Gen Z person
Many from the Gen Z generation have acknowledged the harm that comes with the smartphone addiction, and are trying to detach themselves from their devices as it causes them undue stress and sleeplessness. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Is your phone glued to your hand? You're not alone. Many people, especially young adults between the ages of 12 to 27, struggle with smartphone addiction.

Numbers don't lie:

• Over half of Gen Z spends more than 8 hours a day online!

• Teens crave constant connection: 95% own smartphones.

• 73 per cent of Gen Z use their internet-connected devices primarily for texting and chatting

• 85 per cent of Gen Z use social media to learn about products.

This is according to a study and research compiled by 99 Firms, a US-based statistics portal. Another recent 2024 report by US-based Harmony Healthcare IT chronicling screen time addiction found that over 1 in 3 people can’t go 24 hours without their phones, and a full 45 say per cent they’re addicted.

Last year, 17-year-old US-based Davida Rimm-Kaufman ditched her smartphone to finish high school. Declaring that her extreme addiction to social media was stressing her out, she opted for a basic phone, dubbed “dumbphone”, which was devoid of all features. Later, she told the US the news media site Washington Times that she did buy an iPhone, but didn’t reinstall Instagram and Snapchat. She felt more “present”, as she didn’t have more addictive apps at her fingertips.

The Gen Z anxiety: What the parents say

Woman on the phone
Many youngsters scroll on their phones endlessly, as a coping strategy to manage their own mood swings or negative emotions. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Rules or no rules?

Jocelyn Merrill, a Dubai-based Irish entrepreneur has had to confiscate her 18-year-old daughter’s phone, multiple times a week. “It’s not just her; it’s her friends too. The sight of all of them just sitting together in one room and mindlessly scrolling for hours is a worrying sight,” she says. There’s hardly any conversation; just a constant exchange of reels and posts. So, now rules are firmly set: No phones after nine at night. There is a creation of no-phone areas in the house. No phones at the table.

Rules can only take you so far, says Swati Basu, an Abu Dhabi-based mother to two children, aged 15 and 17. “I feel setting rules just makes them more rebellious. They start craving the phone more. In my case, I tried setting boundaries for them because they were just spending all their time on the phone, scrolling endlessly through social media and just wanted every new thing that they could see,” she says.

So finally, she just kept them distracted by enrolling them in different activities, like dance, tennis and squash.

“There is only so much that you can do to restrict them,” adds Katerina Othonos, a Dubai-based Greek marketing professional and the mother to an 18-year-old son. “I feel the solution to smartphone addiction is a lot more complex and doesn’t reside in rules, banning or strict regulations. You need to set boundaries at a younger age and delay their access till they grow up. There’s no point suddenly instituting a variety of rules after they’ve already been living with phones. Parents need to make a conscious effort to help them find a balance between the phone and their lives,” she says.

As Othonos mentions, a smartphone addiction is a reflection of deeper issues.

An unhealthy method to cope with anxiety

Children and phones
When using their phones, youngsters get into a ‘flow state’, where they lose track of time. They are completely absorbed in this activity of looking at their phone. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Social media can be a double-edged sword. Manaal Singh, a Dubai-based psychologist believes that many youngsters enter into such a phone addiction as a way to manage their own mood swings or negative emotions. However, this endless time on the phone also fuels a desire to live a life like others, she says.

People keep striving for what others possess, Singh says. They also have a fear of missing out on other people’s experiences, she adds. And in order to cope with these emotions of resentment and inferiority complex, they get into the trap of compulsive buying. Social media will be filled with various advertisements. People will keep sharing photos of new products that they just purchased. This instills a desire in a person to get the same, she says. Singh views are complemented by the 2022 study, Glued to your phone? Generation Z's smartphone addiction and online compulsive buying, published in the US-based academic journal, Computers in Human Behaviour. The findings showed the connection between smartphone addiction and compulsive buying behaviour in the 18 to 24 age bracket, where they resorted to online buying as a coping strategy to avoid addressing their emotions.

“They get into a ‘flow state’, where they lose track of time. They are completely absorbed in this activity of looking at their phone and seeing different things to buy. They experience a boost in their mood, which acts as a positive reinforcement,” she says. This purchase pushes them to buy more, and can even trigger compulsive shopping behaviour.

Raj Mehta, a 24-year-old Indian entrepreneur based in Dubai, admits that he spends more time on social media than what’s necessary. “It is a problem; I won’t lie. I do surf Twitter, Instagram and a variety of apps for hours, or just keep looking for gadgets to buy online,” he says, adding it is a “retail therapy”. Others like Muskaan Biseria, a student in Dubai, “splurges” on online stores to fix a mood, when she’s feeling low.

