Let's get something clear: I'm not going to tell you that you should throw your phone under a bus.

Just as breaking up with a person doesn't mean you're swearing off all human relationships, 'breaking up' with your phone doesn't mean trading in your touchscreen for a landline.

After all, there are too many reasons for us to love our smartphones. They're cameras. They're radios. They help us keep in touch with family and friends, and they know the answers to every trivial question we could think to ask. They tell us about the traffic. In fact, smartphones are amazing tools.

But something about them makes us act like idiots. It has become normal to place your phone by your plate at mealtimes, to interrupt a conversation to take a call, and to be so attached to that small slab that you think nothing of taking it with you into the loo.


Most adults in the UK check their phones 33 times a day (for teenagers it's 90 times), and more than two hours of that is spent mindlessly scrolling and tapping.

Banning mobile phones from the bedroom can improve sleep. Photo/123RF.
Banning mobile phones from the bedroom can improve sleep. Photo/123RF.

The problem is all their different functions make today's mobile phones horribly addictive, and studies now show they could seriously damage our mental health.

Research reveals spending extended time on your phone has the power to change both the structure and the function of your brain — including your ability to form memories, think deeply and focus. Smartphones can even cause otherwise mentally healthy people to show signs of psychiatric problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

In fact, if you wanted to invent a device that could create a society perpetually distracted, isolated and overtired; if you wanted to reduce empathy, encourage self-absorption and rewrite social etiquette, you'd surely end up with a smartphone.

Halt the brain rot

Feel bored or anxious? Check your email. Nothing there? Check social media. Not satisfied? Check a different social media account. It's all too easy to spend hours on your phone without staying focused for more than a few seconds at a time.

We might think we are being ruthlessly efficient multi-taskers, able to book a table for dinner while researching curtain fabrics — switching effortlessly between screens. But the brain struggles to perform two cognitively demanding tasks at once. It slows right down and your focus on both is diminished.

Not only is it making us unproductive, it's mentally exhausting. The scattergun of bite-sized pieces of information can easily overload the working — shorter-term — memory part of our brain, making it harder to transfer new information to the long-term memory areas. This, in turn, makes it less likely we'll remember even those experiences we did manage to pay attention to.


Face your addiction

When you look at the neuroscience, it's not surprising we've all become so addicted. The phone's features and apps we download are cleverly designed to provide us with constant novelty and reward (a complimentary email, a text from a friend, an interesting piece of news) and trigger constant hits of a feel-good brain chemical called dopamine.

Once the link between action (picking up your phone) and reward has been established, it doesn't matter how sparse those rewards are. In fact, the unpredictability gets us hooked — like a slot machine.

If you suspect you use your phone too much, set a few boundaries. Ironically, a good way to start is by downloading a tracking app to monitor how often you reach for your phone and how long you spend on it (Moment for iPhones or Offtime for Android phones).

Buy an alarm clock

More than a third of UK adults look at their phones within five minutes of waking, and more than half do so within 15 minutes, while 38 per cent check their phones during the night. If you want to wrestle some control back into your life, banish your phone from your bedroom. That means no longer using it as your alarm clock. Buy a cheap alarm clock and create a new charging station for your phone outside the bedroom.

The aim is to make checking your phone a deliberate choice rather than an automatic habit.

In an ideal world, the whole family should do the same. When they resist (they will!) tell them you are trying to reduce your phone use so you can be more connected to the people you care about — them.

Time for a 'phast'

Build periods of phone-free time into your day.

The more regularly you 'phast' (go on a phone fast), the less you'll be drawn to your phone.

• Choose a time each day (30 to 60 minutes) to leave your phone behind or turn it off (walking the dog, taking a lunch break).
• Establish times when you leave your phone by the door, blocking everything except the ringer so the device works as nothing more than a landline.
• Try turning your phone off when you go to bed on Friday and not turning it on again until several hours after you wake up.
• Once your loved ones are on-board, build up to a full 24-hour phone detox together.

No-phone zones

Establishing areas in the home where phones are banned removes the need for endless decision-making and conflict. Banning phones from bedrooms improves sleep, while a 'no phones at the table' rule brings people together.

Phone addiction can impact relationships between family members. Photo/file.
Phone addiction can impact relationships between family members. Photo/file.

Studies show the mere presence of a smartphone on the table can have a negative impact on conversations.

Keep your phone off the table and ask others for permission before you check it. This might make your companions feel mildly self-conscious when they reach for their own phones.

If you are worried you might miss a call in an emergency, adjust your Do Not Disturb settings to allow phone calls from a group of contacts you select as 'Favourites'. Then when you flick your phone to Do Not Disturb mode you can tap the button on the 'Allow Calls From' setting to 'Favourites'.

Also, most Do Not Disturb controls include a feature that allows a call through if the same person rings twice within three minutes, which is presumably what someone who desperately needed to reach you would do.

Take back control

It is hard to resist your phone when it is pinging or flashing. Regain control by switching 'notifications' off (in 'settings').

Reduce temptation further by spring-cleaning apps that litter your home screen (what you see when you unlock your phone).

Aim to have only the most useful, life-enhancing ones there (maps, photos, music etc.) To move an app, put your finger on the icon until it starts jiggling, then either drag it to its new location or delete it by tapping the small cross on the corner.

Bin 'smug' apps

Delete any app which steals your attention more than it improves your life. If it makes you feel bad (other people's smug holiday photos on Facebook, perhaps), bin it. You can still check social media through your internet browser or desktop computer, but aim for no more than twice a day.

Prune the rest

Use the second page on your phone screen for semi-useful apps and email, and the third page for utilities and 'undeletables' (you can't delete some apps). Relocate mildly tempting apps to a folder on your home screen so the icons are too small to read. To create a folder, simply hold your finger on the icon and drag one app icon on top of another app icon and release. Then rename the folder 'time wasters' — it's what they are.

How bad's your problem? Take the quiz
The Smartphone Compulsion Test was developed by addiction specialist Dr David Greenfield. Just circle the questions that apply to you.
1. When you add up the time you spend on your phone, is it more than you thought?

2. Do you regularly find yourself mindlessly passing time by staring at your phone?

3. Do you lose track of time when on your phone?

4. Do you spend more time texting or emailing than talking to people in person?

5. Has the time you spend on your phone increased?

6. Do you wish you could be less involved with it?

7. Do you sleep with your phone under your pillow or next to your bed regularly?

8. Do you find yourself viewing texts, tweets, and emails at all hours — even if it means interrupting other things?

9. Do you text, email, tweet, or internet surf while driving or doing other activities that require focused attention?

10. Do you feel your use of your phone decreases your productivity at times?

11. Do you feel reluctant to be without it for a short time?

12. Do you feel uncomfortable if you leave your phone somewhere or it breaks?

13. At meals, is your phone always on the table?

14. When your phone rings or buzzes, do you feel an intense urge to check it?

15. Do you find yourself checking your phone many times a day, even if there is unlikely to be anything new or important?

1–2: Normal.

3–4: Your behaviour is leaning toward problematic use.

5 or above: It is likely that you may have a problematic smartphone use pattern.

8 or more: Consider seeing a psychiatrist or psychotherapist who specialises in behavioural addictions for a consultation.