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Help! My Phone Is Taking Over My Life

Half of all teens say they feel hooked on their phones. Here’s why—and what you can do about it.

Art by Carolyn Ridsdale

    You’re trying to do homework or read. But you pick up your phone to check your Instagram. Your awesome dog picture got only two likes. So you check again in a minute. Someone has posted a YouTube link. Who can resist the “Top 10 NBA Dunks of the Decade”? Then you get a Snap from a friend. Obviously you have to respond—and do it immediately. 

    Two hours later, you look at your book. You’ve read only a page and a half. 

    Will you ever get anything done again?

    You are doing your homework. But you stop. You pick up your phone. You check your Instagram. The picture of your dog got only two likes. So you wait a minute. Then you check again. Someone has posted a YouTube link. It’s for a basketball video. You watch the video. Then you get a Snap from a friend. You respond. 

    Two hours later, you look at your homework. You’ve done almost none of it. 

    You’re reading a book for homework. But soon you pick up your phone to check your Instagram and discover that your awesome dog picture has received only two likes. So after a minute goes by, you check again. Someone has posted a YouTube link to a video called “Top 10 NBA Dunks of the Decade.” Who could resist that? Then you get a Snap from a friend. Obviously you have to respond immediately.  

    Two hours later, you look at your book and realize you’ve read only a page and a half. 

    Will you ever get anything done again?

Online Constantly

    Smartphones are powerful tools. Social media apps connect you with friends no matter where you are. Wikipedia answers almost any crazy question you may have. Google Maps makes sure you don’t get lost. 

    But we don’t just use our phones when we need them. We use them all the time. Americans check their phones an average of 80 times a day. We check emails in church and at dinner. We answer texts on sidewalks and in grocery store aisles. One in four teens say they’re online “almost constantly.” 

    People are addicted to their phones. And that’s no accident. Why? Companies like Facebook and Instagram get paid to display ads on their apps. And the more time people spend on an app, the more money that app company gets paid. Many of the apps you use are designed to get you hooked. 

    Smartphones can be very helpful. Social media apps connect you with your friends. Wikipedia has a lot of good information. Google Maps helps you find places. 

     Our phones are great when we need them. But we use them much more than that. We use them all the time. Americans check their phones about 80 times a day. We check emails at dinner. We answer texts on sidewalks. Some teens say they are almost always online.

    People are addicted to their phones. And there’s a reason why. Companies like Facebook and Instagram put ads on their apps. They are paid to do that. The more someone uses an app, the more money the app company is paid. So companies design their apps to get you to stay online. 

    Smartphones are powerful tools in a variety of ways. Social media apps connect you with friends no matter your location, Wikipedia answers almost any crazy question you may have, and Google Maps makes sure you don’t get lost. 

    But we don’t just use our phones when we need them. We use them all the time. Americans check their phones an average of 80 times a day. We check emails in church and at dinner, and we answer texts on sidewalks and in grocery store aisles. One in four teens say they’re online “almost constantly.” 

    People are addicted to their phones—and that’s no accident. Many of the apps you use are designed to get you hooked. Why? Companies like Facebook and Instagram are paid to display ads on their apps. The more time people spend on an app, the more money that app company gets paid. 

Addictive Apps

    How do these apps get you hooked? The answer lies in your brain. 

    Suppose your latest post gets dozens of likes. You feel loved, appreciated, and noticed. Your brain releases a chemical that makes you feel good. The chemical is called dopamine. It’s like a natural drug. You want more of it. So you check your phone more often. 

    Once you’re online, apps are good at keeping you there. They do it by feeding you a constant supply of pictures and posts. You finish one YouTube video. Then your phone automatically plays another one you might like. 

    Facebook and Instagram work in a similar way. Your feed fills up with new posts even as you look at it. It’s like a bowl of potato chips that keeps getting refilled. You eat and eat without even thinking.

    How do app companies do it? The answer lies in your brain. 

    It goes like this: Your latest post gets a lot of likes. You feel loved. You feel appreciated. Your brain releases a chemical. The chemical is called dopamine. It makes you feel good. It’s a natural drug. You want more of it. So you check your phone again. 

    After you go online, apps are good at keeping you there. They feed you a constant supply of pictures and links. You finish one YouTube video. Then another video automatically plays. 

    Facebook and Instagram work the same way. Your feed is always filling up with new posts. It’s like a bowl of potato chips that keeps getting refilled. You just keep eating and eating.

    How do these apps get you hooked? The way your brain functions helps provide the answer.

    Suppose your latest post gets dozens of likes. You feel loved, appreciated, and noticed. Your brain releases a chemical called dopamine, which is a natural drug that makes you feel good. Of course you want more of it, so you check your phone more frequently. 

    Once you’re online, apps are effective at keeping you there by feeding you an endless stream of pictures and posts. After you finish one YouTube video, your phone automatically plays another one you might like. 

    Facebook and Instagram work in a similar way: Your feed fills up with new posts even as you look at it. It’s like a bowl of potato chips that keeps getting refilled, so you eat and eat without even thinking.

Health Threat

Source: Common Sense Media

    Should we really be worried about the amount of time we spend online? Experts say yes. Like junk food, screen time can be bad for your health. Screen lovers are likely to pick a soccer video game over real soccer. That means they get less exercise. They also stay on their phones late at night. That makes it hard to sleep well. 

