At what point does a habit become an addiction? American adults touch their phones, on average, 2,500 times daily, spending 325 hours monthly on media consumption. For perspective, that’s likely a whopping 67% of your waking hours. With your life’s needs, from the weather to social connection, maybe you’re thinking, I don’t even know how I could break a technology addiction.
Or maybe you assume you fall on the spectrum of “normal.” Is the time you spend on your phone really that damaging?
Fact: There is now an official “Internet Addiction Disorder.” And one in eight Americans is said to “suffer from problematic internet use.” It’s been shown to inflict chemical changes on the brain similar to substance abuse—contributing to anxiety, depression, impulsiveness, materialism, social phobia, and sleep problems.
So … damaging? Quite possibly. And like any addiction, it’s likely your spouse notices—and is affected—most.
Your wife called. She thinks you have a phone addiction.
A friend of mine explained the pain and straight up anger she encountered after speaking with her husband one night. After a long day, she recounted to him what had gone wrong in a plague of daily events. Then, phone in hand, he erupted in laughter.
“I was even angrier when he explained he wasn’t laughing at me. His friend had texted him something funny,” she relayed to me, along with her desire to toss his phone in the garbage disposal.
Her face-to-face presence—over something that mattered to her—had been trumped by the entertainment of cyber-presence.
I doubt any of us are innocent in this matter (I am not!). How many times have we shared on social media rather than sharing eye contact? Or tuned out kids to tune into our phones?
So perhaps Am I addicted? isn’t the only question we should be asking. But also, What kind of life do I want to be living? What kind of connections could define my life?
And more pointedly, How do I break a phone addiction? Some tips:
1. Technology addiction: identify the bait.
Most addictions begin with a similar cause: a desire to relieve a form of stress. And like any trap ready to clench, addiction is baited with appeal.
Consider how someone might begin an addiction to, say, cigarettes. What does that cylinder of nicotine deliver long before a chemical stimulant? For a 13-year-old, smoking might well mean acceptance, even rebellion. Independence. Freedom.
Author Tish Harrison Warren realized her phone stanched “a steady resistance to and dread of boredom.” Looking at her phone first thing in the morning, “My day was imprinted by technology. And like a mountain lion cub attached to her humans, I’d look for all good things to come from glowing screens”.
If you don’t understand the “why” beneath your smartphone’s animal magnetism—the bait turning your eyes from your spouse—you’ll only move from one trap to the next.
Author John Piper isolates six reasons we turn to our phones first thing in the morning: the “candy” of novelty (what’s shocking? Intriguing? Cute?), ego (approval, mentions, likes, traffic), or entertainment. Or we might be avoiding boredom, responsibility, or hardship. Maybe you thrive on productivity—and beneath it, the myth that you are what you accomplish.
Start with your phone’s screen-time report. What apps do you utilize? When responding to a notification, what underlying itch does that scratch?
We often choose instant, faux gratification rather than the richness of connecting with God or each other.
2. Realize what your screen habits rob from your life (and your spouse’s).
Often, time on our phones connects indirectly to identity. We find worth in our influence, in our security via information or vigilance (hello, incessant headlines), in what others think of us, in our constant productivity.
So beneath that spouse-trumping technology addiction lies a desire for something more than the relationships around us, marriage included. In a sense, we begin to inordinately trust our phones in ways we would normally trust God Himself: His security. His declaration that Jesus has done enough. We are no longer defined by our contributions. His statement of our worth (by being made in His image, and declared priceless because of Christ’s sacrifice in our place).
Your phone may help deliver groceries. But it will never fully deliver what you crave.
So when we’re looking for satisfaction elsewhere—apart from the Water that never leaves us thirsty (John 4:13-14)—our unquenched desires swell disproportionately, leading to a life disordered.
And our spouses feel what’s robbed by those insatiable, driving thirsts. We’re no longer “all there” for the people we care about. Our love is no longer “sincere” (Romans 12:9), because our minds are distracted, duplicitous. (Check out “5 Ideas to Keep Technology From Replacing Relationships.”)
Authors John and Stasi Eldredge note, “The gift of presence is a rare and beautiful gift. To come―unguarded, undistracted―and be fully present, fully engaged with whoever we are with at that moment. When we offer our unguarded presence, we live like Jesus”.
Presence is a precious form of love. Imagine if Jesus, who “became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, MSG), had been content to sort of engage with humanity.
3. “How can I get off my phone?” New habits start here.
Wondering how you could start managing your cell phone—for the sake of yourself and your marriage—rather than the other way around? A few ideas to break phone addiction.
- You’ve heard of a weight-loss plan. Develop a personal screen-loss plan—complete with goals, rewards, and consequences.
- Turn off phone notifications except those most urgent.
- Install screen-time limiting features or apps on your phone.
- Start with a half day per week to routinely fast from your phone (Sundays, perhaps?). Refuse to check social media. Inform friends who may be concerned by your lack of online presence. (Bonus: This provides added accountability.)
- While traveling, choose periods of silence rather than listening to music, podcasts, audio books, or making phone calls. Train your brain to be okay with your own thoughts.
- Don’t multitask on your phone while watching TV or movies.
- Deposit your phone in a bowl or basket when you enter the house (or at least during mealtime), checking it once per hour.
- Choose not to check your phone while in the presence of others. (People in front of you have priority over online presence.)
- Refuse to check your phone within one hour of sleeping and rising—unless tied to your spiritual disciplines.
- Remove social media from your phone.
Real life starts right here
It’s more difficult to fight an addiction when you’re only removing, not adding, pleasure. As author Timothy Keller notes, “Change happens not just by giving the mind new arguments but also by feeding the imagination new beauties”
So imagine a life and marriage untethered to your phone. What could your mind and emotions look like without the frenzy of headlines? What could your contentment (… and shared budget) look like if you only ordered every two weeks from Amazon or eBay? What could your marriage look like if extended beyond texts to a cup of coffee with your phone out of reach?
What could your presence with your kids, spouse, God look like if you had 10 extra hours a week, uncluttered by your device?
Because we’ll only experience freedom from technology addiction when our phones are dethroned. Will we believe relationships, a genuinely satisfied identity, and a calm mind are infinitely more important?
 Warren, Tish Harrison. Liturgy of the Ordinary.
 Eldredge, John and Stasi. Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul.
 Keller, Timothy. Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism.
Copyright © 2020 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills for Work-in-Progress Families (Zondervan), releases March 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.