How does treatment for social media addiction actually work? I have some ideas

Last week I sat next to two women in their twenties who had clearly spent a long time doing their makeup and who spent the entire meal staring into tiny screens. Britain is in the grip of an epidemic

Jenny Eclair
Monday 06 August 2018 13:31 BST
I judge people for using their smartphones too often, but the truth is I can’t really talk
I judge people for using their smartphones too often, but the truth is I can’t really talk (iStock)

The comedian Russell Kane recently admitted to receiving treatment for social media addiction. Kane likened his phone habit to cocaine abuse, what with the constant disappearing off to the bathroom to get a sneaky online fix and lying to friends and family about going upstairs to get “changed” when in fact he just wanted a few minutes alone to check his Twitter likes. In his own words, he eventually realised he was no longer in charge of “that machine” and has sought help.

I’m not sure how social media therapy works. Maybe you pay someone to snatch your iPhone and replace it with an oldschool Nokia that does nothing beyond making actual telephone calls. Remember them?

Increasingly smartphones are not being used to communicate verbally with anyone directly; instead, they are being used primarily as a distraction from reality. At their best, they’re a sophisticated plaything; at worst, they can turn into a tyrannical barometer of one’s own fragile ego.

Either way, they’re pretty addictive, and you only need travel on public transport to realise that a huge percentage of the British public is literally in the grip of smartphone dependency.

I also think most of us are in denial about our usage. I’ve lied to my own mother about mine – in response to her telling me to “put that bloody thing down”, I’ve snapped, “actually I’m dealing with a really important email”, when in fact I’m playing Candy Crush.

Last week I was working away from home and while staying in a four star hotel, I went down to the “fine dining” room, where I sat next to two young women in their twenties, both of whom were dressed to the max and had contoured their faces with elaborate strokes of bronze and silver powder and yet both spent their entire fine dining experience, faces down, in total silence, eyes glued to their phones, occasionally tapping away with speedy acrylic nails and only looking up when they were presented with the bill.

Sadiq Khan reads mean tweets to highlight social media abuse

Obviously I can’t really talk, being on my own – I had taken my phone along for company and apart from being judgmental about my fellow “fine diners”, I spent most of my time flipping between Twitter and Instagram. In the old days, I’d have been accompanied by a book, but since developing dry eye syndrome last year, I’ve swapped most of my leisure reading for Audible and I don’t know about you, but I think it looks a bit rude sitting in a restaurant with headphones on.

I’m mentioning the dry eye thing because, apart from the mental side effects of smartphone addiction, there are physical consequences too – like developing “internet goiter”, that massive double chin we’re all in danger of getting from looking down at our phones so much and, even more worryingly, “fossilised eyelid”, because no one is bothering to blink properly anymore. People are just fixing their eyes on a handheld screen six inches from their nose and staring, unblinking, sometimes for hours on end, without realising they could be lining themselves up for an eternity of eye drops and ointments.

I’ve become a bit obsessed by blinking ever since I had my eyelid movement scanned as part of my dry eye treatment, only to be told that just four blinks out of every 10 were “efficient”, meaning my blink mechanism had become lazy and this had exacerbated my dry eye problem. Technical and boring, yes, but also true.

Since then, I have been trying to improve my blinking efficiency rate and at least once an hour, I blink 10 times, really deliberately, squeezing my eyes tightly shut each time. Yes, this does make me look like I’ve got a tic but I think it’s important to try and do something to prevent things from getting worse.

Before anyone starts panicking, sloppy blinking isn’t the only cause of dry eye. The main culprit behind the condition is actually “meibomian gland dysfunction”, which basically means that the glands along the eyelids are blocked, thus preventing enough oil being released onto the surface of the eye.

In time, this lack of lubrication dries the eyeballs out and the next thing you know they feel like they’ve been rolled in sand. Meibomian glands get blocked for many reasons including age, hormones and possibly not removing your eye makeup properly before you go to bed, so let that be another lesson: kids, take your slap off (PS for those suffering, I’ve found lipi-flow treatment really helpful).

Anyway, back to addiction – for anyone who doesn’t think they’ve got a problem but can’t imagine leaving home without their smartphone, we’ve got the joys of “Scroll-free September” coming up, when, for 30 days, we will all be encouraged to put our phones away, talk to each other instead of texting, consign an experience to memory rather than an Instagram account, and check the weather by looking out of a window rather than at an app. If none of that appeals and you’re still bored, then remember: you can always do your blinking exercises.

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