Digital devices have become integral to modern life; almost to the point that for some people they have become an extension of self. It is now close to impossible to imagine not having such devices immediately to hand wherever we are, day or night. They can seem and may now even be, in some respects, indispensable. But is their portable convenience also problematic for some of us?
A “consuming relationship” is one where, in the process of consuming, you also become consumed, thereby losing a degree of autonomy. Much more time and energy than is actually needed is given over to interaction with the device. This bears some similarity to the substance addicted person whose life becomes dictated by the need to secure and consume their drug(s) of choice.
Reflexes become increasingly conditioned and automatic, linking stimulus directly to some sort of reward, ranging from the simple discovery of what’s prompted an alert, to the tantalizing promise of access to all that can be transacted on line. Smartphones tend to be switched on almost continuously. As a result, they effectively keep their user switched on too.
For people suffering from addictions, there are three main concerns, especially as regards smartphones.
Whether being tethered to their device has an addictive quality in itself.
Whether any addiction, such as to gambling, pornography, shopping etc., is facilitated and exacerbated by the ease of access to these preoccupations on line.
Whether a consuming attachment to a device risks interfering with the treatment of addiction.
One of the easiest ways to find out how attached you are to something is to try going without it for a while. In the case of a smartphone or related devices, such as tablets, putting them aside for up to a week would be a good start. Longer if possible. You can then monitor and assess the inevitable reactions.
It is likely that you will experience some form of discomfort, probably psycho-emotional in nature (e.g. anxiety, irritability) but it may have a physical aspect (e.g. restlessness, tension) as well. You may reel off all sorts of reasons to rationalise your continued and unhindered use of the device. Some will make sense while others will be purely defensive. It helps to examine these with someone else.
The strength of the reaction and how long it lasts will give you clues as to how consuming your attachment has become. You may have already noticed these “withdrawal symptoms” if you have ever mislaid your phone (even briefly), lost access to charging or when social etiquette requires it to be switched off. To monitor yourself, draw up a list of these reactions.
You can also assess your relationship with your device by answering questions in these areas as honestly as possible:
Depending on how long we sleep, we spend roughly 16 hours of the 24-hour clock awake. How much of that time is spent on the device? When you’re not using it how much time is spent thinking about using it? What is done with the time spent when you do? Is it quality time (i.e., healthy and productive) or mindless and aimless as you drift from one thing to another? Do you lose track of time and even forget when, where and why you began? If you had a clear purpose, is it one that simply enabled an addiction such as to gambling or pornography?
At first, as with substances or behaviours which become addictive, we make a choice to use something that gives us a sense of control over what we feel. Over time it can feel less and less like a free choice as it turns into a compulsion; that is, it comes to feel next to impossible not to (choose to) do it.
When it comes to something like a smartphone, it is worth asking yourself the following: Do you feel in control of the device or do you feel controlled by it to some extent? (Bear in mind that there is a tendency to deny loss of control as it can feel shameful and provokes anxiety.) Do you feel compelled to check your phone whether it alerts you or not? Does this checking happen a great many times during the day and often when there is no real reason for you to do so? Do you check more often than you feel comfortable with doing so? Do you feel compelled to check it immediately it alerts you no matter what you are doing? Would you like to feel less attached to the device (even free of it) and do you spend time thinking about what life would be like if you were? Do you find it difficult to see how you could be less attached?
Due to its easy portability, the phone is — a bit like a pack of cigarettes for a smoker — ever present, often including being placed next to the bed or on the meal table. As it may awaken and grab your attention at any time, it can come to feel intrusive. Rather than remaining a subservient aid to your life, its use may begin to interfere with activities and real-world relationships.
During time spent with someone else do you still feel compelled to look at the phone as soon as it alerts you and even when it doesn’t? When participating in a much loved activity, are you easily distracted from it by the phone? Is it impossible to wait? If you do manage to postpone your check, do you lose focus and find yourself speculating on what the phone has alerted you to?
The consequences of a consuming relationship may be felt by you and by others close to you. You may feel depressed, apathetic, demotivated and less productive. You may feel forever distracted. You may lose restorative sleep. You may find any online addiction intensifies through ease and frequency of access via the device. It is so quick to offer up what you’re looking for, which is powerfully reinforcing.
Personal relationships could suffer as others around you can feel excluded, even alienated by your preoccupation, especially if it seems to interfere with the quality of the time spent with you. They may feel as if less important to you than whatever demands your attention via your phone; or that you are bored by them.
Perhaps the most serious of consequences is when phone use directly affects yours and other people’s safety. In the UK, for instance, between 2014-2019 there were 133 fatalities and 446 serious accidents due to distraction by mobile phones while driving.
One area in which a consuming relationship to a smartphone or other device can be a problem is during treatment for addiction, which is, let us remember, a life-threatening condition. As such, its treatment requires your undivided attention. You will have lost much of yourself to the all-consuming nature of addiction. It will be difficult to re-discover that part of you if time, focus and energy is spent “elsewhere”.
To have a meaningful chance of establishing the basis for a lasting recovery you need to be fully present, engaged in and committed to the treatment process; not mentally and emotionally detached from it. An excessive attachment to a smartphone can too easily interfere with the consistency of that engagement. While connected on line you will be disconnected to some extent from the real present world where you are. While present you are also absent. This will make it much more difficult for the treatment team to help you.
A period in treatment is an ideal time to assess the degree of attachment to digital devices as well as to evaluate their role in enabling addictions facilitated by the internet. Treatment boundaries may include restrictions on phone use as well as on smoking and other addictive mood altering behaviour.
The intensity of your resistance to such safeguards may be a signal of the strength of your attachment. It will be of concern if it is out of proportion and takes little or no account of the treatment context and its serious, life-changing purpose. You may wrongly frame it as a struggle for control and react accordingly. Acceptance of some limitations on the use of devices in treatment, which can usually be negotiated, is essential in order to maintain focus on recovery not only from a primary addiction but also to address the questions set out above in relation to the device itself.
To aid recovery, disconnect so as to be able to reconnect; with yourself, others and the real, present world in a meaningful way. The phone will still be there once you have sorted out what is healthy or unhealthy in your relationship with it.