My Name is Helen, and I’m a Smartphone Addict

Learning to take control back from my technology.

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My name is Helen Elliott and I’m a smart phone addict.

There I’ve said it. Not that this acknowledgement will surprise any of my family, friends and close associates who know they are guaranteed of receiving a reply text, email or social media response from me within 0.25 of a second unless there is something very amiss.

There has indeed been widespread panic from my contacts on the rare occasion of a twenty-four hour delay in my response such as occurred recently due to a service provider error.

I’m sure this possibility of sustained unavailability of one’s smart phone is giving fellow smart phone addicts out there chills — to even consider being ex-communicated from one’s phone is excruciating! And that is true kinship, isn’t it? We are a community who know the relief, the satisfaction, even the reward from the constant availability of our smart phones, providing immediate access to perceived highly important avenues of communication including texts, emails, apps and social media.

But why is there a nagging, dissatisfying sense that the power in my relationship with my smart phone is unbalanced? That I am not the one in control? And there is the guilt that my valued intention to be mindful; one with the moment, is fraudulent, as my mind incessantly feels tugged towards checking my phone and providing immediate responses.

Being a clinical psychologist, though not an expert in the field of addiction, it’s not hard for me to surmise that a smart phone addiction has a range of bio-psycho-social impacts not foreign to other addictions including alcohol and other drugs. To consider breaking such an addiction I can be guided by the work of Prochaska, Norcross and Diclemente (see http://www.psychotherapy.com.au/fileadmin/site_files/events/pdfs/APPLYING_THE_STAGES_OF_CHANGE_JOHN_NORCROSS.pdf) who put forward that I will progress, in a spiral pattern, through five stages of change before arriving at a landmark positive result in terms of my smart phone usage. That is, successfully achieve my goal of letting go of my addiction to my smart phone and assume the control in this relationship if indeed I can maintain this relationship at all (fellow smart phone addicts do not stop reading at this point — I think there is hope of still owning a smart phone and reaping the associated benefits but experiencing the freedom of being the one in charge.)

Time to Break Free from My Smart Phone Addiction

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My faith in psychological principles for motivating behaviour changes leads me to rely on the following initial stages as outlined by Prochaska and DiClemente (Towards a comprehensive model of change. In: Miller WR, Heather N, editors. Treating addictive behaviours: processes of change. New York: Pergamon, 1986) to help me to take back the power in my connection with my smart phone:

  1. PRECONTEMPLATION — this is where I outline my smart phone usage/habits before moving forwards and considering change. Essentially I’m in denial at this stage about any costs of being tied to my phone despite others’ in my world being aware that I’m often lost in cyberspace.

At this point in the behaviour change model I use my smart phone without any self-imposed restrictions — I access it whenever I feel inclined, at any hour of the day or night that suits me; I particularly tend towards accessing my phone as a distraction from daily tasks; I make up excuses to have just ‘one more look’ at my phone; I intend on reading a novel exclusively at night-time with the suggested technological shut-down period before sleep but sneakily still check updates with the excuse in my mind that my phone is required at my bedside as an alarm clock; I’m often distracted from engaging fully in communication with others due to an urge, often satisfied, to check my phone and make associated, ‘urgent’ responses; I panic and the world stands still if I cannot find my phone; and I would say there is a widely held view by my contacts that I am always available for connection via my smart phone.

2. CONTEMPLATION — Here I am thinking about getting ready for change. I explore my ambivalence and my consider my willingness towards change as I review the costs and benefits to my smart phone connection.

The costs include:

In terms of benefits:

  • the availability of continual connection with others including contacts residing internationally;
  • rejuvenated connections with ‘long-lost’ relatives, friends and associates from the past;
  • capacity to share experiences via cyberspace with others not physically present;
  • access to the possibility of external validation e.g. ‘likes’ on a post on social media;
  • immediate gratification for my impulses to check; and
  • relief from challenging emotions such as boredom and frustration; the smart phone being a source of procrastination from mundane or challenging tasks.

At this point, on this side of the equation of looking at the advantages to having a smart phone, I am finding it surprisingly hard to compile a lengthy list compared to when looking at the disadvantages. Feel free to include your own benefits here.

3. PREPARATION— evaluating and selecting strategies for change is key at this point. I will work here on strengthening my confidence and commitment to change.

At this stage I come up with the following range of suggestions from my brain-storming session about how to get freedom from my smart phone addiction:

  • quit cold turkey — if this is humanly possible, please let me know!;
  • substitute with a basic phone that only allows access to texts and telephone calls;
  • keep the smart phone but have set periods of usage — how often is ‘normal’ /reasonable usage of one’s smart phone? A friend/fellow addict suggested checking in every hour on my smart phone could be moving towards this arena of being a more reasonable usage pattern . But somehow I feel this is a little too compassionate to continuing to feed my addiction. So I’m thinking perhaps 5 set times a day for fifteen minutes (and not within an hour of waking or two hours before going to bed). Oh now this is getting uncomfortable. But I do have to remind myself if there is any urgent need to contact me, there is the possibility people will call me;
  • switch off all notifications and take off social media channels and particularly tempting apps;
  • always charge smart phone outside of the bedroom — investing in an alarm clock will help eliminate that one particularly dominant excuse the phone must be by my side at night-time; and
  • remind myself of the reasons for making this change — having a list written out of my values on this. This list might look like:

Why I Value Freedom From My Smart Phone:

  • greater awareness/presence/mindfulness in my life;
  • commitment to completing tasks efficiently;
  • enabling most meaningful connection to loved ones without distraction;
  • support for best quality physical and mental well-being;
  • enriching focus on creative and other meaningful pursuits; and
  • being independent of a device — able to exercise my free-will and a healthy detachment.

In terms of values, these days psychological therapy often asks us to look at how we want to be remembered, to even write our own eulogy. If that is the case I really don’t want to be remembered as:

Helen had a lightening quick response to technological communication and a strong and loyal connection with her smart phone.

But rather remembered as:

Helen was fully present with her surrounds, her loved ones and her passions in life.

I’ll let you know how this process goes. More updates (pardon the pun) when it comes to the next stages of change: action and maintenance. I know it is not going to be easy at all — my stomach wrestles with the associated anticipatory angst even now whilst my smart phone remains nestled close to my body and free from any self-imposed restrictions. But as with any change, I know I need to embrace the difficult emotions with the more easily palatable ones.

I also need to accept the Stages of Change Model includes relapse — signifying that I am human and likely to cycle backwards and forwards through the stages several times before achieving long-lasting healthy change. But I figure that ultimately an authentic connection with myself and significant others in my life should come out in front of being bound to a piece of metal if I really do want to live my best life.

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