We've all been there.

A family member tunes out, tapping constantly on a phone. A few minutes of conversation to engage with everyone else at the dinner table and then it's right back to swiping.

We don't like to think this is a serious form of tech addiction, but there are obvious warning signs. An inability to carry on a normal conversation, a blank expression, a nervous twitch. Actual tech addiction is defined as something that inhibits your ability to live a normal life.

After testing every gadget under the sun as a journalist for 17 years now, I've seen how easy it is to become obsessed by shiny objects. To help, there are two important steps to take with anyone who seems overly consumed with a device this holiday break.

The overall answer, though, is education.

I strongly believe one of the reasons people use their phones too much and seem obsessed with them is that they don't understand what is actually happening and why they seem so captivated every minute of the day. This is not an opportunity to lecture anyone. It is simply a way to pass along information. What we know doesn't always match up with what we do, and it's very possible someone would listen and understand the reason they like their gadgets so much and then obsess about them anyway.

However, it's better to know the truth--people who are addicted could come to the conclusion that they need to put the device down more often even if it is months later. I know it worked for me. I wasn't really ready to accept that I've used my phone too often, but then I started paying attention to how often I was checking the little plastic gadget. I started to realize there was a reason I was checking my phone so much. 

The first step in educating other people is to talk about why addiction even happens. Now, I'm not a psychiatrist and there are counselors and other trained professionals who can deal with actual addictive behavior, but for the average person who just seems to use their phone too  much, it's important to understand that addiction is a pursuit of something that almost satisfies you. Dr. Vincent  Felitti is a well-known physician and researcher and he once said: "It is hard to get enough of something that almost works." (I read about this concept in a book called Eternity is Now in Session by John Ortberg--it's one of the books I recommend as a best of the year.)

So what does it mean? A phone is a communication tool, it helps us do our jobs. When it becomes addictive, it's because we're using the device to meet a need that the iPhone or the Google Pixel 3 or some other gadget almost meets. And the very fact that it almost meets that need is what makes it addictive--we keep pursuing something that is always out of reach. So then we keep pursuing it. It's like stepping on the gas pedal over and over again, thinking that will free us from a snowbank, but it never will. It won't ever work.

This is important to understand because of the second reason why we get addicted. I wrote about this concept recently as well, and it's quite mind-bending.

As you flip through Instagram feeds constantly, as you see likes and shares on Facebook, as you view the photos of your last trip to Hawaii, your brain gives you little micro-rewards--hits of dopamine, a chemical that gives you a warm fuzzy feeling. Unfortunately, it's a false reward system, because you haven't really accomplished anything.

Watching someone swipe through endless feeds and check emails constantly, you start to realize what is happening in their brains. It's a double-whammy. They receive a positive hit of dopamine, which makes them think they are achieving something or getting a reward. But it is not an actual reward, so they keep tapping, swiping, and clicking.

Once you know this---once you understand addiction and the reward system in your brain--it changes everything. You can finally tell yourself the truth. A phone is a tool, it is a temporary way to communicate and accomplish tasks, it's meant for occasional use (like anything helpful in life) but the addiction takes over when we think it will make us happy or meet some deep-seated need. Yet, it won't actually do that. Ever. Only deeply rewarding activities like loving someone who does not deserve your love, or helping people in need, or building something new out of thin air--those are the things that bring lasting fulfillment and joy, not a thousand likes on Facebook. Knowing leads to doing.

Will you take on the challenge of explaining these factors to someone? Knowing why we flip through endless screens on our phones, understanding that we are pursuing something that won't satisfy us, realizing there is a reward system in our brains at work--all of these things can actually help someone overcome a phone addiction. It works. Will you try explaining that to someone who needs your help?

Published on: Dec 21, 2018