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Is phone addiction a symptom of a bigger problem?

Hello, my name is Gemma and I was a teenager addicted to her mobile phone…

My mobile phone was a life line out of a reality that felt too hard. It's still an escape mechanism I use today but I am more mindful of my use and reliance on it.


I’m all for creating phone free environments and reducing our use and reliance of smart devices. I’m well aware the impact they are having on our work, relationships, families, children, partners, friends… But at the same time, I’m worried that we’re just brushing the surface of the issue. What if mobile phone use is just a symptom or a larger issue?


When I was 15-16 I'd often be told I had to go visit relatives with my family. My cousins were younger than me, and I was a sulky teen who didn’t want to play with them. I wasn’t yet interested in talking with adults so conversation at the grownups table also didn’t appeal. More importantly, I was going through a rough time and the only people I felt I could talk to was some of my closest friends.


My parents, and often the relatives or friends we were seeing, would talk about how unsociable I was being and how addicted I was to my phone. “She’s glued to the thing.”


Yes I was addicted, I needed my phone to get through the visits where it felt like no one understood me; texting my friends made me feel less alone. At the same time, my friends were also going through crazy things so I felt I needed to be there for them. What if I missed a txt when they needed me? It felt like we were all living life too close to the edge of something. They were there to catch me when I fell down so I had to be there for them too.


Looking back we were a bunch of teens who needed help. I needed help to find the courage to communicate to my parents what was going on. I’m not sure if any of them had told their parents what was going on with them. We certainly weren't equipped to help each other. My experiences being labelled as unsociable and rude may have been avoided if I had better communication skills with my parents or different coping skills. Having said that, I guess it could have been worse.


As an adult I've realised I still use my phone as a distraction, a coping mechanism. If I'm feeling anxious while waiting for someone I'll recheck, triple check the time, their message. A habit I think I’ve mostly broken now, when I was walking I used to check my phone to avoid eye contact of passer-by’s. I didn’t want to have to interact with them. Or have them think I was staring. Similarly, I used to hate being alone at a café, I’d feel the need to be on my phone to look like I was busy, to have something to do. I realised it was more about being alone and feeling disconnected than what others were thinking of me.


I’ve reduced my mobile use and reliance through a lot of self-reflection and learning of communication skills and how to embrace that uncomfortable feeling of being disconnected. As a teenager when my parents and other adults attempted to make me reduce my use of my mobile, but I felt I didn’t have a choice, I felt I couldn’t put it down. I had nothing to replace it with and no other way of dealing with the emotions and thoughts I was dealing with at the time.


As part of being more mindful of our phone use we need to look at why we’re using it so much; it might not be an escape mechanism or coping device, I’ve got a number of other drivers such as clients in different time zones, work deadlines, unclear expectations… It’s also worth remembering we need to be careful not to be quick to judge. What looks like unsocial behaviour can be someone’s way of getting through. The better judgement is to look at what resources are available to people to deal with disconnection, work-life balance, communication and mental wellbeing in such a connected world.


#lookup in the Supermarket

The supermarket is a phone free zone for me. I’ll often miss texts or calls while I’m at the supermarket. “Sorry, I was at the supermarket.” Considering we’re no more than 45 minutes it’s usually not a big deal.


It started by accident but then it became a habit. For me, the weekly supermarket trip is both a chore and an activity I enjoy. It’s an activity my partner and I always do and I feel it brings us closer as we have to deal with the onslaught of distracted shoppers and terrible drivers in the carpark together.


It’s often a game, “Speed shop”. Get in, get food, and get out as fast as possible. Inevitably the checkout lines are often busy so we get stuck in line with nothing to do but talk to each other. What a shame… hehe.


While my partner is not a big people watcher I love watching others at the supermarket. How observant are parents of their children, how well behaved are the kids, how cute is that baby, why does that person need so much chocolate?


You can tell a lot about a person’s diet from their shopping trolley. Processed junk food vs organic, gluten free, vegan, lots of fresh fruit and produce… Lots of wine and cheese? Must be having guests. Classic bread, sausages and tomato sauce? Kiwi barbecue.


But it’s not until recently that I noticed how many people are nose deep in their mobile phone either while walking the aisles, or waiting in line at the checkout.


The worst situation happened today. It was chaos, trolleys 3-4 back. A lady in a wheelchair was trying to navigate through. A shopper was nose deep in his phone oblivious to his surroundings. She was asking him to move so she could get by. Excuse me… excuse me… Still nothing. I was about to yell at him from several aisles over. Finally he noticed and moved out of the way.


In another line, a mother was on her phone while three kids were playing by the trolley. A number of other lone shoppers waiting in line were also absorbed in their own phones.


It’s quite possibly the bias of thinking more about phone use but now I’m really seeing it everywhere!


Situations where phone use is prolific which are great phone free opportunities:

  • Meetings

  • Walks

  • Gym/exercise

  • Family gatherings

  • Coffee with friend

  • Coffee with a client/prospect/colleague

  • Watching TV

  • Supermarket


Drivers of high mobile phone use

  • Feeling alone or disconnected

  • Avoiding someone or something

  • Procrastination                               

  • When everyone else in your team is online out of office hours

  • Trying to show your dedication to your job through availability

  • Work in different time zones

  • Work deadlines

  • Clients responding out of hours

  • Setting expectations of quick replies (always being available both personal and work)


Mobile Set Up tips to limit phone use or distraction


  • Turn off some or all push notifications – instead of clearing notifications you never look at, turn them off. Want to get harsh? Put sound on for a couple of days and you’ll soon learn how many notifications you get.


  • Do you need to connect all of the apps on your phone? Sometimes we set up and login to apps just because they’re there but do we really need Skype and emails on our phone? Or are we playing into the trap of always checking our messages. True, it’s handy to be able to check on your phone sometimes but then it can become a bad habit. Weigh up the benefits and the risks. How often do you really need to access that platform/emails when you’re not at your computer/laptop?


  • No colours no fun mode – Change your screen to grayscale to combat phone addiction


  • Flight mode for focused, no distraction sessions


  • Remove Candy Crush ;)

  • Phone face down when not in use

  • Leave your phone in another room/in a draw/in your bag

Gemma is the founder of All She Wrote that helps people and organisations tell their story. All She Wrote provides copywriting and content services for business owners, entrepreneurs, CEOs and thought leaders. 

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