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Phone Addiction

Last week, I attended a training day on counselling for addiction.

I went specifically because from time to time, parents tell me they think their sons are addicted to their phones or to video games, or both. The day was fascinating and was relevant to addictions of all kinds. I’ve been pondering its particular relevance to phone addiction and would like to share my thoughts with you, in hope that they will help.

It is certainly true that many people, young and old, spend huge amounts of non-school time interacting with a screen. This is a part of modern life that many of us, especially those of us who remember ‘the time before’, feel highly ambivalent about. What many of us don’t ‘get’ is how many of our human needs are met by those screens.

Many of you will be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Once we’ve got beyond satisfying our physiological needs and feel safe, we get into the needs that can be satisfied by screens. Social media has huge power to satisfy our needs for friendship and connection, for status and recognition and for being part of a community, as do video games, especially online games. Looked at in this way, it is easy to see the pull. We live in a world which has reduced young people’s opportunities to go outside their homes to build relationships, communities and status. We’re all so worried about the risks of the big, bad world (mostly traffic and predatory adults) that young people don’t get to do anything like the amount of swaggering about in groups, looking rebellious and cool, that they used to do. But they have to meet their needs somehow.

Teenagers are biologically programmed to take risks because humans are programmed to learn. When you learn to walk, you have to risk letting go of the hand, the side of the playpen, the cupboard – or you’ll never do it. When you’re a teenager, you have to risk breaking out from your family’s cocoon – or how will you ever survive in the world? Crudely, that’s why teenagers are rebellious. Real learning is always risky – about going from the known to the unknown. Rebellion is about saying, ‘I’m going to risk doing this my own way.’ In the past, teenagers would be out to work or into an apprenticeship and learning how to survive by doing it. They had no choice but to take risks – but there was still plenty of insubordinate behaviour!

An awful lot of teenage risk-taking now goes on behind the bedroom door online – putting risky photos on Instagram, taking risks in relationships on Snapchat and so on. An awful lot of modern rebellion is about saying, ‘My world is different from yours – my phone is crucial to it. You don’t get it. I need my phone.’

And they’re right – in many ways, they do. Their options for creating friendship, building esteem and status, are very limited now. Their arena for getting those needs met is, to a huge extent, online. They’re not being anti-social – they’re being very social – but online.

So should we worry about addiction or let them get on with it?

The problem is that ‘normal’ if very extensive phone use can morph into addiction and that can have devastating consequences – failed exams, inability to work, the life of a recluse. (There are also negative consequences of over-use: some of you will be aware of the work by Dr Aric Sigman on screentime but that is not what I’m writing about here.) An addiction is any pleasurable activity that is beyond one’s control and affects one’s life for the worse. Simply doing something a great deal, however, doesn’t lead to addiction. We know that in the Vietnam War, American soldiers took a lot of heroin. When they returned to normal life, only about 10% went on to be addicted.

So – is your son addicted to his phone? Or just using it a lot? Is it ‘beyond his control’? Is it ‘affecting his life for the worse’?

Only he knows. He may be using his phone for hours, but that may be his choice – it may not be out of his control. And you may think it’s affecting his life for the worse, but as far as he’s concerned, it may be really improving his life! He may also be using it as a resource bank in all sorts of educational ways – we can always hope!

What if he’s using his phone so much that you think it's going to affect his exam results – so, in your view, it really is affecting his life for the worse, he just won’t acknowledge it? Or he’s able to interact socially online but you’re worried that he’s not extending his ‘real world’ social skills?

Here we face the problem of the teenage brain, especially the male teenage brain. It’s programmed to take risks, for the reasons already mentioned – but it’s not good at assessing risk. This is why so many young men have car accidents – they have the urge to risk fast, dangerous driving – but don’t assess adverse road conditions well or think it doesn't matter that they're over the limit.

We also have another problem. Video games are purposely designed to be addictive, many of them as gateway games to gambling – which we know can be addictive, as can watching porn.

