Smartphone addiction: ‘They are weapons of mass distraction’

Woman using her mobile phone, city skyline night light background. Image 33640261, 123RF photo stock.




People’s dependence on their devices can contribute to a range of more serious problems.





Iseult C O'Brien

Montessori Teacher & Supervisor | Volunteer Tutor with Second Level Students 




One simple way of better managing your use of a Smartphone is to leave it in another room before you go to bed.


Sylvia Thompson, 03 Sept 2019, The Irish Times.


Many of us joke about how we – or other family members or friends – are addicted to their Smartphones.  But, there is a serious side to this ubiquitous behaviour and although Smartphone addiction has yet to be classified as a mental disorder – psychiatrists and psychotherapists are dealing with troubling symptoms linked to technology overuse.



Webwise, funded by the Department of Education, has launched a Parenting Hub website as well as a booklet containing advice for parents experiencing difficulties controlling their child’s online behaviour.


Dr Colman Noctor is a psychotherapist at St Patrick’s University Hospital, Dublin, who has a special interest in how technology impacts on our mental health.  


People are not referred to us for Smartphone addiction.  It’s usually for anxiety, depression or other things but when you start to unpack their issues, a problematic relationship with technology is often there,” he explains.


The key sign of Smartphone addiction is when the importance of using the phone plays a disproportionate role in your life to the extent that your functioning is impaired.


“If your work, performance or ability to engage in a task is compromised by screen time, and if your concentration and mood are determined by whether you have access to technology and the internet, then it’s a problem,” says Noctor.


This amount of things we now do on our phones – from checking bus / train times, the weather and the news to listening to music – all create a dependency on the phone which fuels Smartphone addiction for some people.  But it is the compulsive need to check what’s going on, upload comments and / or check feedback on social media apps that are the real signs of out of control use of a smartphone.


‘Hidden Gaming Community’

Use of pornography sites, gambling apps or gaming are more serious sub-sections of Smartphone addiction.  “There is a hidden gaming community.  It’s not the typical 19-year-old male hidden in a basement.  Gamers include middle-aged professional women playing two hours each night to the detriment of communicating with their husbands and children,” says Noctor.


The ‘always-on’ work culture – with the possibility to check and reply to emails at all hours of the day and night – also fuels such addictions.  “It’s a bit like the person who has two or three drinks every night but doesn’t realise they have a drink problem,” says Noctor.


Researchers have also found that heavy Smartphone use can increase stress, anxiety, and depression and exacerbate attention deficit disorders.  The constant stream of messages and information from a Smartphone can, in fact, overwhelm the brain and make it impossible to focus on any one thing for more than a few minutes without feeling compelled to move on to something else.


The difficulty is that there are often no visual signs of a Smartphone addiction no bulging waistline from over-eating, no mounting bills from a gambling habit or no hangovers from drinking too much alcohol.  


Yet, the withdrawal symptoms of coming off smartphones are not dissimilar to other addictions.  They include feelings of restlessness, anger or irritability, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems or simply craving access to your phone.


Often, the only way you’ll realise you are addicted to your Smartphone is how you react when it’s out of battery or when you’ve no access to the internet.


Noctor says that the solution to Smartphone addiction lies is changing behaviour – rather than seeking technological solutions.  

“Smartphones are weapons of mass distraction.  They are designed to be compulsive and to hack our psychology.  People with addictive personalities will be more vulnerable.  Using technology targets the same dopamine receptors as alcohol and some people will escape into technology as a 

However, like with other addictions, this isn’t an instant cure.  And, it can take some time – first to deal with the withdrawal symptoms – and then to find a balanced way to use technology.


Abstinence isn’t a possibility.  It’s like food – it’s everywhere so it’s about managing and negotiating a better relationship with technology.  The emphasis has to be on the human element and stepping back and finding your sense of autonomy.  What people need to do is to find value in other things, says Noctor.


He also believes that as a society, we need to develop a more mature relationship with technology and learn to regulate our own desire so that we can use technology for good.  


“If we had a clean [devoid of pornography, gambling apps, etc] internet, people could still spend nine hours on YouTube.  Technology is an interactive medium of communication which depends on self-censorship.  We are not going to come offline but we need to take back ownership of our choices.”


Do you have a Smartphone Addiction?

