Stoner vs Smartphoner: Examining compulsions and finding they're not what you'd think

Updated Sep 19 2018
There are two legal substances in this photo. I exhibit habitual, compulsive behaviors around one of them.

The year after my divorce, I dated a guy who was completely sober. He wasn't in recovery — he'd just never been interested in inebriation, ever. It wasn't really an issue for me, since I'm barely a social drinker, and my inebriation of choice is smoking a little pot a couple of times a week. In Washington (and lots of other states now, too) recreational cannabis use is legal, so it doesn't even count as "slightly naughty."

But this guy was concerned. After a couple of months, he asked me straight out: had I ever considered that I might have a substance abuse issue with marijuana?

This stopped me short. Me?! A substance abuser? Like, addicted to pot? My initial response was to say that a couple pulls off a joint a few evenings a week is hardly a substance abuse issue. It's not like I'm smoking daily, or waking up and doing bong loads, or eating pot brownies over brunch with my kid. But when people who care about me flag behaviors that concern them, I listen… and I listen hard.

I decided to spend a month tracking my own use. I wanted to watch for patterns in my behavior — not just how much was I smoking, but WHY was I smoking? Was it a conscious decision, or was I just bored? Was it to fix a bad situation, or to enhance an already positive situation? What were the consequences of my substance use? How many resources were being devoted to it — not just money, but also my time. Was it impacting my relationships or my work? I was a month into locking in a daily seated meditation practice, so it felt like it was a good way to just be generally more aware of what I was doing, and why I was doing it.

After a month of tracking and self-observation, patterns started to emerge, and it became clear that I did have an ugly compulsive habit that was hurting my life… it just wasn't pot.


The results of tracking my compulsions for a month

How many times a day did I think about weed? Zero to one, maybe? How many times a day did I think about my smartphone? Uh… was there ever a time I WASN'T aware of where my phone was? Was it ever not close to me? How many times an hour did I reach for it, without even knowing why?

How conscious was my pot smoking? Pretty conscious. During the month, I caught myself smoking a couple of times when I was bored and aimless. That's never a great reason to smoke pot, so it was good to be aware of and shift… but it just didn't feel especially addictive. Vaguely habitual, but a pretty low-frequency habit with relatively low mental overheard.

How conscious was my smartphone use? COMPLETELY UNCONSCIOUS. I would find myself dozens of times a day, picking up my phone to scroll something, minutes after having just set it down because there was nothing to scroll. (And if I was conscious of it dozens of times a day, that meant I was likely doing it hundreds of times a day.)

Was I using it to fix an uncomfortable situation? Pot: never. (I don't smoke indica to deal with anxiety, I smoke sativa to amp my creativity!) My phone: almost always. Bored? Phone. Nervous? Phone. Insecure? Phone. Lonely? Phone. Scared? Phone. Overwhelmed? Phone!! (That one's the most fucked up. When feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated I choose to add more stimulation?! Whose terrible idea was this!?)

How many resources were being devoted to it? In that month, I spent about $40 on weed, and spent maybe 10 hours stoned. Meanwhile, my phone is worth $800, I have $115/month plan, and I spend maybe 10 hours on it… A DAY.

As for what was impacting my relationships? Other than this one concerned guy (and hey: guys are allowed to be concerned about people they're dating), there were no issues with the people in my life. (And over the course of the month, I asked friends, family, and my therapist if they felt like my pot smoking was problematic. They were all like, "Wait, what?") As for my phone? Well, all you have to do is ask my son, who has basically grown up with a mother who has her phone in her hand at all times. How does that feel, kiddo? Do you like it when your mom stares at a screen instead of you? Does that make you feel super awesome?


Fine: I'm not a stoner, I'm a smartphoner! Now what?

Any 12-stepper can tell you the first step is admitting you have a problem, and yep: I did have a problem… it just wasn't weed. It was my smartphone. Or more specifically, it was the dopamine that my smartphone had trained my brain to release. I hope this isn't news to anyone… there is starting to be a TON of research about how smartphones and especially social media apps have been designed to trigger dopamine releases in your brain. (That's part of what makes them so much fun to use! Or at least it starts as fun. But like any addiction, the behavior starts looping and then it's unconscious, and then you're just bleary eyed and miserable, desperate and fiending.)

There has been a LOT of research done about this, and if you want to go down that rabbit hole, here are some a few places to start:

In terms of what to DO about it, here is some of the stuff I'm working with:

Recognizing I'm in good company

Just knowing that it's not just some uniquely special failure of mine has been hugely useful. That doesn't mean we all get a pass on bad behavior, but it reduces the shame spiral of WHY AM I SO AWFUL. I'm not uniquely awful. We're all working with the same human brains, prone to habituated behaviors. We're all using the same apps, designed to trigger us in intentionally loopy ways. Lots of us freak out if our phones aren't around. There's a name for it, even: NOMOPHOBIA.

