Webster defines addiction as “persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.”

When I came to the realization I needed help with alcohol and drugs, it was obvious even to me. I’d gotten 2 DUI’s, fired twice, evicted, was bankrupt, and experiencing panic attacks. It was clear to this persistent compulsive user that substance use was harmful. In other words, I knew I was addicted.

Thankfully, being in long term recovery from those addictions, I’ve lived a lifestyle that’s healed many of the underlying causes and effects. Lately I’m wondering if I’m undoing some of that hard-earned quality of life because of my beloved smartphone and tablet.

Screen addiction?

Last week I spent an average of 1 hour and 38 minutes per day on my phone & tablet. And I checked them about 50 times every day. Add about 2 hours per day of television. That’s nearly 25% of my waking hours.

I spend less time exercising, meditating, being outdoors, and talking with loved ones. If you were to ask me to rank all those activities in order of importance I would put screen time last. Guess my actions speak louder than my words. Not proud of that hypocrisy. It’s humbling to see the quantity of my life I’m frittering away on screen time. Not happy about the ways it interferes with my life either. How about you?

When was the last time you realized screen time was eating too much of your life and getting in the way of more important stuff? Maybe it was checking social media again hoping for that dopamine hit that comes when an attractive mystery person “hearts” your picture. Or perhaps it happened when righteous indignation took over making you lose your mind arguing in 140 character salvos about the latest dumbass maneuver pulled by the other political party’s moronic maneuver. Could it have been reading a text while driving your car in traffic? Before I begin to sound like a scold, please understand that I’ve done these things too. If you’re picking up a critical vibe, understand that it’s a ricochet that bounced off me first.

But It’s Not the Same Thing

Okay, I realize we’re talking about very different things here. Getting drunk and high every day was slowly killing me. There were no tangible benefits to that activity. My screen time is not endangering my life. I do get some positive convenience from my phone. Quite a bit actually. I can do my banking, check my investments, communicate efficiently, check the weather, catch up on the news, play music, and do many other useful activities with it. That’s not the problem, and yet it sort of is an easy excuse that I use to justify another peek that turns into more wasted time. Then this compulsion creeps into my life like mold in the basement.

For example, sometimes I look at my phone during a meal with family. Often I’ll check it simply out of boredom, swiping through social media screens looking for likes or snooping mindlessly. Then there’s checking it surreptitiously when no one is around so I don’t look like a smartphone junkie. What the hell? It’s turned into a kind of time sucking electronic quicksand.

I worry about what it’s doing to my thinking patterns. Seems like I’m shortening my attention span with all these quick tidbits. My mind feels like a crowded highway more often, especially after I’ve engaged in a longer screen time binge. Good sleep has become harder to come by. I’m concerned about how I’m damaging my ability to truly listen to someone. Instead of really hearing them, I find myself thinking of other things and just capturing enough their words to keep me from being totally not-there. I know my capacity for patience is negatively impacted by checking emailI 8 times a day. I think I’m ruining my capacity for being present to the beautiful ordinariness of life by giving in to the need-pull for another please-like-me dopamine hit. All these symptoms seem to worsen the more I check out with pointless phone surfing.

And I’m bugged by how much effort it takes to change these habits. There are some sobering similarities to trying to control my using before recovery. Back then, I put rules in place. Rules like, only 2 beers, no drinking during the workweek, or no weed in the morning. These days the rules are like, no small screens after 6 pm, no phone time during dinner, or only check my phone at 8am-noon-6pm. It took tremendous effort to live by my own rules back then, and dammit, it does again today. And in both cases, I’ve experienced a humbling mix of relief-revulsion when I give in to overindulgence. Ugh.

Worse yet, more often than not I break these earnest promises I make to myself.

A Question of Integrity & Self-Discipline

Thankfully my conscience alerts me to this lack of inner integrity. It’s not a pleasant realization. But it is valuable. So how is this a lack of integrity? Isn’t “integrity” the same as “telling the truth”?

Webster defines integrity as “adherence to a code of values”.

So to be a person of integrity I will align my thoughts and actions with my values. Self-discipline is one tool for doing that. That phrase has an updated meaning for me too. It used to equate with restraint. As in “don’t do that thing I really want to do”. That’s a downer. It changed for the better when I focused on the root word – disciple.

Webster defines disciple as a “convinced adherent or believer”.

So then self-discipline becomes an act of allegiance to self. To thine own self be true.

Be More Like the Person I’d Like to Be

Using alcohol and drugs compulsively turned me into a rotten human being. Long term recovery has been a steady uphill climb toward being a pretty good guy. More like the person I’d like to be. Along the way my lIfe has provided challenges to test my resolve to evolve. That’s how I’m choosing to look at my relationship with screen time. As a challenge. Here are some specific actions I’m pledging to take to treat my brain, life, and loved ones better:

  • No phone use during meals
  • No phone use during in-person conversations
  • No phone use while driving
  • Less lazy boredom phone time
  • More time given to higher priorities

Oh jeez! Now it’s real!! Okay, don’t shoot me if you see me violating one of those guidelines. Instead, give me the kind of look that says “I know you can do better”. Thanks in advance.

So am I a phone-aholic? I don’t know. But I do know that I want to demote my phone. It’s time to reinstate myself as the boss of me.

Matt M. Kelly is a writer, spiritual recording artist, and meditation guide living in Kansas City. He is dedicated to helping others recover peace of mind and find purpose in their life. Matt uses an integrated approach to long term recovery practices. He can be reached at [email protected]