  • Do you find you’re working late because you can’t complete assignments or household chores aren’t getting done because you are spending a lot of time on your Smartphone?
  •  Is your social life suffering because of all the time you spend on your device?
  •  Do you lose track of what people are saying because you’re too busy checking your phone?
  •  Do you conceal or lie about your Smartphone use by sneaking off somewhere quiet to be online?
  •  Do you feel you are missing out on important news or feel others are having a better time than you if you don’t check your phone regularly?
  •  Do you have a feeling of dread, anxiety or panic if you leave your Smartphone at home or the battery runs down?


If you answer yes to all or even some of these questions, you need to manage your Smartphone use better.








  • Keep an (honest) log of how much time you spend on your phone.  There are apps that can track it for you – but keeping a record in a notebook might be more effective.
  •  Recognise the triggers that make you reach for your device.  Is it when you are lonely or bored?  Is it a way of self-soothing when your mood is low?  Is it to distract yourself to avoid doing something difficult you have to do?
  •  Make a list of other things you’d like to do if you had more time.  Set yourself times when you will turn your phone off.  Remove social media apps from your phone so that you can only check them when you’re on a computer.  Or wean yourself off compulsively checking your phone every few minutes.  Try to limit yourself to every 15 minutes and then extend that to every 30 minutes, then once an hour.
  •  Start a new activity and leave your phone at home when you do this activity.  It could be simply a lunchtime walk, a gym or yoga class.  Set family times – such as meal times – when everyone has to leave their phones out of the room.  Curb your fear of missing out by doing more things with friends and family.
  •  Leave your phone in another room before you go to bed.




‘Everything about a phone is fine until it is not fine’

Teenagers texting mobile phone messages leaning on urban wall - Group of multiracial friends using cellular standing outdoors - Concept of students addiction to social network and telephone technology. 8585942, 123RF stock photos.




Parents, Guardians, Carers (PGCs) need to lead by example when monitoring children’s Smartphone usage.


Parenting coach Allen O’Donoghue says children’s phone use is a ‘massive issue’ among parents he works with.


“They’re never off their phones.”

This must be the most common gripe of the current generation of PGCs with teenagers. And when something goes wrong in a young person’s life, mobile phones are immediately suspected as the chief contributing factor.


From bullying and unsafe sexual liaisons to eating disorders and social anxiety, or even just disappointing exam results, phones are often regarded as the root of all ills in the hands of immature and impulsive teenagers.


No wonder parents worry. But the Chief Executive of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, Paul Gilligan, stresses that the positives of phones outweigh the negatives – for teenagers and parents. 

A quick text or call can avert hours of fretting about a youngster’s whereabouts.


For teenagers, “it gives them access to lots of different knowledge bases, broadens their perspectives and opens up their social reach and social engagement”.


However, PGCs “have to identify the risks and manage them”, he says, and they can only do this through educating themselves and not being afraid to tackle issues with their children.


And – here’s the hard bit – lead by example with your own phone use.


Some dangers, such as bullying, grooming and accessing pornography at an early age, were always there for adolescents. But with phones enabling things to happen quicker and more extensively, the risks are higher.


A new challenge, he suggests, is the addictive nature of phones. “It’s a really compulsive piece of equipment that draws you in, in so many different ways.”


Adults find it difficult enough to resist the lure but youngsters are less able to control their behaviour.


It could be argued that the most prevalent danger to well-being is not what teenagers do on their mobile phones – but what they don’t do when they are on them, such as exercise, interacting with people face to face, creative thinking and reflecting on life.


Psychological Impact

Gilligan is also concerned about the psychological impact of seeing inappropriate material or a lot of information they cannot interpret, which “attacks their understanding of life, emotional well-being and expectations”.


For instance, believing other people are living a fantastic life because of how they present themselves on social media and being dissatisfied that their own doesn’t measure up. For youngsters who already have mental health vulnerabilities, extensive phone use can exacerbate their problems.


The basics of old-fashioned parenting skills have to be applied to the internet, he says.

“It’s the only way. There is a role for regulators and the industry … but ultimately it boils down to PGCs and their ability to negotiate, communicate and place limits on their kids on phones so that when the kids are old enough to make the decisions for themselves, they have learned all they need to know.”


Preparing a child for the online world, long before they hit their teens, is similar to many other aspects of parenting, whether it is preparing them to cross the road safely or to be aware of water safety, fire risk and so on, agrees Alex Cooney. chief executive of CyberSafeIreland.


Owning your first Smartphone is undoubtedly a rite of passage, she says, and recent findings suggest some 70 per cent of 12-year-olds have one.  However, even if a PGC has held back on letting a child have a Smartphone before secondary school, at least 98 per cent of children in sixth class at primary school own some sort of smart device connecting with the internet.


