My phone is taking over my life. 
How can I cut down the time I spend on it? 
April 2023 | The Learning and Wellbeing Team

Large scale surveys have consistently shown that people are spending increasingly large amounts of time entertaining themselves on their phones. Whether it is Instagram, Tik Tok, texting or calling friends, shopping online, or watching videos, the amount of time is adding up fast.  Organizations that monitor the use of phone apps estimated that people are spending an average of 4.8 hours a day on their mobile phones, even more on the weekends. That’s about a third of your waking life — and that’s just your phone.  Of that time, 7 out of every 10 minutes is being spent on social, photo and video apps, with TikTok attracting more time than any other app. 

These are alarming statistics. It is important to keep in mind that these are averages. Some of us (about 1 in 10) are spending as many as 7 a day on the phone. It can seem hard, at first, to understand where those hours are coming from, when you have to sleep, eat, do your work, attend your class and spend time with your friends and family. But in fact, it is not that hard to imagine. Those hours spent on the phone come at the expense of something else. 

The impact of phones on your well-being, mental health, school work and relationships is complex and far-reaching. Here are a few of the effects that researchers have identified. 

Impact on learning:
Studies examining how the amount of time spent entertaining yourself on a screen (of any kind has shown) that more than two hours of the day will adversely affect your performance at school as early as high school. Two hours of screen time (for the purpose of entertaining yourself) is 14 hours a week that you don’t have to spend on other things. More than two hours a day will cut into the time you have for papers, tests, exams, reading and presentations. So, a little bit more than two hours a day may not affect you that much, but the more time you spend on your phone, the less there is for school work (as well as many other things).

Recommendation: Keep the amount of time entertaining yourself with a screen to just not more than two hours a day. The best way to stay on top of this is to track the amount of time you spend on different apps and, whenever possible, set a hard limit. 

Impact on sleep:
Studies examining the impact of the light emanating from your screen can interfere with and prevent the release of melatonin, which signals to your body that it is time to go to sleep.  Bright lights from your phone (as well as other sources) at or around the time that you go to sleep, can trick your brain into thinkg that it is not time to sleep and prevent the release of melatonin. 

Recommendation: Create a sleep routine that allows you to wind down and relax. That means getting off your phone and any of those phone apps that tend to stimulate you (e.g., Tik Tok), that gets you overthinking what your friends are doing (e.g., Instagram), or require too much of your attention (e.g., Wordle).  Pick something more relaxing, such as reading (on a backlit screen) or listening to calming music, thirty minutes before you fall asleep. A book-book (i.e., with pages and no backlighting) is one of the best ways to wind down.   

Impact on concentration:

Research studies have shown that even having a phone on your desk can diminish your attention and concentration. Even if your phone has the volumn on low or been placed in Airplane mode, the mere presence of your phone can make you wonder about what might be going on or wonder if you have received a message from a friend. Other large studies involving over 4500 young people found that overall cognition (i.e., good memory, attention, and processing speed) was diminished in students spending more than 2 hours of recreational screentime. 

Recommendation:  When you are studying, make sure that your phone is out of sight and out of mind. Put your phone in your bag, in a box, in a different room (get the idea) while your are studying. 

Impact on health and well-being:

There are so many benefits from phone apps in terms of relationships, school work and even your own personal health. Here are just a few:

  • Meeting new people
  • Maintaining friendships
  • Ask for help with school work
  • Staying informed and up to date
  • Buying anything that you need from your home
  • Reducing your isolation
  • Asking for help with personal issues or crises

And while there are many benefits, research shows that phone apps can also undermine your selfworth and mental health, and in some instances, cause real harm and trauma. Studies have shown that:

  • Increased depression and anxiety
  • Increased motor vehicle accidents
  • Increased isolation
Fun fact:  Five days at an outdoor camp without screentime improved activities at young people’s social skills. 

Impact on what counts as rewarding
Phone apps have made everything easy. And that is a really, really good thing, in so many sitatuions. But it can also be a draw back. It is easier to watch a movie at home, than go out. It is easier to buy things online, than go to a store. It is easy to get together with friends online than go for a hike. It is easier to spend a couple hours online than to organize a dragon boat race.  Entertaining yourself has never been easier. And that is the problem. Activities that take time, effort or skill, just cannot compete. 

We can all easilty get to a point, where the activity, if it is not engaging, enjoyable, or fun right away, will never be something to capture anyone’s interest.    

Is cell phone addiction a real thing?

