Ilene Strauss Cohen Ph.D.

Let’s explore our attachment to screens and its impact on us and our children.


  • We can use our phones as an escape from our regular lives.
  • Compulsive smartphone use can lead to poor academic performance and less physical activity.
  • Using our phones, particularly for social media, stimulates dopamine release.

Have you ever found yourself reaching for your phone during a quiet moment? Or scrolling through social media feeds while waiting in line? Have you grabbed your phone when there is chaos or a long to-do list waiting for you? Have you noticed your kids glued to their screens more often than you’d like? If so, you’re not alone. But why is this happening? What does research tell us about this phenomenon?

The Pull of the Phone

Research has shown that using mobile phones, especially for social media, can be an escape from our regular lives. In an increasingly hectic and demanding world, our phones provide a way to focus on something else. They offer an instant diversion, a way to temporarily ease discomfort or avoid the problems in our lives.

A study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry suggests that cellphone dependency is a real and growing problem. It analyzes the concept of cellphone dependency and how it has evolved from a global view of the mobile phone as a device to a complex relationship between man and technology. This study found that chronic smartphone use has become a default response to unoccupied moments, creating an “always-on” mentality. The study highlighted the “compulsive checking” phenomenon, where individuals feel compelled to check their phones constantly, even without notifications.

The research also noted that this behavior is linked to the fear of missing out (FOMO), social anxiety that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent. This FOMO can lead to an unhealthy attachment to the phone, resulting in an inability to resist the urge to reach for it during idle moments. This dependency is further fueled by the instant gratification provided by social media, games, and other apps.

The Science Behind the Screen

Using our phones, particularly for social media, stimulates the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This feeling can be compelling, leading to a cycle where we constantly check our phones for that next “hit” of dopamine.

But what happens when this behavior becomes habitual? A study published in the Journal of Research in Personality found a direct and positive association between attention impulsiveness and cellphone dependency. This suggests that our inability to resist the pull of our phones may be linked to certain personality traits.

These personality traits include low self-control and high attention impulsiveness, which is the tendency to act on sudden impulses. People with high attention impulsiveness find it challenging to focus on one task for an extended period, making them more susceptible to the instant gratification smartphones offer.

Furthermore, individuals with high levels of social anxiety or neuroticism, characterized by feelings of worry, fear, and emotional instability, were also found to be more prone to smartphone dependency due to their increased likelihood of using the device as a coping mechanism.

When Too Much Is Too Much

So, how much screen time is too much? Research is ongoing, but some studies suggest that excessive use of mobile phones can negatively affect sleep quality, social relationships, and even mental health.

Our children are not immune to mobile phone dependency either. A systematic review published in the Journal of Addictions Nursing found problematic use of mobile phones among children and adolescents. This overuse can have consequences, including poor academic performance, decreased physical activity, and potential behavioral issues.

The question of optimal screen time is subject to ongoing research; however, some guidelines exist. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests avoiding digital media for toddlers younger than 18 to 24 months, except for video chatting. For children aged 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programs. Children above the age of 6 should also have consistent limits on screen time.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends limiting time spent on sedentary entertainment, including screen time, to less than two hours a day for adults. These guidelines are not definitive, and individual smartphone use should be guided by healthy behaviors, such as ample physical activity, sufficient sleep, and strong social relationships.

Remember that these are just guidelines; the key is mindful usage that doesn’t infringe on essential aspects of daily life.

Breaking Free From the Screen

If you are struggling with parting with your phone, there are some steps you can take to limit the time you spend scrolling through your apps. The first step towards breaking free from our screens is recognizing that we might use them as an escape. Here are a few tips to help break the cycle:

  1. Set boundaries: Designate certain times of the day as “phone-free” periods. Keep your phone in a room that isn’t easily accessible, and turn it on silent or off.
  2. Engage in other activities: Find hobbies or activities that do not involve screens. Find activities that you genuinely enjoy or that involve socializing in person.
  3. Mindfulness: Practice being present rather than reaching for your phone. This can mean being present with your family or focusing on your current tasks like cooking or walking outside.

While our phones provide us with many benefits, it’s important to maintain a balanced relationship with them. It’s not about eliminating screen time but understanding its impact and healthily managing our usage.

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