While people tend to focus on what children can access through phones, Cooney believes other internet-enabled devices, such as for gaming and music, can be overlooked.


Digital Literacy

“Most kids will be comfortable with technology and accessing the online world well before they start secondary school,” she points out. “However, the issue is that as parents and as educators, we’re not preparing them sufficiently well for that access to the online world and for technology ownership.”


She believes digital literacy must be taught in schools, starting at primary level, “so that kids can critically assess the content they’re coming across online – for example, understanding things like fake news, filter bubbles, people are not always who they say they are etc”.


The days when PGCs would try to hold off until first year of secondary school before allowing their child a Smartphone seem well gone and many have one from their First Communion, says Rita O’Reilly, manager of Parentline (tel 1890 927 277,, which is contacted most frequently by parents of teenagers.


However, she says 13 is still very young for full access to the internet and that parents must insist on being able to check their phones.

They won’t like it and will try to hide stuff, she suggests, but parents should make it very clear that it’s not about “watching you”, rather it’s “caring for you”.  By 14 or 15, you could begin easing back but still make sure you have access if needs be. “Like everything, everything about a phone is fine until it is not fine,” she adds.


She also recommends simple house rules such as no phones at the table and that phones not be brought upstairs at night.


Of course parents need to limit their phone use the same way if they are going to insist their children do.


The “do as I say, not as I do” approach to parenting is rife when it comes to phones. As Allen O’Donoghue, a parenting coach with Help Me to Parent, points out: “We all talk about phones being an extension of teenagers’ hands but we are exactly the same.”


He says it is essential for PGCs to have monitoring software on younger teens’ phones, as he has on his 13-year-old daughter’s phone. “I have parental control so she needs to get permission from me to download an app.  I don’t look at all her messages but the monitoring software highlights to me concerning words or images that I might be worried about. It sends me a notification and I can go and have a conversation with my daughter.




He says it costs about €10 a month. “It’s worth it – it allows your child their privacy but at the same time you can keep them safe.” While he currently uses the software’s highest alert level, he envisages reducing that as she gets older. A 13-year-old with unrestricted access to the internet “is going to see things that they can’t comprehend and I think that can then impact on their mental health”.

When it comes to upsetting material online, adults can decide not to look at it but a teenager may not have the maturity to exercise that choice.


Children’s phone use is a “massive issue”, he says, among PGCs he works with.  Imposing restrictions, such as turning off the wifi, isn’t easy, he acknowledges.


“Parents feel powerless, that it’s just not worth my child turning the house upside down to have the argument.”


He doesn’t like to be prescriptive and would always say, “do what’s right for your little family – you don’t need to worry about the rest of the world. If it’s an issue for you, you need to do something about it – if it’s not, don’t worry about it.”


He finds parents most complain about the “disengagement” of teens, when they’re sitting at the table and looking at phones, or heading to the bedroom to be online. While it could be argued that teenagers always found a way to distance themselves from parents, he believes they are becoming independent quicker because of phones.



Unforgiving Milieu

However, the constant surveillance from other people’s phones can create a very unforgiving milieu in which to grow up by trial and error. “I did stupid stuff as a teenager but there wasn’t a camera recording it,” says O’Donoghue. “Now there’s a camera recording everything.”


PGCs need to talk about the pitfalls, impressing on teens that, for instance, if they send a compromising photo of themselves to a friend, “you lose control of it, no matter how much you trust the other person”.


Teenagers will make mistakes, says Gilligan, and if they end up doing something that seems catastrophic, “parents need to stand shoulder to shoulder with them, saying: ‘This is not catastrophic, not everybody has seen this message or this photo, life isn’t over, we can move on.’”


Whereas he thinks PGCs can be inclined to panic, unsure of how to manage the situation. “It’s important parents don’t overreact.” Try to understand it from the youngster’s view and reassure them that people’s attention span is short.


Another concern for O’Donoghue is filters used on photos, “that can distort the image of ourselves”.


His bugbear is parents who use them when posting photos of themselves with their children, to look the best that they can be online “but you can never look like that in real life”.


They’re setting their offspring up for dissatisfaction with what they see in the mirror.


As wedded as teenagers are to their phones – so often the first and last thing they look at in a day – they are not blind to the downsides and the need to put them down occasionally.


“Arguably, without my phone, I’d be a lot more present in the moment,” says Jack Kelly (17). A Dublin-based member of Foróige’s National Council, he says he tries to be off it “when I’m with friends, cooking dinner etc. At home we don’t have any rules about phone usage whereas my school has a strict no-phone policy once you enter the school building.”


