Smartphone Addiction: How Much is Too Much?

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How much time did your kids spend with their smartphones yesterday? When was the last time you checked yours? If contemplating these questions makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone. Some researchers have noted that brains scans of people who spend a lot of time online are disconcertingly similar to those of people who have substance abuse problems.

For most people, of course, smartphone 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 from a smartphone isn’t realistic for adults or teens, but there are ways to become more deliberate about when and how we use our phones. 

1. Evaluate activities. Pay attention to what you and your kids are doing on your phones. Some activities — playing games, updating social media and reading news — are designed to be endless. Others — like gambling or shopping — are associated with off-line addictions. Identify activities that are productive and enjoyable. 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. 

2. Create an essential home screen. Create a home screen that only includes indispensible tools and realistic aspirations. Hide other apps in folders where you won’t see seductive icons. Having a folder for news, games or social media forces you to think about whether or not you really want to engage in that activity.

3. Identify triggers. Addictive behavior often starts with uncomfortable feelings, such as depression or anxiety. 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 an issue if the person eventually thinks through the problem and comes up with ideas for how to address it. Without that kind of emotional intelligence, kids and grownups may habitually turn to their smartphone simply to escape their feelings.

4. Customize notifications. Assign special ringtones to family members and other people so you won’t miss genuinely important messages. Then turn off notifications from everything else. There will always be breaking news, urgent emails and gossip on social media, and you can’t know everything about everybody all the time, so put an end to the fear of missing out (FOMO). Attention is valuable. Don’t squander it.

5. Create rich off-line lives. Seek out rewarding, tech-free experiences. Take every opportunity to be physically active — outdoors, if possible. Ride bikes, take walks, play sports. Cultivate face-to-face social skills by giving children opportunities to meet and interact with other people. Get to know neighbors. Join a faith community or other organization. Invite friends and family over for meals or game nights. Collect smartphones at the door.

6. Get an alarm clock. Using a smartphone 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. 

7. Finally, appreciate what’s good about smartphones. Some researchers have noted that use of drugs and alcohol among teens has declined over the same period that smartphone use has increased. They also 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, smartphones, like so many other technologies, can make lives better or worse. It’s up to you to pay attention to that uneasy feeling about your phone, so you can gently take corrective actions that restore them to their proper place. 

Carolyn Jabs is the author of “Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart,” available at Amazon and