How your Cell Phone use affects your Mental Health

If you are like me it seems that being attached to your cell phone in a permanent way is common these days.  It’s almost like our phones have become an extra appendage.  And when statistics state that over 90% of North American’s are purported to own cell phone, and over 75% of those are smartphones.  You just know that someone is going to study how these things are used.  While studies showing that overuse can have a negative impact on things like posture, eyesight, and hearing, not to mention distract drivers and pedestrians alike. I have to wonder, how does our cell phone use affect our mental health?

Cell Phone Addiction

Photo by Jaelynn Castillo on Unsplash

Let’s be honest here, cell phone addiction is real.  And it can change how a person’s brain works and functions.  While a cell phone can help us by making some aspects of our lives easier, if you fall into the addicted category it’s likely taking you away from your best life in some way.

Unfortunately as cell phone use is often a daily occurrence for many of us it can be hard to tell the difference between “normal” and “addicted” but here is a quick list of some of the signs if you want to check yourself.

  • Inability to cut back on cell phone usage – if you have difficulty limiting your own screen time repeatedly this could be a concern
  • Constantly increasing the time spent on your phone – there is always a bit of a “wow” factor to a new phone so if you just got one and the novelty hasn’t worn off you may not need to worry.  But if you have had the phone for a while and are still picking it up more and more pay attention.
  • Your cell phone is a go-to for boredom relief – if you have a moment to sit and reflect (or breathe) but pick up your phone instead to “kill time” constantly this could be a sign that your phone is changing your brain.
  • Feeling anxious or upset when you don’t have access to your phone
  • Noticing that your cell phone usage is affecting your relationships – just because they are convenient and easily at hand doesn’t mean that they should be used in all situations.  Especially if you are noticing that your cell phone use is negatively affecting your relationships you could be addicted.

Did you see yourself in any of those? Or are you like me and MOST of them are descriptive of your own use?

Why Cell Phone Use Affects Your Mental Health

Recent studies show that a person can easily pick up their Cell Phone upwards of 100 times a day.  Up to three-fourths of people will check their smartphone as soon as they wake up, and over 60 percent of people sleep with their phones turned on near their bed.

I know I fall squarely into all those stats, I tracked my phone pickups for one 24 hour period recently and managed to pick it up 136 times.  Spending an average of 5 minutes or more on it each time.  And as I use my phone as my alarm I tend to leave it within arms reach so I can also hit the snooze button easily.

But why is this?

Smartphones can affect our brain chemistry

Just looking at our phones can cause us to feel good, we watch videos of our family and kids (I’m at work all day and look at pictures of my son to get me through).  You can scroll through Facebook and Instagram and feel like you are connecting with people.  And checking your to-do list or staying updated on the latest news all cause us to produce 2 feel-good hormones: dopamine and oxytocin.

Dopamine (as defined by PsychologyToday.com) is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.  Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards but to take action to move toward them.

In the terms of Cell Phone Addiction, this means when you pick up your phone you are also playing with the “reward” center in your brain.  Dopamine is an essential part of our brain chemistry that helps us learn and regulate new behaviors.  And while it is not addictive on its own it does help us form habits by “rewarding” us when we do certain things.

Oxytocin is the hormone commonly referred to as the “love hormone”.  Our brain released this neurotransmitter when Mothers & babies bond, during sex, and when you hug someone you care about.  This one plays a big role in social relationships and connections, plus it feels good.

On an average day, many of us (myself included) use our tech to socialize with those we love.  And over time this forms a habit, so it is no surprise that when we pick up our phones our brains will release a hit of Oxytocin.  Like Dopamine, Oxytocin is an essential human hormone that can fuel bad habits.

Our identities get tied up in our phones

In many ways, our phones are a digital version of ourselves.  If you are like me you have Facebook, Instagram, Slack, Skype, Twitter, YouTube, and a host of other online accounts linked to your phone.  And while you can log into them from your computer it is just easier and faster to check on a phone that is already in your hand.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Anxiety over your phone plays a big role

Have you ever left your phone somewhere? Or thought you did?  How did that feel?

I once thought I may have left my phone at my parents… turns out it was in my bag, but the 5 minutes it took for me to frantically search for my phone were probably the most harrowing I’ve had in some time.

I also find I use my phone to avoid the anxiety that stems from other things in my life.  If I’m stressed or bored I’ll pick up my phone and distract myself rather than face the issue.  And if I don’t I just feel more stressed then I did before.

