As a Gen Z phone addict I spent 12 hours a day scrolling – here’s how I broke the habit

After I found out my shockingly high screen time, I challenged myself to a digital detox - it was eye opening and refreshing

I thought I knew myself pretty well but my phone, apparently, knows me better. Last week when I scrolled through my iPhone analytics, a quest which felt like snooping on myself, I was met with a hard truth that made me double take: I can spend up to 12 hours a day on my phone.

Now I’ve admitted that, we may as well get into specifics. This isn’t on work days – when maybe it is more understandable that I’d need to be hooked to technology for large chunks of the day – this is in my own time. On Sunday 26 March, when I apparently had nothing better to do than spend 11 hours and 26 minutes on my phone, I scrolled through Instagram for five hours six minutes, WhatsApp for two hours eight minutes and TikTok for one hour and 45 minutes.

I had always known that as a Gen Z I spent a lot of my waking hours on my phone. My daily routine starts with snoozing my phone alarm before checking social media for at least 20 minutes (the first thing my eyes see when they open). I knew what people on my Instagram feed had eaten for their dinner the previous evening before I’d even brushed my teeth. I hadn’t even started thinking about my own breakfast, but I knew that someone else was eating eggs benedict at that new brunch restaurant in town.

Despite knowing all too well how much time I spend on my phone, seeing the numbers there in black and white felt different. The time was suddenly quantifiable; I know objectively that 13 hours is a huge chunk of time to spend on something. The snatched seconds I spent scrolling through TikTok while waiting for the kettle to boil no longer felt so inconsequential.

According to research by TrueList, Gen Z-ers spend the most time on their phone out of all age groups, with approximately nine hours a day spent looking at a screen. Most of my generation will be in the top 20 per cent of smartphone users who use their phone for over 4.5 hours daily. Usually being in the top percentile would make me proud, but I feel ashamed that my one achievement for this week is being able to spend 72 hours without a screen glued to my hand.

Perhaps this approach isn’t that surprising as we are the first generation to grow up completely alongside technology – I simply don’t remember the time before mobile phones. But looking at these numbers I knew I needed to do something, to abandon this or literally waste my life waiting for Instagram to update. And deep down I know that it must be having an impact on my self-esteem and my self-perception.

So I wasn’t interested in trying to taper it off, I needed to go cold turkey to reset. A digital detox for a more balanced relationship going forward.

The test

While undertaking my test for a period of three days – let’s be realistic here – I spoke with UKCP psychotherapist Mark Vahrmeyer about the impact of phone usage and social media on our brains and wellbeing. He told me that, like I was planning, he thinks everyone should take time away sometimes, a brief detox. “Taking time away from your phone or other devices can be a powerful way of reconnecting with your body and mind. It can also be a good way of resting – coming back into reality and the world around you.” Ok, challenge accepted.

Vahrmeyer gave me some tips for getting off on the right foot: start by putting your phone away at night at a set time and leave it in another room while you sleep, download apps that manage how long you’re on your device in case you feel tempted to pick it up, and stop carrying your phone around with you and allocate a space for it to live at home.

The first day felt very strange, almost as if a part of me was missing. Checking my watch for the time instead of reaching down for my phone felt old school. I spent the day fretting that my close family and friends had been caught up in a zombie apocalypse and I’d never known about it because I was off grid (if that situation ever did arise, I’d definitely be the last port of call).

The rest of the day I was pretty busy with work so didn’t notice the absence too much – although my break tested me and how much I’d usually reach for it. The first 10 minutes I twiddled my thumbs, attempted to find a TV show to keep me occupied with my lunch but nothing seemed the same as having one hand scrolling and one eating. I didn’t take my full lunch break out of boredom for tasks to occupy myself.

I spent much more time outside in my three day digital detox (Photo: supplied)

My major takeaway from the first day was a sense of relief. After spending the evening outside with family and reading a book before going to bed I realised that actually I didn’t need a small screen to make life go by quicker. In fact I was missing out on the simple things I’d once enjoyed because I had an obsession with carrying around a device.

The next morning I woke up earlier than usual and took my dogs on a walk with a friend around their favourite fields. There was something freeing about enjoying my own morning and waking up and doing something active rather than staying in my bed watching everybody else.

Throughout the second day I still found myself reaching down for my phone and it was a real test to completely stay away. I sat at my desk reading or working and my mind did flick to what was happening in the online world that I’d locked away in my house. I’d promised myself not to check, or turn it back on, and my willpower was tested.

A phone ban over food meant I was much more present in conversations (Photo: supplied)

By day three, the last day, I had started realising that I was less dependent on a screen. I even walked to the train station to find out times for the following day – with the strikes and Easter holiday I didn’t want to turn up to my usual time without checking. Before my digital detox had begun I had arranged this evening to see friends – specifically telling them I would be there and not to cancel (as I’d never have known).

Spending time fully focused on catching up with them over dinner and putting a phone ban on them too led us all to a really great evening – and I didn’t think about my phone or what was happening on it once.

In the three days I banished my phone I definitely had achieved more than I would have done otherwise: I read two books, started writing in my gratitude journal again (which I hadn’t done since January) and without my phone to distract me I kept my house clean and tidy. Much less of my time was spent procrastinating and I ticked off all of my to-do list tasks, even the ones that had been sitting there for three weeks. I also noticed my sleep was much better – it was less interrupted.

To keep it up Vahrmeyer recommends a maximum of two hours per day on your phone. “What studies are showing is that as screen time ramps up to over six hours per day, so do feelings of anxiety and feelings.” For longer-term plans, he also suggests allocating one day a week away from your phone. Plan activities into the day that you can engage with instead and arrange a time that none of your family and friends use their phone as well – such as dinnertime, or in the evening.

This experiment has been fleeting, but in just a couple of days I have learned some balance – being disconnected from the online world is needed for all of us and mindlessly scrolling isn’t beneficial to my mental health or my life. From now on, 13 hours of my day will be spent in a much better way than sitting in front of a screen.

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