“I feel like my brain is rotting”

Students get candid about phone use


Dominic Di Palermo

First-year student Areeb Ahmed on his phone in a Building B lounge at ECC on Wednesday, Feb.8, 2023.

Vick Lukaszuk, Staff Writer

Fresh off the heels of winter break, it can be hard to shift out of relaxation mode and into the productivity needed for school.

… but is it, really?

Though winter break is often thought of as a fun time without being constrained by the responsibilities of coursework, reality can be disappointing. Case in point, I’m willing to bet that a good portion of you, like me, spent a lot more time on your phones– and I can’t imagine a lot of you would say it was enjoyable, either!

So, why do we do this? What drives us to scroll through TikToks of game footage set to Family Guy clips like we have nothing better to do? 

There is something to be said about the nature of winter break. At school, you are given routine, a sense of purpose, and a means by which to connect with others– all of which vanish over break. Adjusting to that can be tricky, and we may not know how to spend our newfound freetime. But what do we make of it when we turn to our phones compulsively, even when it makes us feel worse?

Consider depression.

Without regurgitating the DSM entry, major depressive episodes are times in your life marked by low mood and loss of interest in activities. Now let me be clear: a low mood is not the same thing as an inability to be happy. Rather, all feelings– whether they be happiness or anger– are a lot less pronounced and a lot more fleeting. Even the sadness which defines depression is a dull ache more than a searing pain. 

This distinction is important to make because the transient emotions of depression can often be interpreted as feelings of emptiness or boredom.

“It’s so weird to feel that I’m still bored and empty even though I have access to literally everything on my phone.” said Ferd Gubaton, a second-year student at Elgin Community College. “It’s like this shouldn’t be happening”. 

Gubaton’s struggle with mental health began amidst the 2020 pandemic when the shift to online schooling stripped him of what little structure he had left. 

Though his mental health has improved since his transition to in-person schooling, the battle is far from over. For Gubaton, and many others in his shoes, “it’s too easy” to turn to phones for stimulation. He told me his daily average usage was nine hours and forty minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, phones can be a force of good. Many people use their phones as a means of keeping in touch with others or engaging in meaningful activities. One woman I interviewed used her phone to watch sermons from the comfort of her home, and another scrolled through news feeds to learn more about the world around her. 

With that being said, there comes a point where smartphone use stops being constructive and starts being destructive. And, with experts claiming that smartphone dependency directly predicts depressive symptoms, it is all the more important to be mindful of where we draw that line. 

“There are mental, physical, and emotional pulls to continuing to abuse screentime,” said Raymond Mikula, a licensed professional counselor with the Weatherstone Counseling Institute. 

With specialties in treating anxiety and depression, Mikula is all too familiar with the effects of phone use on mental health. 

“Have intentions for when you do use technology,” Mikula said. 

The “compulsive checking of [our] phones” can leave us feeling worse off than before, especially when we inevitably refresh our page to find nothing new. 

It’s easier said than done, though, isn’t it? ECC second-year Natalia Ugarte is well-aware that her smartphone habits are a direct result of her tendency to procrastinate. 

“I feel guilty because I know what I need to do but I physically cannot.” Ugarte said, “It’s like I’m stuck, frozen.”

Ethan Menendez, a friend of Ugarte’s and a second-year student ECC echoed much the same sentiment.

“I think my phone kinda stops me from being productive,” Menendez said.

Though they, and many others, are conscious of their dependency issues, that didn’t stop either of them from racking up above five hours of daily average usage. Why is that?

“It’s not much different from knowing vaping or drugs are bad and continuing to abuse them,” Mikula said. 

It would seem that “being aware is [just] one step” to solving the problem. So what else can we do?


“Human beings are social creatures by nature,” Mikula said, and he encourages people to “embrace that aspect of our existence” by setting time aside to engage with others face-to-face. 

“Talking on FaceTime is not the same as being in the same room,” Mikula said. 

Speaking from my own experience, the benefits of human interaction are two-fold: for one, it’s stimulating and fulfilling in a way that scrolling through TikTok simply can’t replicate. Furthermore, spending time with others allows us to foster relationships that will keep us occupied in the long-run– think of it almost as a sort of investment.

The depression that stems from extended phone use may exacerbate your feelings of loneliness, but your feelings do not always reflect reality. Reach out to those around you, and you may be surprised– though my depressive episode over winter break had me convinced I wasn’t worth hanging around, I spent more time than ever with family, and I can’t say that I regret it. 

You could always make more friends too. Joining clubs, classes and activities that interest you are surefire ways of finding like-minded people. It can be intimidating to put yourself out there– believe me, I know. I had my own doubts about joining the Observer writing staff; I was scared that my writing wouldn’t be good enough, but I can confidently say it was worth it.  

