A recently published book called The Anxious Generation has helped spark a much needed national conversation about the impact of smartphone use on our mental wellbeing.

Author Jonathan Haidt lays out a compelling case about the implications of a phone-based childhood for a generation of kids and suggests what could be done to encourage the return to a healthier, play-based childhood.

His findings note a spike in anxiety levels among teenagers that begins just after 2010, when smartphones became mainstream.

Our attachment to, and dependency on, smartphones is something we can all reflect on.

smartphone addiction
Photo by cottonbro studio

The 4th Annual Mental State of the World Report published this year looked at overall mental wellbeing in internet-enabled populations. It concluded there were persisting levels of poor mental health across the age ranges, identifying smartphones and a fraying of relationships as key determining factors.

In the UK, the average adult checks their smartphone every 12 minutes and spends more than four hours online a day. That’s more than a day a week.

40% of adults look at their phone within five minutes of waking up (65% for those aged 35 and under).

And 37% of adults check their phone five minutes before going to sleep (60% for those aged 35 and under).

A study by Reviews.org found that 57% of adults in the USA felt they were addicted to their smartphones.

smartphone addiction

When separated from their phones people are feeling restless and irritable.

We are scrolling, sharing, posting, liking, checking WhatsApp, checking emails, searching, swiping, commenting, tweeting, re-tweeting, scrolling again, doomscrolling..again.

We’re losing our sense of time, scrolling the day away and it’s having a disorienting effect on our real-time emotional state.

And for what? Fear of missing out? Habit? To feel valued? Or maybe because, as Apple co-founder Steve Jobs feared, we are indeed addicted to our phones.

Yet what chance do we have when the business model of multi-billion-dollar digital companies is to keep us glued to our screens. The attention economy needs to harvest our attention in order to survive.

Like gambling, the slot machine model of refreshing and scrolling on our mobiles, keeps us hooked and yearning for more.

The constant need to check notifications, social media updates and messages is leading to a compulsive behaviour pattern and an unhealthy attachment to our phones.

It’s rather ironic that mental health awareness, especially online, has never been greater, yet we have an ever-worsening mental health crisis.

Last time I checked the #mentalhealth hashtag had around 110.7 billion views on TikTok. #mentalhealthawareness had 27.6 billion views. What good are hashtags and awareness campaigns really making?

Social comparison is a growing problem and the constant exposure to the seemingly perfect lives of others often leads to feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem and depression. Our performative, digital self, has superseded our offline self on the priority ladder.

Overexposure to social media and online content is also contributing to lower levels of self-worth, body image issues, higher levels of stress and anxiety.

The human brain was never intended to consume so much content and information and it’s no wonder that empirical evidence shows that our attention spans have shortened over the last 20 years.

smartphone addiction
Photo by Porapak Apichodilok

Excessive phone use is also leading to increased sleep deprivation, further exacerbating mental health and cognitive issues.

Of course used appropriately the internet and smartphones offer huge benefits and have become an integral part of modern life. Indeed the Oxford Institute found recently that the internet, when used appropriately, has a strong link to mental wellbeing. It’s a lifeline for many people who are housebound due to health reasons.

But we do need to curate a much healthier attachment to smartphones in order to lead a more rewarding, meaningful life.

Collective action required

By taking an active role in addressing smartphone overuse, key policymakers (governments, schools, workplaces, healthcare organisations) can facilitate a healthier digital environment and improve the wellbeing of both children and adults.

Ninety seven per cent of 12-year-olds in Britain have smartphones so a huge socio-cultural shift will be needed to return kids to a play-based childhood.

photo of children playing with dry leaves
Photo by Michael Morse

Children need face-to-face interactions, to be outside more, play with their friends, run, dance, sing, fall about and get mucky.

Because the act of playing is crucial in the developmental stages of life.

It is important for caregivers to be mindful of their own smartphone usage as it can impact child development and attachment.

Time spent on a smartphone means time and attention away from a child. No matter what age, they’ll notice.

Every adult can of course play a part in modelling better smartphone behaviour for youngsters.

More connected but more lonely

Through technology, kids are more connected to their friends than ever, yet are reporting elevated levels of loneliness.

They come home after school, put their headphones on and play video games with their friends, or strangers, where they are bombarded with junk food adverts for 52 minutes every hour on average.

video gaming addiction
Photo by lalesh aldarwish

To help tackle loneliness and isolation, a new project led by the University College of London (UCoL) is actively encouraging kids to get out the house and engage in activities such as sport, art, fishing, and volunteering.

“Friendships and social connections are the cornerstone of healthy adolescent development,” UCoL Professor Daisy Fancourt said.

It worth noting that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates didn’t allow his children smartphones or their own computer until they were 14. Steve Jobs banned iPad’s at home. “We think it’s too dangerous for the kids,” he said in 2011.

School interventions show positive results

Some schools are mandating pupils to put their smartphones in lockable pouches for the duration of the school day.