So – we have boys who love their phones because they’re giving them so much of what they need, including risk-taking and rebellion – but they don’t assess the impact that’s having on their school work at all well and they tend to ignore the long-term risks.

All humans are at risk of addiction – we’re all wired to learn and seek new experiences and to repeat ones that are pleasurable. Many activities and substances (ranging from ‘normal’ ones such as shopping and coffee to ones judged to more ‘abnormal’ such as self-harm and heroin) have the potential to become addictive. Put crudely, it’s because they release opiates in the brain and when we try to stop, we feel uncomfortable. Psychologists have various theories about why some people get addicted and some don’t. The one I find most convincing is that we get addicted to something when our needs are not getting met in other ways. (Importantly, this may because of past trauma or past modelling but not always.) In some way or another we feel bad. We do our addictive behaviour because we want to feel better and it does change our mood – so why wouldn’t we do it? The problem is that the pleasure we get from it gets less each time – so we have to do more of it to get the same ‘hit’.

We also know that no one breaks out of an addiction until they have decided for themselves that they have a problem. Other people might think they have a problem, be it alcohol, porn, an eating disorder – it doesn't matter what it is, unless they see it as a problem themselves, they cannot and will not change.

So what do we do? Our boys have in their hands devices which simultaneously provide for a lot of their needs (a safeguard against addiction) but which could also become addictive in themselves.

Addictions are an age-old problem – phone addiction is a relatively new one. Unfortunately, there are no silver bullets. Here are some suggestions to reduce the likelihood of an addiction developing:

1. Below is a useful list of needs that we all have. How can you provide for them within your family, so that your sons ‘go to’ place to meet them is less likely to be their phone? How can you encourage your son to meet them himself (bear in mind our need for autonomy and control)?

  • Security — safe territory and an environment which allows us to develop fully
  • Attention (to give and receive it) — a form of nutrition
  • Sense of autonomy and control — having volition to make responsible choices
  • Emotional intimacy — to know that at least one other person accepts us totally for who we are, “warts 'n' all”
  • Feeling part of a wider community
  • Privacy — opportunity to reflect and consolidate experience
  • Sense of status within social groupings
  • Sense of competence and achievement
  • Meaning and purpose — which come from being stretched in what we do and think

2. Make sure your sons know the risks. They will find it hard to believe them – they have male teenage brains – but it’s worth being completely open about this. When I work with boys who are self-harming, they are often shocked when I tell them that self-harm is addictive and that in itself can make a difference.

3. Keep firm boundaries. If you haven’t let your son have a phone yet, make the rules clear from the outset. Have a rule that phones aren't allowed at family meals. Consider removing phones until homework is done. (If they need them for doing homework, allow them to have them for a specified time.) Definitely remove phones an hour before bedtime. Seek solidarity with other parents on this. Gang up and all have the same rules!

4. Model good screen behaviour yourself. Stick to the rules you have made for your sons and ensure that they see you getting your needs met by alternative means. Make sure you aren’t modelling any other addictive behaviour.

5. If you know your son has experienced some sort of trauma, get him some help with dealing with it.

6. Remember that heavy use is not addiction. Lots of teenagers drink too much alcohol but grow up to be civilised drinkers, not addicts.

7. Allowing boys to use their phones on the drive to and from school seems harmless enough – but by allowing it, you lose an opportunity to chat or to listen to something as a family – or just to allow a bit of mindless headspace! Remember our need for privacy, reflection and consolidation. Is your son getting any of that or does he rush from one organised activity to another with no space just to be?

8. If you genuinely think that your son is addicted to his phone, discuss this with him and suggest he gets some help. You may want to insist! Remember, however, that the first stage in cracking an addiction is accepting that you have a problem – and your son may have to find that out for himself. That can be excruciating for those who love him. I’m sorry!

You are, of course, welcome to refer boys to me or to Rev Hewitt if you think addiction is a problem or a potential one.

Meg Harper, Warwick School Counsellor