Our phones kept a detailed track of in-quarantine data: our experiences, our “history.” It was our lifeline to the world outside. So, how can we detach ourselves?
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Mid-pandemic in 2020, my husband and I decided to take a trip to the woods to escape our lockdown. Our cabin had a lockbox for our phones. However, straight away, my husband refused to put his device inside.
“I need it,” he said. “It’s not a vacation for me without my phone games and knowing what’s going on in the world.”
That was hardly the first time one of us has chosen our phones over uninterrupted quality time. Both of us have found excuses to stare at our phones rather than listen to each other — and it’s caused more than its fair share of hurt feelings and arguments in our house.
We’re also far from being alone in having this issue.
Whether it’s been bingeing the latest Netflix must-watch show (think: “Tiger King,” “Bridgerton,” and “Clickbait”), doomscrolling our way through the news before and after the 2020 election, or losing ourselves in mindless TikTok videos for hours, lots of us have turned to our devices for distraction, comfort, and entertainment since lockdown began in March of 2020.
Being attached to our phones isn’t exactly new.
According to a 2019 survey by the developers of the RescueTime app, adults spent an average of 3 hours and 15 minutes on their phones daily.
Meanwhile, another 2019 survey released by the nonprofit Common Sense Media found that outside of academic use, children between the ages of 8 and 12 spent 4 hours and 44 minutes on screen time every day, and teenagers spent 7 hours and 22 minutes every day.
And in 2019, a Pew Research Center survey found that 6 in 10 American adults got their news through their mobile phones.
There are several reasons why we get attached to our phones.
They make us happy
“[Our phones] remind us of our loved ones,” explains Dr. Kristi K. Phillips, a clinical psychologist.
“Similar to a teddy bear that we had as a child, as a compensatory object in the absence of a loved one, a cellphone has the potential to be a compensatory attachment object.
“The brain chemical dopamine and the hormone oxytocin — which play a role in the addiction process — are released when we have pleasure,” Phillips continues. “[When] these chemicals are released, it can create a sense of attachment.”
They’re mega convenient
“The size and convenience of smartphones mean that we can take them just about anywhere,” Phillips says.
“Everything — literally — is available at the click of a button [on our phones],” says Rachel Hard, a psychologist.
“Want to find out some fact or piece of information? Just type in your internet search bar. Looking for love, connection, or contact? Just swipe.”
This feeds our love of instant gratification.
“We can access everything with such speed and when we meet our needs so instantaneously, we forget — or lose — that ability to delay our gratification,” Hard explains.
“Phones, like the use of drugs or alcohol, can trigger the release of the brain chemical dopamine and alter your mood,” Phillips explains.
She explains that apps and platforms are designed to foster compulsive and addictive behavior — to guarantee repeat customers.
“[Social media] reward us with likes and comments on posts so that we keep coming back. Games [use] the bright flashing colors or the rewards of beating a level or getting some kind of token,” says Hard.
Pre-pandemic, our phones were mostly a way for the world to know us: through photos, phone calls, and social posts.
But when COVID-19, in its all-consuming mayhem, convinced us we were “safer at home,” the light weight of our phones became our anchor weight to the world outside of our four walls.
They kept us tethered to the rest of the world.
According to data from a May 2020 survey by the phone service provider Twigby, 39% of participants relied on their phones more due to social distancing.
Another survey found screen time in the United States increased by 55% between 2019 and 2020, with the average adult spending 4 hours and 45 minutes per day on their phone in 2020. That’s about an hour and a half more than the above statistic from 2019.
With most white-collar workers relegated to telework, the business line became our own cell lines. We kept in touch with friends and loved ones through Zoom, FaceTime, text chains, and more — all with our phones.
Plus, our phones became a way for us to get what we needed in a contactless way. A survey by Deloitte found that smartphone users were more likely to:
- use their phones to pay for things in person
- order meals and groceries online for delivery
- order retail items for curbside pickup
- shop on social media as a result of the pandemic
Most of all, the pandemic removed the guilt of being glued to a piece of hardware.
“There was also no risk of stigma of being on your phone at work, which made it easier for people to grab them when they were bored, stressed, or having feelings of fear related to COVID-19,” explains Philips.
Of course, our phones aren’t all bad.
In many ways, the social connection our phones provided helped combat some of the negative effects of our isolation at home.
But our phone use is also not all good, either.
Physical and psychological impacts
Toxic positivity, for example, is particularly prevalent on social media — and it reared its head during the pandemic. Many people bragged about all the ways they made the most out of their time at home: learning languages and new skills and being productive.
But all this “positivity” made many users feel like they were doing something wrong if they weren’t equally productive during the lockdown or it silenced them from reaching out to connections for help with personal challenges.
Doomscrolling keeps a lot of us in a state of anxiety and hyperarousal.
Work and relationship issues
According to one national survey, nearly 1 in 3 respondents found that their screen time had become a problem for their work or personal life during the pandemic.
“Many of the activities that people used to distract themselves pre-COVID from an unhappy relationship, such as late nights at the office, gym workouts, drinks with friends, were not possible,” explains Phillips.
“[This] made for decreased personal space and, for some people, not getting emotional needs met. Phones were one of the readily available private ways to connect with others in both healthy and unhealthy ways,” including cyber infidelity.
No — as long as you’re willing to take steps to change your relationship with your phone.
According to one survey, 70% of respondents said they’re on their phones more than they would like to be each day, but only 34% were actively taking steps to reduce it.
Tips to cut back on your phone use
If you’re concerned that your phone is impacting your mental health, your relationship, or your job, you can take steps to minimize your dependence on it.
Some things to try:
- Track your phone usage. Many phone brands, such as iPhone, track your weekly screen time. This will allow you to monitor your behavior and see whether you have a real problem.
- Delete apps that you feel addicted to.
- Turn your phone off, leave it in another room, or engage the focus mode when you need to concentrate.
- Consider leaving your phone out of the bedroom if you’re having relationship issues.
- Engage in a mindfulness activity to help center yourself in the present.
- Schedule device-free dates with your partner.
- Consider counseling help to guide you in identifying and improving unhelpful behaviors.
The pandemic forced many of us into our homes for more than a year and a half, cut off from actual face time with friends and family. Screen time also became normalized as we worked from home and the stigma of being on our phones a lot evaporated because no one was there to judge our behavior and we were all in the same boat for once.
As a result, our already addictive phones became even more irresistible. We turned to them for comfort, connection, convenience, distraction, and entertainment.
But as we near the holidays with many people vaccinated and mask-free, we don’t have to be so reliant on our devices for social interaction and closeness.
So, if you’re concerned about your quarantine phone habits, you can take steps to change your relationship with your phone today.