Social Media

Caoilfhionn Ní Choiligh (19) from Mullingar, Co Westmeath, a member of the Irish Second-Level Students Union’s National Executive, has made a conscious effort to limit her use by reducing the number of apps she uses.


“The more apps and social media we use the more distracted we are, and we become more fixated on our appearance and content,” she says.


We don’t realise how the pressures of social media, with its likes and followers, can be such a subconscious burden and can negatively impact our confidence, says Éadaoin Doherty (17), of Carndonagh, Co Donegal, another member of Foróige’s national council. “Certainly for me and many of my peers the pressure of always looking ‘good enough’ or ‘skinny enough’ has at times really, really, eaten away at our self-esteem.”


Among the young people interviewed for this article, there’s consensus that parents and teachers tend to overlook the benefits of Smartphones and exaggerate the dangers, underestimating the “smartness” of teenage users.

However, they are concerned that generally children now have access to the internet at a younger age than they did.


As with so many aspects of raising teens, you can only offer advice, set and hold some boundaries – and trust they will realise for themselves what’s best in the end.



Teenagers and their phones: ‘I plan to spend five minutes and it ends up an hour’

Young people looking down at cellular phone - Teenagers leaning on a wall and texting with their smartphones - Concepts about technology and global communication, image 40823044, 123RF stock photo.






Eight people reveal what they love and hate about their Smartphones.


Sheila Wayman, 03 September 2019, The Irish Times.

Four members of Foróige’s National Youth Advisory Panel, who also sit on its National Council, and four members of the National Executive of the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union give snapshot views of the highs and lows of the ubiquitous Smartphone.


Éadaoin Doherty (17), Carndonagh, Co Donegal

Loves: “Having my phone at my fingertips enables me to talk to my friends whenever I want to. As well as that, it gives me something to do as there is a huge lack of facilities for young people in my town.” 

Hates: “It can be a huge distraction. I find myself planning to spend five minutes and it ends up as an hour or more.”


Ciara Fanning (19), Cahir, Co Tipperary

Loves: “How instant communication and information can be – informing myself about international events and other movements – eg climate action, which rely heavily on social media and phones to connect activists.” 

Hates: “The power it holds that makes people feel as though they aren’t really having fun or living their lives properly if it doesn’t seem to compare to what other people show on Instagram etc.”


Mitchella Lacuesta (17), Ballina, Co Mayo

Loves: “Having access to practically whatever I want. I have the internet, which has endless knowledge, I have music, games and social media, and other strong forms of communication.”

Hates: “I sometimes feel disconnected from whatever I’m doing or whoever I’m with. I feel like phones are a safety net for whenever someone feels awkward or just doesn’t want to get involved.”


Caoilfhinn Ní Choiligh (19), Mullingar, Co Westmeath

 Loves: “You have the answers to pretty much any question at your disposal.”

Hates: “Fear of the radiation, so I never leave it in my front pocket as it’s so near the ovaries.”


Jack Kelly (15), Hartstown, Dublin 15

Loves: “It keeps me connected to friends, which I have all around the Country, not just in Dublin. I am able to organise plans, keep in constant contact with people and see what my friends are up to at a fingertip’s reach.”

Hates: “I am constantly looking at new messages and it arguably controls many conversations I have, through what I see on my phone rather than real-life situations.”


Gearoid O’Donovan (17), Dungarvan, Co Waterford 

Loves: “The access to friends from social media.”

Hates: “The impatience it gives you, ie, wanting replies ASAP and not wanting to watch ads when watching TV.”


Eoghan Flood (15), Truagh, Co Monaghan

Loves: “The feeling I can easily talk to my friends when we have free time.”

Hates: “It is more difficult to get to sleep some nights because I didn’t stop early enough to rest my brain (blue light).”


Seán Carey (17), Co Longford

Likes: “Being able to get in contact with any one of my friends or family at any time.”

Dislikes: “It’s a huge distraction in day-to-day life.”


The total of dislikes appears to lean to frustration at not having self-control over personal Smartphone use.  Most of the young people mentioned 'distraction' or a similar emotion to describe what irritates them about the constant pull of their Smartphones, including only one mention of the 'blue light' interfering with sleep and sleep patterns. 

There was only one mention of worry due to radiation.  I thought the level of awareness of negative physical and psychological deficits was low even given the low number of people interviewed.

The overwhelming positive was being able to keep in contact with friends, followed by access to information and groups.




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