BY Angela Haupt, TIME
Graham Dugoni was sick of seeing smartphones everywhere when he lived in San Francisco in 2014. So he decided to create device-free spaces for people like him: artists, educators, and anyone else who craved a digital break.
The result is Yondr, a physical way to disconnect at concerts, schools, courtrooms, and private events. If a touring musician decides to use it, for instance, ticket holders are notified ahead of time that when they arrive at the venue, they’ll drop their phone into a pouch that locks when it’s closed. Patrons keep that pouch with them, but can only access their phone if they pop into specially designated sections away from the crowd. When they leave, the pouches are unlocked.
“A lot of what we hear is that the show is just better,” Dugoni says. Some people report that, after initially being anxious to lose access to their phone—an honorary limb—the experience ultimately proved liberating. “People walk out saying it’s incredible not to see a single smartphone out. There’s more energy, and it accentuates everything.”
YONDR’s existence shines light on a problem—that people have practically fused to their phones—and the need for solutions.
There are also broader societal concerns. “I think [disconnecting] matters to everyone,” Alter says. “It matters to kids, who develop stronger social skills and relationships when they aren’t behind screens. It matters to adults, who are more likely to connect with others when they spend time offline rather than glued to their screens. And it matters to communities, which are impoverished when their public spaces are filled with hundreds or thousands of people sitting in public but spending time alone behind screens.”
Here’s what to know about the signs of smartphone addiction, its health implications, and the most effective ways to disconnect.
The symptoms of phone addiction
Being glued to our phones 24/7 is not yet recognized as an addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), though the term is used colloquially. Many experts in the field instead use the term “problematic smartphone use.”
“By problematic, we mean that your smartphone use is interfering with different areas of your life,” says Jay Olson, a postdoctoral scholar in psychology at McGill University who has researched the topic. “It could be interfering with your concentration. It could be that you feel less social when using your phone. It could be that you’re sleeping less well, because you’re staying up late scrolling through your phone.”
Olson’s research is based on the Smartphone Addiction Scale, which was developed in South Korea about a decade ago and is now used globally. Answering “yes” to questions such as these might indicate a problem:
- Do you miss planned work due to smartphone use?
- Do you feel impatient and worried when you’re not holding your phone?
- Do you constantly check your phone, so you don’t miss what’s happening on social apps like Twitter or Instagram?
- Do people tell you that you use your smartphone too much?
- Do you lose track of how long you’ve been using the device?
Problematic smartphone use probably affects most U.S. adults, says Dr. Anna Lembke, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University who’s the author of Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence. “My sense is that it’s affecting almost anybody who has a device at this point. The digital content is just so enticing, and we have such easy access.”
How phone addiction impacts physical and mental health
Phones aren’t inherently good or bad, says Dr. Jason Nagata, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. Our devices offer lots of important functions, like communication and connection, which can benefit our health. But an inability to separate from your screen could have harmful implications.
One of the biggest potential effects has to do with sleep. Researchers have found that problematic smartphone use is associated with shorter total sleep time, as well as reduced quality of sleep. “Blue light can suppress melatonin, which would otherwise help you go to sleep,” Nagata says. “And having notifications, rings, or sounds throughout the night can definitely disturb your sleep.”
Plus, smartphone addiction can derail your time and attention, leaving less to spend on healthier pursuits. In 2021, adults around the globe spent an average of 4.8 hours a day on their phones, according to the app-monitoring firm App Annie—a record high. “If people are spending a lot of time on their phones, that displaces time for other important activities, like exercise and socialization,” Nagata says. “It doesn’t leave a lot of free time in your day for physical activity or other things.”
Research indicates that smartphone use can be particularly nefarious for teens and children. One 2021 study co-authored by Nagata found that screen time was associated with binge-eating disorder among 9- and 10-year olds. “Teens can binge eat even in the absence of hunger when they’re distracted in front of phones and screens, leading to weight gain,” he says. Another 2021 study found that phone use and texting led to higher BMI and weight gain in teens, and a 2022 analysis links using a phone too much to disruptive behavior disorders, such as oppositional defiant disorder, in kids.