Re: How to deal with smartphone addiction?

What follows is an excerpt from a private exchange. I am sharing this with the express permission of my correspondent. Their identity remains a secret.

Hello, Protesilaos! I have a strong smartphone addiction. I suffer a lot of pain from it. I try some therapy (such as cbt), but I still find it very difficult to fight against my addiction. I read your article “Why I do not use social media”, however, many times I know it’s very bad to keep using my smartphone, checking TikTok and other social media software, but I just can’t stop it. I hear that you are a philosopher and want some suggestions from philosophy. How can I kill my smartphone addiction?

Hello there!

I will reply to you. Can I publish my response with the above quote as well? I will keep your details a secret. The idea is to share this with others, as I suspect lots of people deal with the same sort of issues. Plus, having it readily available helps me reference it in the future. Only if you want though.

First, a general comment on matters of therapy as compared to philosophy. Philosophy is no substitute for medicine and the philosopher cannot replace the medical expert (or, indeed, any other expert). Put differently, no amount of philosophising will cure an underlying condition.

What philosophy does is help us broaden our perspective, whether we are operating in our capacity as patients, medical experts, or whatever. Therein lies the possibility of a holistic or more rounded approach to the problem we are dealing with. My comments, then, should at best be read as complementary to whatever prescription a professional has given you.

You mention CBT. Is this the plan A or the last-ditch effort? Is it part of a wider method that tries to deal with different facets of this situation? Have you, for instance, considered that negative or unhelpful thoughts are triggered by the given environment you are in?

When I was going through a prolonged procrastination phase, I realised that I could not unthink the addictive thoughts. Thinking could not break the loop of thinking. Instead, it invigorated it, thus exacerbating the problem. I would get into an overthinking drive. It would start with a rational estimate, such as “I need X amount of time to complete a task”. It would continue with another logical thought like “the task can be accomplished with the means at my disposal”. Then it extended to “I still have plenty of time ahead, so I can- postpone it a bit more”. The justification for this dithering and delaying was that “X is boring, anyway”.

I realised that thinking is not confined to its own domain. We overthink when we basically have too much energy available that our body does not expend. I was staying home all day, so my mind was free to think and rethink, ultimately remaining in a state of inertia. Maybe you can relate to this when after a day of excessive coffee consumption you are in bed at night and instead of sleeping you solve puzzles in your head or, anyhow, have this uncontrolled influx of ideas.

Out of serendipity, there was no electricity one day. I decided to go for a walk. Since the power was not coming back, I kept walking for a fairly long time. When I eventually got home, I was so tired that I did not procrastinate at all: I went straight to bed. This made me realise that what could break the loop of overthinking was action. I had to do stuff, regardless of whether it was conventionally productive or not, just to put my body in a different flow of expending energy instead of incessantly channelling it towards procrastination.

I gradually got into the habit of going for a walk. I started with baby steps. Brisk walks around the block. Step by step, I extended the duration and intensity. Getting physical in this way gave me a renewed control over my inclinations. I could finally say “no” to my computing devices, even if only for a brief period of time. I would leave the phone at home and I would not check for status updates upon return. This was a slow process, which culminated in my detachment from those induced needs I had.

The insight is that body and mind are part of the same system. We use different words to describe them analytically, though the point is that we cannot have one without the other. Moreover, our condition is influenced, informed, framed, or otherwise determined by factors external to us: we do not have a standalone presence. What then appears as an “internal” problem may have “external” triggers. A holistic approach must thus not remain limited to one domain. The intent must be to account for all the factors that inform our everyday experience.

Some examples of what I did to help break the loop:

  • Removed the curtains from my apartment. They had a dark orange hue, which made the room too dark even during a sunny day. Sunlight improved my mood.

  • I would get out in the balcony to have a tea. Even that exposure to sunlight was already helping me, as it helped regulate my sleep cycle (you can find scientific findings on what our skin synthesises with sunlight).

  • I gradually cut back on my consumption of coffee, eventually quitting it altogether. Again, this contributed to a better sleep cycle (together with exposure to the Sun and physical activity).

  • Whenever I felt the need to check my computers, I would put on my shoes and venture outdoors.

  • To help me get motivated about going outside, I bought a point-and-shoot camera (those inexpensive tourist-y ones). I set a task to become decent at photography, not because I really cared about it: it simply was giving me an extra reason to try something.

  • I quit eating all forms of quick or otherwise bad food. Spending an hour to cook a meal gives us something to do, plus all the health benefits when we are considerate with what goes into it. When everything is done “quickly”, we have too much time and energy for overthinking.

Fundamentally, procrastination was for me the end product of an imbalanced lifestyle. I could not fix my inclination to procrastinate without changing other parts of my life: unthinking procrastination while keeping everything else constant would be a fool’s errand.

What made me reject social media was the realisation that my happiness was not contingent on other people’s opinions. I mean this in the sense of “seeking validation”, not in the arrogant way that “I know everything; everybody else is wrong”. More so when those were not real people but avatars in a role-playing game. I was happy, for example, when I could enjoy a sunset or simply be amused by the behavioural patterns of pidgeons at the park. I didn’t need to tweet about it and then check if my emotion was valid based on the number of retweets I would get. No! I became the judge of my own subjectivity: if I liked what I was doing and I was not harming anyone, then that was all that mattered.

Furthermore, I noticed that the concept of “garbage in; garbage out” also applies to the information we digest. If all we get is [often exaggerated] controversies, so-called “drama”, and shitstorms, then our mental state is framed accordingly as we get into the mode of being angered and disturbed for no compelling reason. I decided that I would have none of that and eventually adopted a policy of not listening to what the latest event was that we should all be indignant of.

Same for fake reward patterns, such as “help me get this video to N amount of likes and you get Y”. These gimmicks seldom are consequential and I figured (again, gradually) that I would not play those games anymore.

In conclusion, philosophy does not and cannot replace medicine. What I suggest is, if this applies to you, to stop conceptualising therapy as a controlled environment that is limited to your face-to-face interactions with your therapist. Rather, consider a holistic approach where practically every aspect of your life needs to be considered anew. Discuss this with your therapist though, generally, don’t assume that the problem is “just” in your mind: your environment frames and conditions you.

The key is patience. Don’t expect immediate results as this expectation ultimately disappoints you by making the escape seem impossible and thus throws you back to the condition you are trying to escape from. Being patient means taking it slow. One tiny yet decisive step at a time, turtle-style, will remove you from where you currently are. So the immediate priority is not “how to kill my addiction” but “how to make this minute change in my life”. Repeat for all the changes: their cumulative effect will put you in the direction you want to be moving towards.

The cycle of overthinking is broken by action. Find a balance between acting and thinking and you will be in control of your experience.

Good luck!