    Several studies have shown that screen time doesn’t make people happy. In one study, scientists talked to 1,800 high school students. They found that teens who use their phones a lot are more likely to be depressed. 

    Some countries see internet addiction as a major health problem. China and South Korea have opened hundreds of treatment centers. Patients at the centers are usually cut off from all internet use. In China, some of the centers are known as “boot camps.” That’s because teenage patients have to wear uniforms and do military-style drills. 

    Think about it: Putting down your phone is hard. But it sure sounds better than doing 100 push-ups a day—doesn’t it?

    Should we worry about being online a lot? Experts say yes. Screen time can be bad for your health. You might pick a soccer video game over real soccer. That means you get less exercise. You might stay up late on your phone. Then you have a hard time sleeping. 

    Several studies have shown that being online doesn’t make people happy. In one study, scientists talked to 1,800 high school students. The teens who used their phones a lot were more likely to be depressed. 

    Some countries see internet addiction as a big problem. China and South Korea are two of these countries. They have started hundreds of programs to help people. People in the programs are not allowed to use the internet. In China, some of the programs are known as “boot camps.” People have to wear uniforms. They have to do military-style exercises.

    Should we really be worried about the amount of time we spend online? Experts say yes. Like junk food, screen time can be detrimental to your health. Screen lovers are more likely to play a soccer video game than engage in the real sport, which means they get less exercise. They also stay on their phones late into the night, which makes it difficult to sleep well. 

    Several studies have shown that screen time doesn’t result in a higher level of happiness. In one study, scientists talked to 1,800 high school students. They found that teens who use their phones a lot are more likely to be depressed. 

    Some countries see internet addiction as a major health problem. China and South Korea have opened hundreds of treatment centers where patients are cut off from all internet use. In China, some of the centers are known as “boot camps” because teenage patients are required to wear uniforms and do military-style drills. 

    Putting down your phone might be difficult, but it sure sounds better than doing 100 push-ups a day—doesn’t it?

Breaking Free

    Don’t worry. There are ways to trick yourself into staying off-line without going to boot camp. You can set your phone to go gray. A gray screen will get rid of all those bright colors that grab your attention. You can also choose to receive push notifications just once a day. That way, your phone doesn’t interrupt you every time you get a Snap. 

    But there’s only one way to make sure you can’t use your phone. Get it out of your sight. Leave it in another room. Hand it over to your parents. It might feel like you cut off an arm. But just wait. Feel yourself relax.

    Now pick up a book. Chances are you’ll get through more than a page and a half.

    Don’t worry. You can learn to stay off-line without going to boot camp. You can set your phone to gray. A bright screen grabs your attention. But a gray screen does not. You can also change your push notifications. Pick “once a day.” That way, your phone won’t make a noise every time you get a Snap. 

    But there’s a better way to stop checking your phone. Get it out of your sight. Leave it in another room. Give it to your parents. It might feel like you cut off an arm. But just wait. Feel yourself relax.

    Now start your homework. Chances are you’ll finish it without stopping.

    Don’t worry. There are ways to trick yourself into staying off-line without going to boot camp. One way is by setting your phone’s screen to gray, which eliminates all those bright colors that grab your attention. Another way is by choosing to receive push notifications just once a day so your phone doesn’t interrupt you every time you get a Snap. 

    But there’s only one way to ensure that you truly won’t use your phone. Get it out of your sight—leave it in another room or hand it over to your parents. It might feel like you cut off an arm, but just wait—soon you’ll feel yourself relax.

    Now get back to your homework. Chances are you’ll get through more than a page and a half of that book.

The Trade

A special message from your phone

I’ll trade you
two hours on Twitch watching Ninja play Fortnite
for two hours dancing, dribbling, or dreaming
four hours playing Fortnite yourself 
for staying awake in science

I’ll trade you
twelve likes for finishing your algebra homework 
four YouTube videos for a game of fetch with your dog
nine Snaps for a story from your grandpa’s past

I’ll trade you
twenty-five texts for the look on your best friend’s face 
as he talks about last night’s game

I’ll trade you 
a never-ending series of bleeps, buzzes, and dings
for believing you’re enough
without them

I’ll trade you
two hours on Twitch watching Ninja play Fortnite
for two hours dancing, dribbling, or dreaming
four hours playing Fortnite yourself 
for staying awake in science

I’ll trade you
twelve likes for finishing your algebra homework 
four YouTube videos for a game of fetch with your dog
nine Snaps for a story from your grandpa’s past

I’ll trade you
twenty-five texts for the look on your best friend’s face 
as he talks about last night’s game

I’ll trade you 
a never-ending series of bleeps, buzzes, and dings
for believing you’re enough
without them

I’ll trade you
two hours on Twitch watching Ninja play Fortnite
for two hours dancing, dribbling, or dreaming
four hours playing Fortnite yourself 
for staying awake in science

I’ll trade you
twelve likes for finishing your algebra homework 
four YouTube videos for a game of fetch with your dog
nine Snaps for a story from your grandpa’s past

I’ll trade you
twenty-five texts for the look on your best friend’s face 
as he talks about last night’s game

I’ll trade you 
a never-ending series of bleeps, buzzes, and dings
for believing you’re enough
without them

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