Whether you’re waiting for a train, commercials to end or the oven to finish preheating, you likely kill those brief moments by mindlessly scrolling or swiping across your phone screen. You’re not alone in this new normal. During our day-to-day lives, most of us live with our cell phones perpetually within close reach — mostly to Google a dinner spot, text a friend, or scroll through Instagram. But those who constantly reach for their smartphones might be doing so due to anxiety or depression.
A 2016 study of 300 college students by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found heavier technology usage is tied to greater risk for anxiety and depression, particularly among those using the devices as a “security blanket” — a way to avoid dealing with unpleasant experiences or feelings. After all, smartphones — with their countless applications, entertainment options, and constant presence in our pockets — make it easier than ever to disconnect from the problems and stresses of reality by avoiding active engagement with them.
Since constantly reaching for your phone is a common habit these days, how do you know if it’s just that — a bad habit? Could you be anxious or depressed, and using that habit as a crutch?
Rachel O’Neill, an Ohio-based licensed professional clinical counselor and Talkspace therapist recommends asking yourself these questions:
- Do you find yourself looking at your phone to ‘zone out’ or to avoid unpleasant or uncomfortable emotions?
- How do you notice you feel when you’re somewhere where you can’t access your phone?
- Do you notice an increase in anxiety or depression symptoms?
“In many cases, if you feel like you can’t be without your phone, that could be a sign that it is serving an escape-type function for you,” O’Neill says.
Chicken or the Egg: Does Anxiety and Depression Lead to Phone Use or Vice Versa?
While those with anxiety and depression often use their phone as a quick fix, research also shows that spending too much time on your phone, and being constantly connected, can cause anxiety. What you’re anticipating and getting addicted to is not the actual rush of, say, the comment you just received on your latest Instagram, but rather the anticipation of it. Most of the time, actually reading that comment doesn’t live up to our expectations.
“For those without a mental illness, it can be a learned behavior or positive reinforcement that gets them attached,” said Kimberly Leitch, a licensed clinical social worker in New York City and Talkspace therapist. “If you experience a negative situation and then use your phone as a distraction with a positive result, your phone use is now reinforced. Because of the positive outcome, you’ll repeat this behavior, get the same results, and then behavior will intensify leading to dependence or addiction.”
What You Can Do
It’s getting harder and harder to ignore the connection between frequent cellphone use and mental health, so it’s worth weaning yourself off your habit. Phone-induced anxiety operates on a positive feedback loop — phones keep us in a persistent state of anxiety, and the only relief from this anxiety is to look at our phones. The way to break this cycle is simple: check your phone less. Easier said than done (breaking habits isn’t easy!), but here are a few tips to get started:
- Put away all technology at mealtime.
- Read a book instead of mindless surfing.
- Use an alarm clock and turn off your phone when you sleep.
- Go on a walk and leave your cell behind.
- Let people know you’ll be unreachable during certain hours.
According to Leitch, the best thing you can do is know your own intentions. “Be cognizant of the motivation behind your phone use,” she said. “If you’re using your phone as a coping mechanism or avoidance the put the phone down. Give yourself certain time slots or time limits when using your phone. Down time is a good way to develop healthy usage of your cell phone to avoid dependence.”
One reason that our attempts to spend less time on our phones often fail is that we frame our efforts in the same way we do diets: as acts of self-deprivation. And since feeling deprived isn’t a positive emotion, it’s hard to want to change your behavior. Instead, think of the goal in more positive terms: when you aim to cut back on phone time, you’re trying to resolve discrepancies between how you say you want to live your life and how you’re actually living it. That said, it’s not an easy change, but the good news is you don’t have to do it alone. Consider talking to a therapist about why you reach for your phone and what small changes you can make to be less dependent on it.