Screen Addiction: What is it and how to overcome it

Do you ever feel guilty about the time you spend on your phone or computer, watching shows or answering emails or playing games or checking social media? Do you feel a draw to check your phone the moment you wake up, and right before you go to bed? Is this taking away from your productivity at home and work, and affecting your relationships, prayer life, and health? If so, you might have a screen addiction.

Does checking your phone frequently as an addiction? “Well, it could be, and you have to understand the effect that that has on us. Now, smartphones and iPhones, they’re no longer just phones anymore. We use them for so many other things: we have our music on them and we use them as cameras, we have our calendars on them and all of our contacts; we use it as an alarm clock. There are so many ways that we use it and that’s not a bad thing, those are good, but the problem is that in some cases the effect that it’s having on us—particularly the brain—has made it become something that is addictive,” explained Dr. Peter Kleponis, Licensed Professional Counselor.

How can screen time become addictive? “Whenever somebody gets a text or an email or something, there’s a little shot of dopamine in the brain and this is the feel-good chemical, this is the pleasure chemical, this is why people get excited when they get a text or an email … or they get a ‘like’ on social media. Having this every now and then is not a bad thing, it’s actually good, but when we’re getting it constantly this is where it actually becomes addictive. The brain likes it and the brain gets so accustomed to operating at this high level of stimulation that it wants to maintain it just to function,” said Kleponis.

“We joke around that there’s a new psychiatric disorder called FOMO, and that stands for fear of missing out. So we have this fear that if I don’t check my phone every 15 minutes to see what messages I got … that I’m going to miss out on something very important. And the reality is that very rarely do we have these earth-shattering, life-changing texts or emails, but we’ve gotten to the point where we have to look at it every 15 minutes just to make sure and this is where we see that it’s addictive.”

When we make our phone and social media a top priority in our life, it can really hurt relationships with people we love. “There was a study done that found that a large percentage of Americans feel it’s okay to answer an email or a text in the middle of a conversation with someone, or let’s say you’re out to dinner with somebody and you’re at a restaurant and talking to them, and you get a text on your phone—many people feel it’s okay to answer that text immediately. And they don’t understand how rude that would be,” said Kleponis.

If someone we love is struggling with a screen addiction, what can we do to help? “First of all, it’s understanding that we are becoming too dependent on these devices and we need to curtail our dependence on it. And it means setting some clear boundaries with it, like, instead of looking at it every 15 minutes I’m only going to look at it once an hour. And I have people who do that—they set an alarm to go off once an hour and if the alarm doesn’t go off, they don’t touch their phone.”

It also helps to change our expectations and the expectations of others to think they deserve an immediate response to texts or messages. “People who set a standard where they’ll tell everybody they know that if you send me an email or a text, I am not going to answer it immediately, I will answer it within 24 hours. So then people will know that when they send you a text or a message, that if they don’t get a response immediately, it’s not because you’re dissing them or anything,” Kleponis explained.

It’s also healthy to completely cut addictive behaviors like playing games on your phone. “Think of it this way: the less time you’re spending on the phone, the more time you have to really engage in actual relationships with people. When you go to lunch with someone, you know that you’re going to be able to give them your full attention and that’s a wonderful gift.”

If you are really struggling with a screen addiction, reach out to your family and friends or a therapist for help.