Meanwhile, UAE-based Letitia Caleb, an American 24-year-old intern, has had her phone confiscated by her parents, multiple times. “I was constantly buying things, surfing, texting, and just never being present during family gatherings. I would even just text during dinner, because I was always afraid of not responding instantly to my friends, as if I was missing out on something. My parents grew so annoyed that they would just take away my phone. They were also alarmed at the amount I would just spend on buying random things,” she says. Caleb is still struggling with her constant need to be connected, as she says. “I’m making a conscious effort to reduce my usage, but I really think that I have a long way to go,” she adds.

Endless scrolling on the phone becomes an unhealthy coping habit, explains Singh. You are trying to alleviate your anxiety with mindless, expensive purchases, which also indicates a drain on your finances. Ironically, what you believe is de-stressing you, is actually causing you more anxiety in the long run.

‘Can’t go anywhere without my phone’

Lojain Abu Naser, a student of Bachelor of Arts in Creative Industries at Canadian University, Dubai, adds that she is trying to delete unnecessary apps from her phone. “I can’t go anywhere without my phone,” she says. “For me, it’s the constant need to check if any new messages pop up or if I need to respond to something urgently. On top of that, in my free time I mindlessly scroll on different social media applications to ‘relax’ after a long day, explains Naser, adding that she is glued to her phone at least 7 to 9 hours on most days. “I am looking to reduce my phone usage by deleting unnecessary applications that make me glued to it, for example, TikTok. I also want to pick up on more hobbies that don’t require any screens, like painting or knitting,” she says.

Other Gen Z, like Ayman Azmie, a student in Dubai, is trying to de-addict themselves from their phone. “My phone has taken up most of my time lately,” he says. “I have noticed it distracting me from many things in my life,” he says. So, he is trying to take back “control” in his life, and focusing on his physical health. “I go for walks outside and also do some form of physical activity to have better use of my time. I also decided to put restrictions on screen-time to further divert my attention from scrolling,” he says.

In my free time I mindlessly scroll on different social media applications to ‘relax’ after a long day. I am looking to reduce my phone usage by deleting unnecessary applications that make me glued to it, for example, TikTok. I also want to pick up on more hobbies that don’t require any screens, like painting or knitting...

- Lojain Abu Naser, Bachelor of Arts in Creative Industries Canadian University Dubai

Is it just Gen Z?

The Gen Z won’t deny that they can’t leave their phones alone; but they say it’s not just a Gen Z problem. Tazeen Khan, a Dubai-based public relations manager, observes that in her office, the millennials spend as much time on the phone, as the younger lot.

As Laura Aymerich-Franch, a Dubai-based behavioural scientist explains, a phone addiction can affect different generations. This is a rather complex, layered issue, she asserts, saying that there isn’t enough concrete evidence to draw conclusions that Gen Z is more addicted to phones than millennials or Gen X for that matter. “There has been so many technological changes in the past decade, that people across all ages want to keep up, not just the Gen Z,” says Singh. “There’s an app for everyone; you can find an older person more addicted to their phone than a Gen Z." 

Addiction can affect all generations, and studies seem to indicate is that there is an increased phone usage in Gen Z compared to previous generations. Directly comparing "addiction" levels across generations is complex and requires careful interpretation. Existing research primarily focuses on usage patterns....

- Laura Aymerich-Franch, behavioral scientist

Nevertheless, Aymerich-Franch does admit that Gen Z has had a stronger exposure to technology, as they did grow up in the digital era. As she notes, people need to see smartphones as a “means” not an end: Harness the benefits from the phone, without letting it consume you. A little advice for people of all ages. “Everyone should opt for a digital detox once in a while; cut down slowly when you can, and gradually learn to reduce your dependency on it,” says Singh. 

Start with digital detox at an early age

As technology will continue unfolding at a rapid rate, Lauren Casey, a developmental psychologist has some advice for both parents and children:

• It’s up to parents to set a good example of healthy phone use - modeling responsible screen time behaviour, such as limiting phone use during family time, prioritising face-to-face interactions, and engaging in offline activities. Generally setting a positive example.

It’s up to parents to set a good example of healthy phone use - modeling responsible screen time behaviour, such as limiting phone use during family time, prioritising face-to-face interactions, and engaging in offline activities. Generally setting a positive example.

- Lauren Casey, developmental psychologist

• Encourage children to find pleasure in activities that do not rely on technology, such as sports or other activities that require human connection.

• Delay access to smartphones until children are emotionally ready can help young people become less addicted to their, she says. This allows parents to better understand their child's maturity level and readiness to handle the responsibilities and potential risks associated with smartphone use.

• Talk to them about the possible harm of smartphones, including exposure to inappropriate content and social media pressures. It's important to have open discussions about the expectations and boundaries surrounding phone usage and be clear about the reasons why we set these expectations.

• Set limits and establish tech-free zones at home. Designate certain areas or times of day as tech-free zones, and be firm and consistent with these boundaries. This will be beneficial, so that they know that when smartphones do come into their lives, there will be consistent boundaries in place.