Practicing good app & notification hygiene

You do have control over how you use your phone, and how you let it use you. Digital hygiene is a term usually applied to regularly cleaning your online experience — stuff like password security and regularly unsubscribing from email lists. But app/notification hygiene is an important aspect here, too. Consider which apps you really need to have on your phone, and perhaps even more importantly: which apps actually NEED push notifications on. Here's a clue: If your phone makes a certain noise, and you feel yourself have a pang of anxiety — change a setting so you stop getting that notification! Both iOS and Android platforms come with incredibly powerful customization options — USE THEM. Start noticing which notifications you frequently clear — and disable them first. Work your way down to only the essentials.

Understanding how attachment theory plays in

Yes, ok fine: I'm obsessed with attachment theory these days, but this article was a huge mind-blower for me: Psychologists Explain Why Texting In Relationships Is So Amazingly Complicated. Basically, your attachment issues play out in how you relate to your phone, too. I felt this article pretty deeply and realized that, uh, I have anxious attachment issues with my phone. I am needy as fuck with my phone. Meanwhile, I've watched avoidant friends pointedly ignore a phone like it was a clingy, suffocating lover. This shit is real. The more you know, friends!

Following Craig Mod

Craig is an American tech writer living in Japan. I was first exposed to his writing through this tremendous essay he wrote for Wired: How I Got My Attention Back. This article starts out as one thing, and then becomes something TOTALLY DIFFERENT and completely wonderful. It was my favorite piece of online writing in 2017, and I printed it out and took notes all over it. It gave me some troubling perspectives about my own work within the attention economy, and made me reexamine my business's mission and values. Also, this Hurry Slowly interview with Craig was super interesting. Spoiler: meditation is probably the solution. I'm not totally sure where we're going, but Craig is definitely on the cutting edge of understanding it. I highly recommend signing up for his newsletter if you want to keep thinking about this stuff.

As for an epilogue on the precipitating incident back in 2016? I presented the results of my month-long self observation to the dude I was dating (…don't I sound SO FUN, you guys!? Who wants to make out and look at this Google Keep document I made about my behavior patterns!? If you're lucky, later we can fuck, cry, and talk about therapy!) and he was thoroughly unimpressed. We broke up a couple of months later, for mostly unrelated reasons. I still smoke pot a couple of times a week, but now I check my smartphone only 5000 times a day — which is down approximately 13% year over year. #babysteps

  1. Well now I know how I am spending the rest of my morning. Reading through all this links.

    I actually truely appreciate knowing I am not the only one who spends a lot (a lot alot) of time researching addiction and behavior.

    Thank you.

    • One thing I'm being careful with here is using the word "addiction"… I'm comfortable with saying I have compulsive and habitual behaviors, but addiction gets into a pretty serious realm of behavior that I don't have that much first-person experience with. I have family members who've been in 12 step programs for decades, and so I have profound respect for the recovery community… and I don't want to pretend I have more knowledge about the horrors of addiction than I do.

  2. I actually have most of my notifications silenced on my phone for this very reason. I used to get that ping of anxiety from the notifications (Sorry if I'm slow to respond on Slack sometimes!).

    Adding on to that, I uninstalled Facebook, Twitter and a few other apps last month. Why? I don't need to constantly be notified or lose track of time scrolling through the same thing day in and day out. I still use Facebook via Chrome on my phone, but it can't push notifications and I don't have an urge to check it all of the time.

    I still find myself checking other things on my phone quite often, but they are things I'm interested in and don't just look at unconsciously. I can definitely relate though and not having the constant barrage of messages/notifications from apps coming in is nice.

  3. So much yes. Right at the beginning of when smart phones were becoming prolific, I started a super stressful job. A job that encouraged me to use my smart phone to stay connected. I had email pings almost every 15 minutes, 24-7… and it was the most stressed I’d ever been. I lost about 40lbs in three months because I wasn’t eating and was always awake. I knew that the notifications were part of what was stressing me out…. but I had to stay connected and earn brownie points for the new job!!! When I deleted my work email off my phone, my stress decreased by 50%. Needless to say, I only lasted a year, but man – I feel like corporate America took the idea of constant connectivity and ran with it. I wouldn’t doubt we start seeing SERIOUS health issues in a few years from it!

  4. This post is great, thanks! And I just realized I should totally delete my phone’s Facebook app because I keep checking it habitually, and there’s almost never anything new there. Easy fix!

    Twitter-scrolling, on the other hand, is very difficult for me to keep under control because there actually always is something new there every few minutes. I have tried to make rules like “only check social media X number of times a day,” and I always break the rule.

    I also like thinking about this topic because I’m a professor, and though I hate to see my students glancing at unrelated material on their phones in class, I do recognize that for many of them, the behavior is compulsive/habitual and difficult to stop even if they want to.

  5. Thank you! I've been thinking about this a lot lately. I have really noticed my attention span dwindling in the last few years, and it's really started to bother me. I already keep my phone on silent all the time, but as you said, I still reach for it for no reason, just to see if I've received any notifications. I think you just inspired me to remove Facebook from my phone, at least temporarily.

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

No-drama comment policy

Part of what makes the Offbeat Empire different is our commitment to civil, constructive commenting. Make sure you're familiar with our no-drama comment policy.