Many of us have a hard time stopping when it comes to scrolling on our phones, and in some cases there are people who are even addicted to it. But how can you tell if the amount of time you spend online is an issue?
Researchers from University of Surrey in the U.K. set out to find out by gathering nearly 800 participants and categorizing their online usage — mostly using their smartphones — into five groups, offering a new measurement of the “internet addiction spectrum.” According to the lead study author, the purpose of the investigation was to differentiate between using the internet in a problematic way, such as feeling anxious when not online, and actually being addicted to it.
Here’s what the researchers discovered and what two mental health physicians had to say about these findings.
What the study says
Not surprisingly, the younger the person, the more likely they are to be addicted to the internet. As for the statistics, the volunteers who were 24 years old and younger spent an average of six hours a day online, while those over the age of 24 were on their devices for approximately 4.6 hours each day. The authors did not find a direct link between gender and online behavior.
What are the key findings
The five groups that comprise the newly devised internet addiction spectrum are:
Casual Users (14.86%): These individuals tend to go online for very specific tasks and shut down without lingering. They displayed no signs of addiction and were the least interested in trying out new apps. Average age: 33.4.
Initial Users (22.86%): While these adults did not consider themselves to be addicted, they often realized that they spent more time online than originally planned. They reported being somewhat neglectful of household chores and were moderately interested in downloading new apps. Average age: 26.1.
Experimenters (21.98%): The people in this group felt uneasy or anxious when they were offline, and those feelings disappeared once they logged on again. They were also more willing to use new apps and technology. Average age: Between 22.8 and 24.3.
Addicts-in-Denial (17.96%): Those who fell into this category showed addictive behaviors, such as forming virtual relationships and ignoring responsibilities to spend more time online, while others regularly complained about their online habits. They did not admit to feeling uneasy when they weren’t connected and reported being quite confident using new technology.
Addicts (22.36%): These individuals were well aware of their internet addiction and noticed the negative consequences this dependency has had on their lives. They are also the most confident group when it comes to trying new apps.
The researchers also found that in all groups emotional experiences, meaning how the users felt when spending time on an app, strongly predicted future behavior when they interacted online.
What experts think
Sheela Raja, clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, tells Yahoo Life she found it interesting that the investigators developed a scale. “Instead of saying that people were either addicted or not addicted, they found that they fall on this continuum.”
Elizabeth Lombardo, a clinical psychologist and author of Get Out of the Red Zone, noticed the compelling differences between two of the groups. “While the Experimenters were not online too, too long, they were moody compared to the Addicts-in-Denial,” she tells Yahoo Life. “Yet even though the Addicts-in-Denial spent more time online, they did not report feeling anxious like the Experimenters, and I found this result a little surprising.”
Also, reading comments on Facebook or checking notifications on TikTok were not always considered pleasurable experiences. “Depending on their age and where they are in the continuum, some of the people in the study [those who landed higher on the spectrum] were entertained but weren’t really enjoying themselves,” says Raja. “This speaks to the addiction aspect — we’re doing something to stop the negative feelings from coming up, but we’re not necessarily having positive emotions.”
However, Lombardo points out that watching videos on YouTube or scrolling on Threads should not be automatically regarded as a problematic activity. “The question should be how is someone feeling when they’re online,” she continues. “We know from old research that people can feel more depressed when using social media. But if we look at how people spend their time online, sometimes they’re happier if they’re learning something new or if they’re more engaged with others, for example, in a type of [online] support group.”
Why it matters
The goal is not to delete your social media accounts but to form a healthier relationship with your devices, explains Raja. Here’s how:
Put a rubber band around your phone. Raja credits a book she read last year, How to Break Up with Your Phone by Catherine Price, for providing her with practical strategies. One of her favorite tips is to put a rubber band around your phone. “Every time you try to unlock your home screen, the rubber band will make you pause for a moment,” she continues. “Then ask yourself: Why am I looking at this now? What is the purpose? And what else could I be doing during this time?” This tactic will help you differentiate between checking for an important work email versus checking Instagram because you’re bored. “Even doing this for a couple of days will bring your attention to how often you check your phone. It’s mindfulness.”
Use a timer. Such devices can be extremely helpful, says Lombardo. “If you look at this latest study, some people spent more time online than expected. So whether it’s setting an app timer or setting an alarm, it’s about becoming more aware that 30 minutes have passed since you opened your phone.”
Find out ways to get fulfillment. In her private practice, Lombardo asks her patients to describe the good aspects of social media with the purpose of looking for alternative ways to fulfill those needs. “For example, if someone says they use the Internet to connect with others, then find ways to connect with others in real life, even if that means FaceTime or Zoom,” she states. “If you notice that you head to social media to unwind, find other ways to relax offline.”
Turn off push notifications. This will reduce the number of alerts lighting up your phone. Raja suggests setting up push notifications in your messaging app so that only certain people in your contacts can push through when they text. “Then you can check the other messages when you decide. You’re owning the relationship with your phone,” she says. Although it may seem challenging, Raja says establishing other boundaries can help limit the urge to doomscroll. “Instead of always being available to respond to every text immediately, have a consolidated, set time to interact, like once every hour,” she explains.
Create no-phone zones. Try doing this at the dinner table, for example, which can help people break free of a possible addiction. Raja, who has written four books on helping teenagers to overcome anxiety and trauma, including The Resilient Teen, stresses the importance of putting a distance between your phone and your bed each night before going to sleep. “People are checking their phones at all hours because they’re used to being entertained,” she notes. “If you want to develop a healthier relationship with your device, bringing the alarm clock back into the bedroom would be a fun thing to try instead of placing your cell on your bedside or in the bed and using it as an alarm.” Raja adds that if you still want the phone to wake you up in the morning, putting it across the room would be “an ideal way to put space between you and your cell.”
Keep track of positive moments when you’re off your phone. To feel less anxious when you’re not connected to your online community, Raja recommends jotting down any observations you’ve made, as well as any interactions you’ve had, that only occurred because you weren’t looking down at your screen. “Perhaps you noticed flowers on a walk or had a funny conversation in an elevator with a stranger,” she says. “It’s about reminding yourself that you’re participating in life, which means you’re not actually missing out.” And if you’re searching for an empowering mantra to help curb your online addiction, Raja offers this statement: “We own this device — the device does not own us.”