For John Wallis Academy in Kent, the results have been eye-catching with detentions down by 40% in just one term and truancy from classes down by 25%.

In the playground, rather than huddling around someone’s phone, pupils are playing tag for the first time. In the school canteen kids are engaging and interacting by playing card games.

What’s more, teachers are having to speed up their teaching methods because pupils are concentrating better.

Pupils themselves say they think they’ll now do better in exams because their smartphones are locked away.

Heart-warmingly, one teacher noticed that older pupils are even flirting for the first time. “We obviously didn’t do it for that reason,” she told the Times newspaper. “But I suddenly realised the only way they had been communicating was online.”

smartphone addiction
Photo by Antoni Shkraba

A city-wide intervention

St Albans in Hertfordshire is attempting to become the first UK city to go smartphone-free for all schoolchildren under-14, which some hope could create a domino effect.

Headteachers in more than 30 Primary Schools across St Albans sent a joint letter to families declaring their school’s smartphone-free.

In the letter they were encouraging parents to delay giving their children a smartphone until at least Year 9 (13-14 years olds). The response from parents has been overwhelmingly positive.

The business world

To combat increased burnout rates, some companies are switching their servers off at night to prevent the compulsion of employees to access emails and servers at all hours.

Right to disconnect legislation is being introduced in many countries so employees are able to legally switch off outside of their contracted hours, unless there’s specific agreements in place with employers. The UK could become the 18th country to introduce similar legislation if ‘right to switch off’ policy is enacted later this year.

A mobile-free town in France

Some communities are taking matters into their own hands. Seine-Port, a small town south of Paris, has restricted smartphones use in public after a referendum in February.

smartphone addiction

Though not legally binding, adults and children are no longer allowed to scroll on their phones while walking down the street, sitting with others on a park bench or in shops, cafes and restaurants.

Parents are not allowed to scroll on their phone whilst waiting to pick up their kids from school.

The restrictions are gently policed by locals and signage across the town.

Back to the future

Generation Z ((born 1997-2012) are breaking the mould and ditching their smartphones for dumbphones.

They are the only demographic who are spending less time on social media since 2021, with three in five saying they would like to be offline even more.

Tech companies are beginning to meet this need with feature-free phones back in fashion but slicker looking.

The Wisephone looks similar to an iPhone, yet is ‘an ‘intentionally boring phone,’ which comes with ‘the essential tools’ which can meet your specific needs (e.g. maps, clocks, music, notes, cameras, calling and messaging options).

The BoringPhone aims to ‘get you out of your phone and into life,’ and can be tailored to your needs, with options including having no internet browser, social media, games and specific or no apps (eg, you may want weather, map, travel and payment apps retained).

Nokia are tapping into nostalgia by re-launching their iconic Nokia 3210, first launched during the ’90s brick-phone era.

Nokia phone
Photo by Masood Aslami

Individual action

With the instantaneous nature of a smartphone and messaging apps like WhatsApp, there’s often a pressure to respond to people within a specific time frame or an expectation from others that you are always available.

Communicating with people your desire to limit phone usage can help prevent any unrealistic expectations that you are always online.

Self-awareness and critical thinking skills can help you be mindful of your own triggers and vulnerabilities to excess smartphone use.

By understanding the curated nature of online content and algorithms and the potential for manipulation and the mindless scrolling trap, you can develop a more discerning and realistic perspective of online space.

person holding iphone showing social networks folder
Photo by Tracy Le Blanc

Turning off notifications is the obvious way you can start taking control of when and how you engage with news sources, social media and other apps.

It avoids constant interruptions and the urge to check them immediately.

Removing social media apps from your home screen creates extra steps before opening an app, which subtly breaks the scrolling trap.

It also gives you that moment to ask yourself why you’re logging on in the first place. Being mindful of the purpose can help you engage with your smartphone in a more intentional and positive way.

The Brick is a small gadget which could help with this. It allows you to temporarily block everything on your smartphone except for the apps you want.

Research has found that almost a quarter of 18–34-year-olds have never answered their phones and 70 per cent opt for text communication over conversation.

Between 2021 and 2022, the number of minutes spent making phone calls in the UK decreased overall by 9.2%.

Yet so much meaning and understanding gets lost in translation via text-based communication (let alone emojis), which can be prevented by a simple phone call.

So getting back to basics by picking up the phone can save a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety which is so often unfounded.

And it’s always good to talk.

smartphone addiction
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch

Further reading

The Anxious Generation.

‘We need to go places and touch things’: the people turning away from smartphones.

Can You Raise a Teen Today Without a Smartphone? Yes, you can. We did and this is what we learned.

Adults and teens turn to dumbphones.

Smartphone free childhood – join the movement.

An ultimate guide to kids, smartphones and social.

The Mental State of the World report.

Get in touch

If you are interested in starting counselling, you can email me on andywestoncounselling@gmail.com

More information about me can be found, here.