Cell Phone Use and Depression/Anxiety

From what I understand there are a number of factors that can contribute to depression or anxiety.  While I’m not an expert (if you think you may be dealing with a Mental Health concern please seek the advice of a professional!) it is my understanding that there are some common denominators that contribute to illnesses like depression and anxiety, including but not limited to:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Traumatic events
  • Surviving Abuse
  • Mood regulation imbalances

While I don’t know that cell phone use would cause a mental illness, I do believe that there is a link between some Mental Illnesses and Cell Phone Use.  For instance I often I find myself avoiding intense feelings by using my phone.  This could very well be a symptom of my ongoing anxiety issues (no I haven’t been diagnosed, but I do deal with an exceptionally high level of anxiety daily).

So we may be feeling the need to check our phones or dive into them more often because we are dealing with issues already and the cell phone use is affecting our mental health as a symptom of what we are already facing.

FOMO – Fear of Missing Out

I don’t know about you, but when I pick up that phone and there is a little red dot with a number on it, my heart skips a beat.  And NOT in the fun “I love you” kind of way, but in the “OMG, what did I miss?”

And it’s not like I’m really all that popular, but when I do get a message, or call, or post from one of my feeds I feel like I have to handle it right away.  And if I haven’t I often worry that I’ve accidentally offended the other person.

Trouble Sleeping …

Our Phones can be a huge distraction when we are trying to sleep.  Notifications going off, bosses wanting to get a hold of us at any time day or night.  And I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly checked my phone in the middle of the night and wondered where the last hour went to…

At times I’m sure I’ve checked my phone not only right when I get up in the morning, but right before I go to bed at night.  Leaving me wondering how I will handle that last email, or social media post all night long instead of getting a deep and restful sleep.

And if we have trouble sleeping, you can bet your but we are going to find ways to deal with it the next morning via some kind of stimulant (coffee anyone?)

Social & Relationship Issues

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Not only do our phones connect us with those we love around the globe (I wouldn’t trade my husband’s Skype account for anything since it connects us to his family back home).  But it can get in the way of building relationships with the people who are right beside you.

Have I told you about a couple I witnessed a few years ago? I was driving them, Mr. B. and Myself to something (I don’t remember what).  And when I looked into my review mirror they were both on their cell phones giggling.  As it turns out yes they were texting each other, rather than having a conversation between themselves or with Mr. B. and I.

Also communicating online is very different from in person.  The social rules of engagement tend to be a bit different, there is also a bit of a disconnect between the person who is communicating (say posting to Facebook) and the person who is reading it (say in their news feed).  We don’t have that body language that is so critical for the context within which we generated the post.  If the same thing were said to someone’s face their reaction may be one thing, but online we don’t know how they are doing when they see the post or how they react (unless they tell us).

For example, when Mr. B. & I were trying to conceive I saw many posts about people welcoming babies into their families.  And I was happy for each and every one of them, but each one that I had to scroll past in my feed made me that much sadder and angry about not being pregnant myself.  There was even one, in particular, I saw the day I was told I would have to seek help from a fertility clinic where the friend literally said, “So glad to finally be pregnant, it was such a hard 2 months struggle to get here.  infertility sucks” with a photo of her positive pregnancy test.  You don’t want to know how mad I was when I saw that.  And it’s not that I don’t believe that her struggle was real for her, it’s more that it hit that sore spot for me.  I couldn’t talk to her for weeks after either.

So after all this… How do we set ourselves up for better Mental Health while still using our Cell Phones?

I know, it’s been a long read so far.  Stay with me cause the good stuff is coming 🙂

When I started to notice that I was dealing with issues around my cellphone use I started wondering how to fix it, here are some of the tips I use to make my life easy and my brain happy while reducing the negative effects.