If I could give you one word of advice, do exercise caution. It’s easy to fall into the trap of instant cures and hold our loved ones to the impossible standard of making our mental fatigue vanish entirely. When they inevitably fall short, we may find ourselves resentful of them and end up pushing them away. That is the last thing we want. Make space for them, and they will be sure to do the same for you.  

Exercise self-discipline

“There are apps and settings to check daily [phone use] that might be useful in bringing awareness to the level of use,” Mikula said. 

There are settings built within most phones that allow you to set limits on certain apps or silence notifications for a period of time. Together, these mechanisms can discourage unnecessary usage.  

As we noted earlier, self-control is easier said than done. So, what can we do to make it more manageable? You can start small. Maybe limiting your phone use in the bathroom or while you’re eating is more feasible than limiting your use to an hour a day, and that’s okay. 

Just yesterday, I challenged myself not to bring my phone with me into the shower, and was surprised at how stimulating it was! Likewise, resisting the urge to pull out my phone while I’m standing in line at a restaurant allows me to notice details I otherwise would not have. That’s all to say, leave your phone in your pocket for a change– you might enjoy it more than you think you would.

You can also take the behaviorist route and try rewarding yourself. Set specific goals for phone use (i.e- don’t check my notifications during homework time) and treat yourself for accomplishing them. Consider small treats like candy or, beyond that, larger rewards for repeated successes, like a shopping trip, or that one thing on your Amazon wishlist you’ve always wanted. 

Having your phone constantly at your hip, however, may make these exercises a lot more difficult, which is why I recommend giving yourself some space. You could, for instance, do your homework in one room while leaving your phone in the other. In a way, you’re weaponizing your craving for easy dopamine against yourself– because who wants to walk to another room just to check their notifications? 

Be constructive 

“If we’re using the analogy of a three-legged chair and we remove a leg (excessive smartphone use),” Mikula said. “We’d better make sure we replace it with something more constructive and helpful.”

“Do something physical, creative, and/or outside every day you are able,” Mikula added. 

His call to physical activity may be particularly helpful to those struggling with feelings of depression. Evidence suggests that exercise may be as effective at treating depressive symptoms as traditional pharmaceutical interventions, and the Mayo Clinic claims that as little as 15 minutes of exercise every day for three to five days a week may make a difference.    

If the prospect of hitting the gym or opening your sketchbook is too daunting, it may be helpful to start small. After all, it’s better to walk a lap around the block or sketch in the margins of your notes than do nothing at all.  Above all else, we want to be setting and accomplishing goals for ourselves– goals that make us feel capable and lend to a sense of purpose. 

While we’re on the topic of being constructive, let me ask you a question– do you have any hobbies? And before you ask, watching TikToks does not count. If you answered no, that might be something worth looking into. Think of something, anything that piques your interest– and find any way you can to engage with it. Brainstorm a list if you have to! What’s important is that it is something personally significant to you

Look beneath the surface

“Overuse of screentime or over-checking your phone might be indicative of a deeper problem,” Mikula said. 

Peyton Siegler, a second-year at ECC who has struggled with their mental health, would be inclined to agree. 

“When my depression is acting up, I’ll be scrolling on apps more,” Siegler said. 

It won’t hurt, then, to examine your own life. What are you unhappy with? Again, it might be helpful to make a list! Whatever the case may be, the problem is hardly as simple as it appears on the surface, and it might do you good to talk it over with someone. 

Let me illustrate by example– I told my therapist that I was struggling with feelings of boredom and an excessive need for stimulation (which led to smartphone dependency). Over the course of several sessions, I developed the insight to realize that, beyond my genetic predisposition for depressive feelings, my life wasn’t as stimulating as I needed it to be– and so I made it that way. I enrolled in challenging yet fulfilling classes, I picked up more hobbies, and made spending time with friends and family a priority. 

This process might look totally different for you– there are an infinite number of ways that your traumas and struggles can impact your life. What’s more, there’s no guarantee that any one approach will magically fix every issue you’re grappling with.  

But the point is that you try, because the alternative is so much worse. When left unchecked, smartphone use can exacerbate underlying issues. 

“When you can’t get yourself to do anything, you just go on your phone and scroll,” Siegler said. “I feel like you’re kind of feeding into that more and enabling yourself to stay in bed instead of pushing yourself to get up.”

Even if you’re not mentally ill, the draw of your phone can pull you away (or distract you) from addressing issues that need solving. Mikula hopes that people will find ways to heal their mental health in any way they can. 

“Hopefully people will acknowledge [it] and seek out appropriate professional help,” Mikula said.