Can’t stop checking your phone? Got the irresistible itch to open Instagram all the time? Here’s how to wean yourself off the screens.
There’s something ridiculously appealing about taking a solid chunk of time off the internet – quitting the endless scroll to truly live in the moment, and not just the filtered and curated version of reality we post on social media. Yet the irony is that you’re probably reading this article on your phone right now.
After all, the average person spends upwards of four and a half hours looking at their device every day. It’s likely the first thing you pick up in the morning and the last thing you look at before sleep. You might have even committed to a digital detox in the past, only to redownload the apps hours later and fall back into old habits.
If you’re finding the hours are increasingly slipping away as you idly scroll through #FitTok videos, it might be time to take a ‘phone breakup’ more seriously. It’s no simple task, but we spoke to leading tech addiction psychologists to find out how to get it right.
With most of us relying on our phones for both work and downtime, spotting unhealthy habits isn’t always easy. “Social media apps continuously bring out updates with persuasive design features to keep users tapping and scrolling, making smartphones more immersive and engrossing than ever before,” says Dr Richard Graham, clinical director consultant and psychiatrist at Stem4.
So what are the telltale signs that a dependence on technology might be taking shape? “Do you feel in control of your usage, or is it getting in the way of everyday relationships and responsibilities like work deadlines, seeing friends or spending time with family?” he asks. “In cases of tech addiction, the inability to stick to time boundaries is a big warning sign, as people often struggle to be where they need to be at designated times.
"Other areas of your life that could take a hit are sleep and diet. “Research on technology usage has found that individuals who engage heavily in gaming or spend excessive time on social media tend to consume more carbohydrate-rich and relatively poor-quality ‘junk’ foods,” says Graham. Plus, feeling tired and lethargic from poor sleep and lack of nutrition can deter you from staying motivated to exercise.
A 2018 Ofcom report found that people check their phones every 12 minutes. That's 60 phone checks in a 12-hour day. Many smartphones now come equipped with in-built wellbeing features, such as Apple’s ‘Screen Time’, that are designed to help you set better online boundaries. “Take advantage of this feature to analyse how long you’re spending engaging with your phone throughout the day,” advises Graham. “If the number worries you, then it’s probably a good idea to reassess your screen habits.”
Recent studies have shown that spending too much time on our phones affects our ability to form new memories, hyper-focus on a single task and retain new information. Research says it can also stuff up our sleep, lower our performance at work and stop us from sticking to a workout schedule. Even the mere sound of our phone buzzing can trigger a cocktail of hormones that spikes our stress levels, leaving us feeling frazzled and overwhelmed.
“Taking time away from your phone allows you to decompress,” emphasizes Graham. In his observations of gaming addicts through his clinical work, taking a break from devices resulted in improved mood, reduced agitation, and less anxiety. “Most of my clients also reported improved sleep quality too,” he adds.
Many of us find ourselves wracked with self-doubt when we glance into the seemingly polished lives of others on social media. Whether it's comparing our bodies to chiselled gym selfies or feeling envious when we scroll past an influencer lounging on a beach, the impact can be pretty profound on our mental health.
According to Dr Jane Halsall, chartered counselling psychologist, "Encountering something we dislike online can directly trigger feelings of low self-worth, rejection, and hopelessness." A 2017 survey of 1,500 teens underscored the negative effects of apps like Instagram on mental health, with increased usage being linked to high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and FOMO, or the ‘fear of missing out.’
“Unplugging completely can help to lessen the effect of comparison culture on our mood. If you find yourself experiencing these negative emotions on a regular basis, embracing some time offline might be beneficial for restoring a healthier mindset,” she adds.
Graham’s number one tip is to take a break from your usual routine. “Try to get out in nature if you can,” he suggests. “Being in a new environment without Wi-Fi is really helpful for breaking unwanted tech habits.” Plus, studies have shown that being immersed in greenery for just 20 minutes per day can have a positive impact on our mental health.
Announcing your social media break on Instagram Stories might feel a little dramatic, but Graham says that there’s evidence to support that if we commit to a goal in a social way, we’re more likely to stick to it. “You could drop your friends a message on WhatsApp and let them know you’re trialling a phone-free weekend. Letting people know you’re going offline means you’re also less likely to feel anxious about missing important messages.”
Finally, Dr Halsall adds that for real habit-building success, we should start small. Rather than attempting to quit cold turkey immediately, she suggests beginning with just an hour a day and gradually increasing the duration over time. This approach aligns with James Clear’s best-selling book Atomic Habits, in which he explains that willpower works like a muscle that fatigues if we lean on it too much. The key, he explains, is to make the new habit so easy that you don’t need lots of motivation to do it.
Dr Halsall suggests switching off the phone and putting it out of sight, in a drawer, so you won’t be tempted to reach for it. Next, plan how you’ll spend the recouped time, whether it’s getting out for a run or taking a long soak in the tub. Getting used to spending even incremental periods phone-free can help to establish healthy new habits, and as an added benefit, you’ll feel smug that you didn’t spend your evening at the mercy of TikTok. No phone, no problem.
Words: Liz Connor
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