  1. Have a spot for your phone when you’re home. This does a number of things (like keep the charging cords organized) but mostly it reduces the anxiety of “where is it” when you are home.  When away from home keep it in the same pocket or pouch (in a purse) at all times unless in use.
  2. Talk to people face to face when possible.  Screen time can help you communicate in many ways (like living a long distance apart), but if you are sitting beside someone at a restaurant talk to them NOT the phone.
  3. Have a boredom kit ready.  Especially if you are dealing with kids who are addicted to a phone having other options available will help keep your mind engaged where you want it.
  4. Remove time killing apps off your phone.  Seriously, if you want to stop picking your phone up for a particular game you find “addictive” then delete the app if you know it’s not there then you won’t be as tempted to pick it up.  While you’re at it delete all the other “time-suck” apps as well.  Many of them you can just log into via the web browser if you really need (Facebook anyone?)
  5. Keep only the essential apps available for easy access.  As you can see to the left I have one (1) screen, all I keep on it are my phone & text & one big folder with all my other apps in it.  If I need something I use the search feature (I have an iPhone btw).  This also creates a great “uncluttered” feeling with the phone, clutter = stress = Overwhelm and Mentally Exhaustion in my life and likely in yours too.  To give your self some room to digitally breathe. Bonus if you put a cute photo or motivating quote as your wallpaper once you have all that clear space.
  6. Turn off your notifications.  This one wasn’t that easy for me when I first thought about it.  I was so worried that I would miss something important because I didn’t have my notifications on, I swear that “ding” of a new notification ruled my life more than I did.
    What I’ve come to understand is that notifications create anxiety for me, so I’ve turned off all the essentials.  This way I only know what notifications I have if I open the related app, ie I see when I’ve missed an email if I open the email app but not if I’m just making a call.  Notifications are distracting, and often we have ways to put our phones into “Do Not Disturb” modes now so no notifications come through.
    Specifically, I turn off ALL notifications on all apps that are not on my main screen (ie phone & text).  And my “DND” goes on at 8 pm and turns off automatically at 7 am” as well as when I’m driving.  This keeps me focused on what is important when I drive and gives me time to “cool off” from tech before bed.  Of course, if certain people need to be able to reach you at any time (like for family emergencies) by all means set it up so they can get through.
  7. Change your language about phone use.  If you are making the jump to limit your Cell Phone time then phrase statements with “Don’t” instead of “Can’t”.  “Don’t” tends to be interpreted by your brain as a statement of who you already are, “Can’t” tends to be seen as a restriction or self-denial.  So saying things like “I don’t check my phone more than once an hour” will likely get you better results then “I can’t check my phone more than once an hour.”
  8. Physically move your phone farther away from you.  This kinda goes with #1 in having a designated space for it. But if you have to move farther to get something you are less likely to go for it.
  9. Use a “stopping rule”.  I know I’ve gone countless times to my phone to check something “quickly” and an hour later realized I have NO idea what I did with my time.  I checked Facebook, Instagram, Email, and read a blog post or 2 and in the process completely ignored my baby boy who was clamoring for play time. Apparently, this mental state has a name, it’s a “Ludic Loop”, and it’s what slot machines are meant to produce.  Essentially it’s a tranquility trance-like state that is hard to get out of on your own.  But we all have things that will interrupt us and break that trance, so pre-plan some kind of interruption that will break into your consciousness.  For instance, My next step is to use the timer on my phone to tell me when my designated time is up.
  10. Don’t try to break the habit, try to replace the habit. Find something you would rather make a habit around and make that easier to get to then your phone.
    For instance, your phone is in it’s designated spot at home and you are on the couch, make sure there is a book you want to read between you and your phone to encourage reading.  Or Put exercise equipment if you want to work out, or something else that would be easy to do during the same time that you would normally be checking your phone for.
    You can also delete apps after you use them to make it harder to use them again, for instance, I may just start deleting my Instagram every time I check it so I have to re-download it to check it again.  But I keep my iBook and Kindle app fairly easy to access (second screen in my folder of apps)
  11. Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde – you’ve probably seen this move in some form or another.  The main character knows he is going to turn into a werewolf after nightfall so he barricades the door and chains himself in the basement.  This way, when he transforms into the monster, it won’t be able to harm any one.  (yup, we are the hero and the monster in the storey).
    By making smart choices ahead of time you are setting yourself up to by-pass the problem before it’s a big concern. Like leaving your phone in your jacket pocket when you go to a friend’s house so you won’t check it every 5 minutes at dinner which would be rude.

Addictions start when there is a problem in life that we are struggling to cope with.  So things like checking your phone too much should be the canary in your coal mine. But if you have a full and fulfilling life already with good relationships and support systems to help you out when you get stressed your less likely to get addicted.

So the best solution is a long-term solution, like getting closer to someone special and spending more time with them.  Let that closeness soothe the worries in a healthier way than a Cell Phone ever could, and leave the effects on your mental health to more of the fun stuff in life that helps us build up who we are.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

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