Mind Matters with Kyle MacDonald: Lockdowns spurred addiction to social media and searching on phone

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Q: My partner has spent more and more time on her phone over the lockdowns, and now she’s barely ever off it. She gets angry when I bring it up – and says she’s not addicted. Mostly she’s on social media and random searching. Is it actually an addiction?

A: I’m old enough to remember when phones were large, clunky things that lived on a hall table or were screwed to a wall, and you couldn’t take them anywhere because they had a cord. Now a smartphone seems almost indispensable, as every-day as a wallet and a set of keys.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that they are the most life-changing invention of my lifetime.

Part of the reason for their success, of course, is the fact they seem so, well, indispensable. Phone, diary, wallet, photo album, camera – all of human history’s knowledge in your pocket. It’s the stuff of sci-fi.

And, increasingly, also a portal to our social life and social connections. Even more so in this pandemic age.

But we do have to be careful about throwing around the word “addiction” too lightly. Traditionally addiction was defined as becoming hooked on something you put into your body. Typically alcohol and other drugs. But now it’s easy to become cynical about the fact that almost everything can be an “addiction”.

But we do now see that some behaviours – gambling, for instance – are addictive because of how they make us feel – pleasurable distraction and almost hypnotic engagement – but even gambling is an addiction only if it causes negative consequences.

And that’s where we come back to your partner.

We’ve all needed our distractions over the last two years. God knows I wouldn’t have coped without Netflix and random podcasts to distract my thoughts from the ongoing stress and disaster that seems to surround us constantly.

But when distraction tips into avoidance as a lifestyle, when we find it hard to come back to what we’re distracting from, then the solution can become the problem.

And of course, no one likes to be told they’re wrong, or “have a problem”.

In terms of the problem, or addiction itself, most of the problem with excessive screen use is not what we’re doing but what we’re not doing anymore because we’re on a device.

And while it is true that screen use triggers “dopamine”, the brain’s pleasure chemical, it’s also true that all pleasurable things do – relationships, exercise – plenty of things that don’t have the negative consequences.

My advice is to propose that you do it together – get off your screens, that is. Are you ready for the challenge of getting off your device too?

Suggest as a couple or a household you’ll have a device switch-off time, when you turn them off and put them in another room. And stop taking your phones with you when you go to bed.

Read a book, listen to the radio, or even better – talk to each other. Who knows what other dopamine-promoting activities you might rediscover.

Focus on what you want to do – and make the focus communication. Talk about what you want to do together, not what you want her to stop doing. That only breeds defensiveness.

And if it’s too hard, or if there have been painful or upsetting things happening that means stopping distracting is actually painful, then it may be a bit rough at first. You may even need to encourage your partner to talk it through with you, a close friend or even a therapist.

Being digitally connected is fun – and even necessary these days. But if it’s at the cost of our offline human connections, then it’s too high a price to pay. Ultimately, that’s the only connection that really matters.

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