The number of times I checked my phone while writing this story is quite astonishing. The good news is: I’m not alone in this indulgence. According to a survey from Reviews.org, Americans check their phones an average of 144 times a day, which is a 58% decrease from their last cell phone usage survey published in January 2022. However, we’re also spending an average of four hours and 25 minutes each day on our phones, up 30% from last year. You could say we’re obsessed.
In a viral tweet from the weekend, entrepreneur Jess Chan wrote, “My screen time is getting out of control. I can literally feel my brain chasing dopamine hits multiple times a day. Any tips for breaking this habit?”
My screen time is getting out of control. I can literally feel my brain chasing dopamine hits multiple times a day.
Any tips for breaking this habit?
— Jess Chan (@jjesschan) July 16, 2023
The internet, of course, rushed to provide solutions, with some people suggesting apps while others recommended more physical approaches, such as placing their phones in other rooms or using lockboxes to prevent constant checking.
One Twitter user recommended habit swapping, or picking another project for a dopamine lift, when they felt the need to scroll while another user suggested a 10-day silent meditation retreat. “On [the fourth day] of meditation, I literally felt the brain’s dopamine paths un-fry,” they wrote.
The algorithms on social media apps are designed to keep us coming back. After all, if we don’t check our phones every five minutes after posting our selfies, then did we even post a selfie in the first place? We believe we’re chasing something that brings us joy (so many likes!), but deep down we know our phones aren’t it. Here’s how to curb the habit.
First, a primer on dopamine
Dopamine, also known as one of the feel-good hormones, is a neurotransmitter that acts as part of your brain’s reward system. Whereas dopamine was previously thought to provide us with pleasure, research has found that the chemical itself doesn’t make you happy. Rather, it generates another strong emotion: desire.
In a recent article for The New York Times, Talia N. Lerner, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Northwestern University, told reporter Dana G. Smith, “Dopamine tells you not when something is good or bad, per se, but when it’s better or worse than you expected it to be.” And then our brains adjust our behaviors accordingly.
As Smith wrote, “that surge of dopamine helps you update your expectations and potentially modify your behavior for the future.” So if you’ve posted a selfie before and got hundreds of likes, you’re more apt to constantly reach for your phone after posting future selfies.
How screen time impacts your brain and body
Excessive screen time can have a substantial impact on both physical and mental well-being. Research has shown that hours of screen time can lead to sedentary behavior, decreased physical activity, eye strain and musculoskeletal problems, according to Ann Russo, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical director at AMR Therapy, a therapist-owned and operated practice.
“There is also a correlation between excessive screen time and increased risk of depression, anxiety, and feelings of social isolation,” she explains. “This is especially true among adolescents, who can also develop addictive behaviors around their screens.”
Earlier this year, the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy even declared that social media poses a “meaningful risk of harm to children” and called on tech companies to “take immediate action to mitigate unintended negative effects.”
How to manage your screen time
Research has shown that reducing your screen time by at least one hour a day can increase productivity; improve sleep and executive function, the set of skills that helps us plan ahead and meet goals.
If your phone’s built-in screen time setting, “do not disturb” feature or airplane mode isn’t working for you, then it may be time to consider alternative options. Apps, such as Forest, Opal and Clear Space, help eliminate distractions and reward you for staying focused. One Sec even forces you to take a deep breath before moving on to your app of choice. Mayo Clinic also offers Slim Your Screen Time, a free at-home, self-guided program that encourages you to spend more time playing, exploring and connecting over the course of two months.
But if you’re like me and you constantly bypass your screen time “limits” by entering your passcode, more drastic approaches, such as a lockbox or tool like Unplug, which includes an app and physical tag that blocks you from accessing certain apps, could be more helpful.
Caroline Caldwell, CEO and co-founder of Unplug, a digital hygiene company that includes an app and keychain to promote focus time.
“The general idea is that the keychain adds this layer of friction so when you go to open an app that you’ve blocked, you get a screen that it’s been blocked,” says Caroline Caldwell, co-founder and CEO of Unplug. “And if you want to overwrite it, you have to take an additional step to unlock your phone with your tag. We have customers who keep their tags in different rooms of the house so it provides the right amount of friction and the right amount of resistance to really help you change your habits.”