I FEEL AWFUL… Is My Phone to Blame? Yup. It is possible.

Firl on smartphone shows signs of depression.

Why Mindless Use of Digital Screens Could Be Hurting You

While it ‘s true your discomfort might be the breakfast burrito you ate… many people just like you are feeling more anxiety and depression, because they use their smartphones too much … without thinking about their habit. Could it be that your phone triggers depression?

Tech has a (mostly), subtle influence on our daily lives, but it seems the bad effects of endless phone use build up.
Your screen habits could be part of the reason you struggle with difficult thoughts and feelings. Especially if you scroll and click automatically, in the head-space I call “The Phone Zone”.

…and the sad truth? Unless you notice what is happening, the negative impact of your media overuse could grow and grow.

No Way… How can that be? Well, … It is a Deliberate Plan

Today’s digital devices are deliberately designed to be essential, to pull us in, and to be addictive. The marketing method is called persuasive design.

You can get hooked on your digital devices really easily, … some people even feel like their phone is their best friend, their right arm, or the indispensable container of their life …

And if this was harmless; if The Phone Zone wasn’t a compelling, seductive, ultimately empty substitute for the fullness of a life rich with real relationships, I wouldn’t be sounding an alarm. Beating this drum.

Your media use habit is not harmless.

… Please take a close look at your habit. Does the way you use your phone:

  • Take a lot of time? More time than you plan to give it?
  • Amplify feelings of Dissatisfaction? Unhappiness? Inadequacy? Boredom?
  • Come between you and your loved ones?
  • Give you the life you want? … Really?

You can enrich your life apart from your screens if you purposefully pay attention to where (and how), you spend your attention, and then use your devices only on purpose.

LOOK CLOSER: Today we take a closer look at:
  1. Compulsive use of the smartphone and other digital screens
  2. Some ways your screens impact your emotions, and your life.
  3. Simple steps you can take to improve the relationship between yourself, your devices, and your life.


For most people it is actually screen compulsion… not a clinical condition. But it still has costs.

Do you know What Compulsion Feels Like?

My life partner was a long-time smoker when we met, and during the first ten years of our marriage. Three pack a day habit.

Any time he was down to his last few smokes, he would get really agitated.

Positively antsy. More so if all the ashtrays were empty of usable butts…

I have seen the same pattern of antsy behavior when people misplace their smartphone, lose internet access, or run out of battery. Can you relate? The new word “NoMoPhobia” describes this craving.

Do you recognize the agitated feeling I am talking about? That is what the dopamine hook feels like.

Counting the Signs Your Device is Manipulating Your Behavior
  • Do you feel anxious if you are without your device?
  • FOMO is a conditioned (manipulated) response caused by the dopamine hit from your device. So is,
  • Wanting to check your social media or email, repeatedly.
  • Passing on a social occasion to spend more time with your device.
    (Do you eat dinner with your phone or your family?)
  • Sleeping with your phone or checking it when you first wake up.

Do You Think Your Online Choices come from Your Free Will?

Not likely. Your device conditions your response… like when a lab rat pushes a food dispenser in a Skinner box.

App developers use your brain chemistry to tip the scale away from free choice. They do it because the more time your eyes are on your screen, the more money they make in the Attention Economy.

But the more time you spend on a screen, however much fun… the less time you have for the people and pursuits that could make your life really great.

How Do App Developers Make Behavior Manipulation Happen?: 

During development of a device or app:

  • Brain imaging (mostly fMRI), can be used with volunteers, to test which combination of bells, whistles and rewards gives the phone user the biggest punch of pleasure.
  • Developers are watching for the biggest dopamine hit, elicited by the device or app, and tweak the product until they get a really strong response.
  • Sometimes they use A/B testing to see which version is most addicting.
  • The developers also test how the rewarding feedback should be timed … to keep the user tied up with the device for the longest time.

This methodology is the same sophisticated neuroscience that is used to program slot machines, video games, and video lottery terminals to maximize the addictive qualities of the machine.

Related: Hooked on your Smartphone? Why, …and How to Fix It.

The Stakes are High: Your Attention IS Your Life

Your phone is a device crafted to make you crave more phone. We are talking behavioral addiction, a real thing.
Each activation of a sound or message sends a shot of dopamine to the pleasure center of your brain.

It is not as intense a hit as crack gives, but it is the same neurotransmitter, and the same biological mechanism.

It is powerful unseen force that creates habits that change people, … our brains, our emotions, our ability to concentrate, our capacity to focus and sustain attention, our ability to rest… all compromised without our informed consent.

Do NOT underestimate the power of operant conditioning that is used in persuasively designed products.


There are good reasons that the smartphone plays such a huge role in peoples’ daily lives. It solves problems and delivers productivity, virtual social connections, and fun.

It also delivers stimulation patterns that effectively “train the brain” unintentionally. Let’s look at a few personal consequences of smartphone use.

