How I Recovered from my Lockdown Phone Addiction
Lockdown found me addicted to social media. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Whilst I’m usually self controlled with my phone use (for years I’ve had notifications switched off, a time limit on social media & games and my phone on silent) the pandemic changed things. When news of the Covid-19 crisis broke I found myself frequently looking for news updates and seeking dopamine hits in the form of notifications on Twitter & Instagram to help relieve the stress caused by the uncertainty the pandemic brings.
Balancing caring for my two young children with running a small business isn’t easy at the best of times. The lockdown made it exhausting. After a full day of work and keeping the kids entertained, there was often little time left. When the kids finally went to bed and I should have been asleep, I found myself scrolling TikTok... just for 10 mins or so... but then I’d be wired from the blue light so I’d head to twitter. And I knew reading hot takes on the latest political scandal wasn’t the best nightcap... so I’d just quickly check Pinterest. Suddenly an hour had passed.
Whilst my family snored around me, I’d lay awake craving something to still my mind. Most nights I’d finally put my phone down, pick up a book and read until I fell asleep. But even then, I was still losing precious time. When my anxious twiddling fingers opened Instagram for the fifteenth time I’d feel awful that I finally had a chance to write/nap/journal/read/pray and instead I squandered it, again. But I’d scroll anyway. Again.
It seems when we’re stressed, we use our smartphones less often for useful things like connection, learning or thoughtful entertainment and we use them more in unhealthy ways for things like mindless scrolling, comparisons, fuelling general discontentment, nosiness, disagreeing with strangers and grasping for connection. These damaging activities often leave us further isolated, having reinforced automatic negative thoughts we find ourselves more anxious than when we began and we seek more distraction through our screens. A painful cycle.
Technology can be wonderful. Technology can be woeful. Society is possibly more polarised now than ever, and that shows in the way that we use socials. Half of us seem elated and keen to share it, half of us seem depressed and eager for an outlet. Sometimes the same people, on the same day. Such is the speed of the timeline and the way of the algorithms.
In my case, the extremes of social media content and the stress caused by the pandemic has been heightened by the painful reality of racial injustice in the news.
Like many Black British people, I’m tired of talking about race. I’m also tired of people claiming racism is in the past whilst I still have to deal with racism and inequality in my daily life. So social media platforms offer an escape, a chance to connect with others who experience similar difficulties… but they also lead to more opportunities for unpleasant exchanges with people who question my humanity based on the colour of my skin.
If you’re still reading this I’m sure you have your own story. Perhaps your screen usage is out of control. Or maybe you’re generally pretty in control of how you spend your time, but every now and then tech gets the best of you and you’re not so pleased about watching time slip away.
It’s been a stressful year for most of us. We feel the need to engage our minds in the best of times, but stress heightens the need for constant stimulation. If you’re anything like me, then when your mind isn’t kept occupied during stressful times, it occupies itself with anxious thoughts and disastrous what-ifs...
Smartphones can be wonderful, but they’re dangerous too. At the height of the lockdown I needed better boundaries with my smartphone, so I decided to take action. To hack my brain, as it were, and focus my attention into healthier avenues. I went from spending 9hr53m a day on screens and only half of those hours productively, to spending 7hr9m on screen in ways I was happy with. Now I’ve shaken the addiction, I feel much more content with how my days are going and no longer feel out of control and as though time is passing me by.
Here are the 3 steps I took to get over my social media addiction, I hope they help you too.
1. Audit. I used the Screen Time function on my iPhone to check how much time I was spending on my phone and macbook and which categories were taking up my time. I then wrote down the embarrassing reality.
2. Analyse. I broke down my phone usage, listing the top (non work related) apps I was misusing. I made a simple table recording: the app; the reason I wanted to keep it; the unhealthy way I used it; and what I planned to replace it with. For instance, Pinterest is an app I like for inspiration. An unhealthy use of this is planning unattainable goals and projects which leave me dissatisfied with my life. A healthy replacement would be to complete an obtainable goal/project in which I find satisfaction. So I replaced Pinterest with Scrivener so I can finally finish editing the novel I’ve been promising to complete and send to my agent for months!
3. Arrange. I shuffled my apps around, moving the go-to apps I swipe to when stress hits (I’m looking at you Twitter & Instagram) to a folder with a warning message to myself, and replacing them with the new healthier habits I wanted to build. For instance Reddit was replaced with the Blue Letter Bible App so that my curiosity would lead by default to deep dives into scriptural exegesis through looking up the original Greek & Hebrew of Bible passages, instead of watching strangers argue and be generally mean to each other in subreddits with misleadingly innocuous names.
This process took about an hour, but it helped me reclaim several hours in every subsequent day. A solid investment all in all. Auditing, analysing and arranging my apps helped me to face the facts. I had no good reason to spend 3 hours a day between Twitter, Instagram & Reddit so I found healthier replacements.
Addictions are often unhealthy responses to legitimate needs. We all need connection, entertainment and mental stimulation and technology can offer that. It can also leave us feeling emptied out and exhausted if used in unhealthy ways. I hope this article helps you find a happy medium.
If you want to read more about technology addictions and ways around them, I recommend Deep Work and Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, a computer scientist who urges us all to give careful consideration to our technology use.
First published in Mensa Magazine December 2020. Find me on Goodreads or Twitter.