “cultural tightness”, with closely followed social norms, which can sometimes be interpreted as a cultural incentive to stay in contact through smartphones more frequently

Not only that, but there is a link between collectivism and nomophobia, a term used to describe a feeling of anxiety when your phone is missing. 

On the other side, countries that are known as more individualistic and culturally loose, such as Germany and France, have shown the lowest problematic smartphone use. 

When it comes to age and gender, younger female users were shown to have higher problematic smartphone use

The effects of overusing smartphones 

Problematic smartphone use is usually correlated to screen time. 

However, as opposed to popular opinion, high screen time doesn’t necessarily cause negative effects, as reported in the aforementioned survey.  

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Some people may benefit from calling their friends for several hours per day, while others who use social networking apps for only a few minutes while trying to study or sleep may experience negative effects.

“Smartphone addiction is increasing across the world: A meta-analysis of 24 countries”, Jay A. Olson, and others. 

So, how do we know if our smartphone use is problematic? 

These are the most common indicators: 

  • Cognitive impairment; 
  • Lower sleep quality; 
  • Depression. 

Thus, limiting your screen time is known to have positive effects on reducing depression and improving sleep quality. 

But it’s not all that simple, is it? 

Additional research has shown that, among Gen Z users, there’s a correlation between smartphone addiction and online compulsive buying

And children are no exception to this rule, a study conducted by BMC pediatrics shows. They’ve surveyed nearly 600 students from grades 1–9 and found out that: 

  1. More than half of them (53.3%) can be classified as having smartphone addiction; 
  2. On average, they spend around 6.85 hours on their phones daily, double the time compared to the pre-pandemic period; 
  3. Main uses of smartphones are for social networking (77.9%), web surfing (53.3%), and camera activities (50.9%); 
  4. The discomfort caused by excessive use of smartphones is mostly felt in the eyes (39.7%) and in the neck (39.1%). 

Ways to decrease your screentime 

Apparently, only half of those trying to reduce their screen time report successfully doing so. 

Most of us have tried to take a “social media detox” at least once in our lives. If that applies to you as well, you probably know that your “I’m gonna take a break from social media” is usually followed by a gasp and worry from your loved ones. 

Such a radical move must be caused by something, right? 

Sometimes it is, whereas other times people are just aware of how draining it is and how they wish to spend their time doing something else. 

So, if you want to decrease your screentime without scaring your family and friends, try one of the following tips: 

  • Turn off your notifications and/or put your phone on silent. That way, you won’t get distracted as often and you’ll still be able to use the phone whenever you want – not whenever someone rings you. 
  • Delete certain apps from your phone. For example, if you uninstall Instagram, you’ll still be able to access your account and even publish posts and stories from the browser, but you’ll eliminate habitually checking your phone. 
  • Communicate with your friends and family via phone call or video call if you can’t do it in person. Chatting may seem convenient and non-demanding, but in fact you’re spending more time replying to messages than you would on an average call. What’s more, the quality of conversations improves if they’re in person or via phone, in comparison to texting. 
  • Find hobbies that you enjoy off-screen. Try to think of an activity you really enjoy that doesn’t require you to use a smartphone, or try a new hobby. 
  • Turn off your Wi-Fi when you’re not actively using it. This has many benefits, from saving your battery life to preventing your phone from connecting to a public, unsecured network
  • Keep your phone away when you need to stay focused. When you’re studying or working, even if your smartphone is just lying on the table, it will in a way tempt you to pick it up. If you want to concentrate, keep it out of your sight. 
  • Have a talk with your loved ones. Instead of shocking them by saying you’re going off social media, try telling them you found hobbies that keep you busy, or that you’re occupied with work or school. 
  • Reach out to your friends more and ask them what’s going on with their lives or if there’s an interesting event in your area that you shouldn’t miss. That way, you’ll also make sure to fight back your FOMO which will most definitely appear after you start using your smartphone less. 

Finally, don’t make such a big deal out of it. You don’t have to make a big announcement because, in the end, it’s a personal decision and you don’t need to over-explain yourself. 

Even after only a few days, you’ll start noticing small changes in your behavior. 

For example, you’ll be much more present in the moment, instead of being hypnotized by your screen. 

You’ll have the need to share with your individual friends more often rather than sharing with a bunch of other people as well. 

Eventually, you’ll realize you’re not as insecure because you aren’t in desperate need of validation from others or constantly comparing your life to others. 

All in all, there are truly many benefits of using social media in a mindful, balanced way, but every user needs to figure out what that means for themselves. 

A journalist by day and a podcaster by night. She's not writing to impress but to be understood.