A Brief Mention of the Physical Impacts of the Smartphone

There are many physical health issues that come from too many hours with a screen:

    Muscle and joint pain and stiffness; strain injuries; obesity.
    Blue light comes from screens. Blue light occurs naturally in the morning. Watching a digital screen at bedtime fools the brain to be wakeful. The sleep neurotransmitter, Melatonin, is suppressed. This is scientific fact. Sleep suffers.
    More science: The mere presence of a phone in a bedroom can reduce the quality of rest and sleep, even when the phone is off.
    Sleep improves dramatically if you are screen free a full hour before bed. Two hours phone free before bed is even better.
    You have seen video of pedestrians texting on their phone, who then walk into telephone poles, open manholes, and traffic.
    It’s a bad idea to use your smartphone when in motion. Some activities require your full attention, you know?
    Because the smart phone conditions users to seek fresh stimuli, all the time. (eg: skimming content, scroll and click)… researchers suspect devices may be training the human brain to have shorter attention spans.
    You may have noticed this in yourself. People are less able to focus and sustain attention, less able to concentrate. This has huge implications for life, learning, and work.
    Reward center gets larger, executive control center shrinks with overuse. The Brain adapts to chronic elevated levels of dopamine by reducing dopamine production, … so when you are not using your device you’ll probably feel bad… and want to pick up your phone to feel better.

Emotional Impacts of Smartphone Overuse


As I psychotherapist who does ACT therapy, I’ve learned a surprising fact.

Everybody is taught to distract ourselves when something hurts. In the short term we feel better.

But there is a small problem…

When people consistently turn away from their emotional issues and choose avoidance or distraction as their default coping mechanism, the effort reinforces the issue… so the underlying problem gets bigger and bigger.

This idea is supported by extensive research. Avoidance is the biggest contributing factor I see in my counselling practice. Procrastinators know the truth of this point.


People reach for the phone, (and the dopamine hit it gives), when bored. The phone is also an easy out when something uncomfortable comes up. People choose distraction when they feel bad about most everything.

Experiential Avoidance is the way folks get tied up in emotional knots or stuck in a problem.

and… The ultimate distraction /avoidance gadget lives in your pocket.

Be Aware. Avoidance can mess with your mental health.


Brain images of heavy smartphone users look a lot like the brains of people being treated for anxiety and depression. The effects of overuse are real.

The good news is that brain images showing distress return to normal when the phone-addicted person breaks the habit.


There are other ways anxiety and depression are amplified by social media and smartphone overuse.

  • Marketing magnifies dissatisfaction with one’s life and stuff.
  • Trolls… Meanness lives on the Net. We can ignore them but depressive effects linger.
  • Can you say, “FOMO”? It is a tyranny.
  • There is an emotional cost to comparing oneself to others. The self critic is a universal thing and meaner than any troll.

Unless you make the effort to practice awareness, you might never clue in to your phone as the source of feeling dissatisfied or inadequate.

The Key to Balanced, Healthy Use of Digital Media

The problem isn’t the device… it is the way persuasive design has  been used to infect them with addictive properties. Both devices and apps.

Persuasive design is found mostly in entertainment functions like interactive games and social media.

If you consume digital media entertainment, please be cautious.

The Open Question:

Should limits be on Screen Time, or on the time spent using entertainment apps like social media and games?

Nobody knows yet.

There is a large population study, (> 40k subjects), that suggests no downside effects occur for people who are on screens less than 2-3 hrs /day. Depressive symptoms appear at 3 to 5 hrs/ a day of screen time. Suicidal thoughts show up for some who are online longer than 5 hours each day.

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization recommend everyone limit interactive screen time to under 2 hours a day.

The EU and AAP both say that there is no problem with being online for the purpose of creation or learning.

The people who are most at risk for negative effects overuse are those who are using their devices mindlessly. I worry about the people who are not nurturing their face to face relationships

Steps to IMPROVE the Relationship between You, Your Phone, and Your Life.

Do you want something different? You might want to get off the phone and into your life!


When you feel your phone manipulating your behavior and emotions, … please:

  1. Do NOT judge yourself harshly. You have been deliberately set up. Dopamine is a rush … but you can unhook.
  2. DO practice awareness. Practice being conscious and intentional about how and when you use your phone.
  3. Do assess the place your phone has in your life. Is what you have, what you want? … I invite you to UnHook.
  4. Get Experimental about trying new activities and strategies for your personal growth.
  5. Do reach out to connect face to face with the people you care about. In Person On Purpose.

OH! I almost forgot…

Do get yourself an alarm clock. Please. Banish your phone from your bedroom… for your health… and other (shy wink…), benefits.

Share this post with friends and family. Find a partner, (or three), to UnHook with you. Support each other.

Overuse of social media triggers depression

About the Author

Peggy McLauchlan is a counsellor, ACT therapist, and personal development coach in Ontario, Canada. She has a special interest in positive psychology practices applied to problems with modern digital technology, like smartphone addiction and problematic internet use.