Anyone who owns a smartphone has probably found themselves reaching for it automatically and aimlessly scrolling for much longer than they intended. What is this doing to us, and how can we take back control?
We aren’t imagining it: our ability to focus for long periods of time really is eroding, and our screen might be to blame.
Macquarie University psychologist, Associate Professor Wayne Warburton, recently published a paper that found up to three per cent of young Australians could have internet gaming disorder, a disorder associated with screen addiction.
And he says people of any age are vulnerable to the problem of screen overuse, not only children and teens.
“For most of us, this is not an addiction or a disorder. It’s a habit that we’ve developed, but one that’s having a real impact on our lives.
“Screens can be a constant distraction, and it all comes down to the way the devices and apps we use are designed.
“While we’re using them, they’re giving us lots of little dopamine hits, but they never reward us with that eventual feeling of satisfaction that stops a behaviour, so we keep scrolling. There’s always the promise of something better just out of reach," Warburton says.
“When we’re not using them, they try to draw us back with frequent notifications that distract us from whatever else we’re doing.”
Have you got nomophobia?
Many of us know the feeling of mild anxiety associated with forgetting our phones, but for some people, that feeling can cross over into nomophobia – short for “no mobile phone phobia” – a serious fear of being disconnected.
Warburton says smartphones, tablets, computers and TVs can all fuel screen overuse, but phones can be particularly problematic because of their constant availability.
He describes the human brain as a use-it-or-lose-it organ: present it with challenges, and we force it to create new connections to solve those problems, but don’t challenge it and existing connections will fade.
How too much screen time is hurting our kids
If something external is doing all the heavy lifting to divert our attention, the brain goes with the flow rather than looking for other sources of stimulation.
“Brain imaging of people with severe screen overuse shows a drop-off in brain activity in certain areas,” Warburton says.
“The longer this goes on, the greater the effect on our ability to focus and pay attention.
“You can see this in the reduction of the optimal length of social media videos. Once two-minute videos would retain attention, but now that’s too long. That’s why platforms like TikTok are so popular.”
What does screen overuse do to us?
PhD candidate Michoel Moshel is working with Warburton on a systematic review and meta-analysis of research studies on the effects of screen overuse on cognition.
“Screens have been found to have an impact on almost every part of human cognition, but sustained attention is what suffers the most, followed by executive function, which is our higher order thinking skills, like problem solving and impulse control,” Moshel says.
“People often say they used to read for hours, but now have trouble concentrating even for short periods. Electronic devices are very fast-paced and attention-grabbing, so other activities are less compelling by comparison.
“Screen use is also affecting our ability to focus on work. Studies have found office workers tend to only focus on one task for about three minutes before getting distracted, and for university students, that’s down to 65 seconds.”
What can we do about it?
Moshel says internal and external distractions contribute to screen overuse, and both need to be dealt with if we are going to reduce our reliance on our phones.
The external factors relate to app and device design, and the first step he advises is turning off all notifications except for calls.
Yes, all of them.
“We feel like we might miss out on something, but we can receive hundreds of notifications a day, and every time we get one, it can take several minutes to regain focus on the task at hand,” he says.
“One study showed that just having a smartphone on your desk can serve as a distraction, so try putting it in another room, or at the very least, out of your line of sight.”
A good starting point to fight the internal distractions is to pinpoint our psychological triggers: when are we reaching for the phone, why and under what circumstances?
Often, the reason is discomfort, Moshel says.
“We might be bored, or we can’t sleep, or perhaps we’re feeling awkward because we’re alone in a public space. We need to relearn that a bit of discomfort is natural, often good, and it’s fine to spend a few minutes not doing anything.
“It can be highly beneficial, as this is when our minds can wander, and we have new ideas that might not come to us if we are distracted by something else. Give yourself that time to think.
“Leave the phone in the car when you go into a shop or keep it in your bag while you’re walking to the bus stop.”
He also suggests substituting another activity for checking your phone. If you’re in the habit of sitting down with your phone as soon as you get home, try using that time to read a book. If you know you’re prone to doom-scrolling Twitter in bed, charge the phone in another room so you can’t reach it easily.
“Think of your attention span as a muscle that hasn’t been exercised,” Moshel says. “Building it up will take time, but it can be done.”
Other strategies for breaking your phone habit
Set boundaries Give yourself set times to check your phone and start a timer. Get comfortable with not being reachable 24/7 and put your phone on do not disturb for part of the day. Most smartphones will override this if someone calls more than three times in a few minutes, so you can still be reached in emergencies.
Learn about your app options YouTube allows you to turn off autoplay and suggested videos, on Instagram you can choose to see only the people you follow, and there are browser extensions that can let you swap Facebook’s infinite newsfeed for a single page.
Reduce the number of reasons you use your phone Every time you pick up your phone, you’re likely to check something else, so uninstall apps, and reintroduce old-school devices like an MP3 player to listen to music, a watch to check the time, and a clock for your morning alarm.
Make your phone’s home screen less attention-grabbing. Without the bright thumbnails and eye‑catching background, your phone becomes less enticing. Apps like Lessphone can help you create a plain home screen with just a few basic functions.
The original version of this article appeared as a media release from Macquarie University.