At present, cell phone addiction is not recognized as a diagnosable condition. However, this may change at some point in the future. The most recent revision of the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) now includes, for the first time, the diagnosis of Gaming Disorder (6C51), which is defined as “a pattern of gaming behaviour (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”

There are several features of this definition that contribute to viewing this as a disorder, including a loss of control of the behaviour, prioritizing the behaviour over other interests and activities, as well as a continuation or escalation of the behaviour even after it has resulted in negative consequences.    

Still, excessive cell phone use, even when out of control and causing negative consequences, is not, as of yet, considered a disorder. 

Not sure if your cellphone use is out of control?

 Complete the Smart Phone Addiction Quiz, to see if your phone use is getting out of control  You will be provided feedback about whether or not you cell phone has become excessive and problematic. 

Disclaimer: The screening quiz you are about to take is NOT designed to diagnose a disorder, and despite the name given to this scale by the scale developers, excessive use of a cell phone, even when it is adversely affecting your life, is not currently considered a disorder or an addition, like a substance use disorder or a gambling disorder. And as always, only a healthcare professional, such as a physician, psychiatrist, or psychologist can diagnose any kind of disorder. 

Keep in mind:

Cell phone apps are designed to keep you engaged. Research by Virgin Mobile has shown that smartphone users are receiving 427% more messages and notifications than they did a decade ago and are sending 278% more texts than they did before.

Even the manner in which you interact on a phone app is designed to deliver feedback in away that keeps you playing. Videos tend to be ultrabrief. Games are designed to be just hard enough to keep you play and will adapt to your style of play. 

How to spend less time on your phone:

Here are a number of strategies to help you reduce the amount of time that you spend on your phone. 

#1. Schedule when you are going to check your phone.  While you are at work or school, set aside five minutes at the end of an hour of work or studying to check your messages.  If you want to check out and relax with your phone for longer periods of time, wait until the end of the day. 

#2. Limit your exposure to your phone during certain times or activities. Turn off your phone or don’t take your phone with you to dinner, when you are studying, are in a meeting or are sleeping. If checking your phone has become a habit, it will be very difficult to keep that habit from interfering with other important activities. If this is a really tough habit to break, you may need to put your phone out of reach while studying or eating (i.e., in a box, in a closet, in a room, or on a different floor). 

Alarming Fact: 30% of people report checking their phone in the middle of the night while trying to sleep out of fear they may miss a text or message.  

#3. Replace smartphone use with other activities. It is generally easier to break a bad habit if you can replace it with a healthier habit. Try making a storyboard of your week that schedules a number of activities (other than checking your phone) both at home as well as outside of your home. This might be a new activity or something that you used to do (which phone use has squeezed out). 

It can be particularly difficult to resist the urge to use your smartphone when you are bored, lonely or alone. You can prepare for the inevitability by deciding what five things you will do for 30 minutes rather than using your phone. Thirty minutes is not a long time. But, there is always a good chance that once you start something, you will keep at it for more than thirty minutes. 

Tip: One of the most effective activities to reduce your cell phone use is exercize. Seven intervention studies, involving more than 1500 people, have shown that exercising can leading to large and sigmificant reductions in cell phone use, examining the effectiveness 

#4. Track your phone usage. Many phones ship with built-in apps that will help you monitor how much time you spend on your phone and can even provide you with notifications when you are exceeding a certain amount of time.  

Record your phone usage on a piece of paper that is in a highly visible location (i.e., on your wall or on the fridge) and write down at the end of each day how much time you spend on your phone. Although that information is in your phone, recording that number in a more visible or even public space will serve as a more effective reminder than what is in your phone. 

#5. Enlist a friend to keep you accountable. 
Sticking to a plan can get a whole lot easier if you do this with a friend. Checking in with a friend each day makes you more accountable. A friend can also motivate you to keep at it when you slip up or experience a setback. Find someone who wants to dial back their phone use and do it together. 

#6. Deal with your fear of missing out. 
One of the biggest hurdles in cutting back phone use is the fear that you might be missing out on something. Whatever you might miss out on, it is going to be there at the end of the day. Trust that you can actually wait until the end of the day to check out a website, respond to a friend, or see what others have been up to. 


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Sources: (2022).  State of mobile. Downloaded on March 28, 2023, from
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Uhls, Y. T., Michikyan, M., Morris, J., Garcia, D., Small, G. W., Zgourou, E., & Greenfield, P. M. (2014). Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Computers in Human Behavior, 39, 387–392.

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