Welcome to Am I Normal?, where writer and mental health advocate Jill Stark challenges our notions of ‘normal’ and celebrates our differences in this myth-busting series offering hope, comfort and practical advice to anyone who’s ever wondered "Is it just me?".

Sometimes it feels like my phone is holding me hostage.

It locks me into an anxiety-inducing cycle of scrolling and tapping, scrolling and tapping.

Each time I try to escape, I’m drawn back by the hypnotic lure of dinging alerts and flashing notifications, lighting up my screen like a pokies machine.

When my phone introduced a screen time function – allowing me to chart how much of my life is being sucked into this little digital box – I was horrified to discover I was picking it up on average 89 times a day. That’s more than five times in every hour that I’m awake.

On one particularly bad day I picked it up 112 times.

The statistics confirmed what I’d feared for a long time: I’m hopelessly addicted to my phone. If you are too then rest assured, you’re not alone.

Recent research found that Australians are spending an average of 46 hours a week glued to screens. But why are we so fixated on our digital devices? And how can we break free?

Dr Larry Rosen, a research psychologist from California State University Dominguez Hills, is one of the world’s leading experts on the effects of technology on the brain.

His most recent book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, outlines how modern life is playing havoc with our ability to switch off.

“Our ancient brains were developed to deal with basic needs like hunting and gathering food or making sure you don’t get killed by a wild animal, but in the modern world, our brains are constantly overloaded with stimuli we’re not equipped to deal with”, Dr Rosen said. "We feel we have to check in on social media to mitigate that fear of missing out and so we’re constantly up against these situations that make us anxious and we weren’t really bred to be that way."

"I'm hopelessly addicted to my phone"

Dr Rosen said that many people experience Nomophobia – ‘no mo(bile) phone phobia’ – a feeling of anxiety that comes when we’re unable to access or use our phone. It triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response, releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, telling us we’re in danger.

In his previous book, iDisorder, he outlined the effects of excessive use of technology, which can include diminished attention spans, impaired learning, and difficulties forming relationships in the real world.

The blue light from our screens also triggers the release of cortisol in the brain, which can make us feel anxious and interfere with sleep patterns. “When these chemicals build up, you start to feel external symptoms and when those symptoms get to a certain point, you feel uncomfortable and so you’re compelled to get rid of them.

“So, if you’re on six social media sites and you’re afraid you’re going to miss out on something, you’ll go ahead and check in to those sites to try and dissipate those anxious feelings. “Checking in might give you momentary relief but it won’t be long before you feel the need to check again and then more chemicals are released and on it goes.”

Another reason we can be hypnotically drawn to check our phones 89 times a day is because we are fundamentally pleasure-seeking creatures.

When we get a notification on Facebook or Instagram it can release dopamine and serotonin – the brain’s ‘happy’ chemicals – compelling us to repeat the action to gain more pleasure. And the more we seek that rush of dopamine, the more we become habituated to it.

“Eventually you need more and more of that good thing – the likes or notifications – to feel good, which is why people get very disappointed if they don’t get a lot of ‘Happy Birthdays’ on Facebook or a lot of retweets on their tweet.”

The good news is there are some simple steps you can take to reduce your dependence on your phone. Dr Rosen suggested turning notifications off, moving all your social media apps to the last screen and embedding them in folders so they’re less accessible.

"If you have a love-hate relationship with your phone ... you can break free"

For me, compulsively checking social media is often a way to distract myself from difficult emotions, so if those apps are harder to find, it allows me to pause to reflect on why I’m actually checking in. But if you’re still finding it hard to switch off, Dr Rosen has a proven method – called Tech Breaks – to help wean yourself off your digital captor.

Turn your phone to silent, set an alarm for 15 minutes, then place it face down and then spend that time working or reading or whatever it is you’re trying to concentrate on. When the alarm goes off you have exactly one minute to check your emails, social media or whatever you need to.

“When the minute is up, set another alarm for 15 minutes and repeat the process. The more you practice this the more it trains your brain to focus. After you’ve mastered 15 minutes, step it up to 30 and so on,” Dr Rosen said.

“Eventually, you reach a point when the alarm goes off and you say to yourself, ‘no, I’ve just got to keep reading this section,’ and you know then that your attention span has improved because you don’t want to be distracted by your phone.”

So if you have a love-hate relationship with your phone, know that it’s not just you, and that with practice you can break free.

Tips for breaking your phone fixation:

  • Turn your phone to grey-scale mode. Research shows the absence of colour makes social media apps less appealing and harder to find.
  • Take a break. Switch off your phone and take a break to exercise, meditate or spend time in nature.
  • Introduce Tech Breaks. Set an alarm and only check your phone every 15 minutes for one minute at a time, gradually increasing the break as you become more comfortable.
Related reading: My experience with a robot counsellor

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