Understanding Smartphone Addiction


Cell phones used to be simply communication tools. Today, they are cameras, gaming consoles, health trackers, and a big part of our social lives. We turn to our cell phones for almost anything, and while there is nothing wrong with smartphone use as a natural necessity for modern life, it becomes a problem when it starts to interfere with our health.

But how does mobile phone use negatively impact our lives? How does it affect our physical and mental health?

Similar to drug or gambling addictions, smartphone use provides an escape from reality. A problematic relationship with your mobile device can easily lead to addiction.

Cell Phone Addiction

A poll for Virgin Mobile fund found that British mobile phone users receive 427% more notifications and messages than they did a decade ago, and send 278% more messages compared to 2008.

When the time you spend with real people is significantly reduced or no longer compares to the time you spend on your cell phone, it may be indicative of problematic cell phone use. If you are finding yourself unable to stop repeatedly checking apps or texts despite negative consequences, a cell phone addiction may have developed.

Although not yet listed as one of the mental disorders or addictions of our time, research has compared phone addiction to gambling addictions. Nearly every app is expertly engineered to produce triggers and responses in our brains, manipulating our brain chemistry and eliciting addictive behaviors.

While there is no specified amount of time, a designated frequency of checking updates, or an estimated number of messages sent and received that indicate this invisible addiction, there are some guidelines given by the signs and symptoms it comes with.

Signs and Symptoms

A part of smartphone addiction,sometimes known as ‘nomophobia’, is a fear of being without a mobile phone. It is often driven by an internet addiction or internet overuse, and serves as proof that it is not solely the device that drives phone addiction, but instead the use of apps.

A person with problematic cell phone use may experience withdrawal symptoms when they attempt to reduce or stop smartphone use. These symptoms include anger, difficulty concentrating, restlessness, sleep problems, and craving access to your phone.

Other warning signs of an addiction or phone overuse include the following:

  • Difficulty completing tasks at home, or work
  • Anxiety or irritability arises when you are not near your phone
  • Depression and behavioral issues
  • Strained relationships
  • Unsuccessful attempts to cut back on phone use
  • Turning to your cell phone when experiencing unpleasant feelings, like anxiety or depression
  • Needing the newest phone, increased use, or more applications
  • Placing a job or relationship at risk because of excessive cell phone use

Excessive smartphone use shares some core mechanisms with behavioural addictions, such as compulsive gambling. The impaired activity and reduced cognitive control in the prefrontal cortex, affect our emotional processing and decision-making and is found in gambling and gaming disorder too. Another similarity between behavioral addictions and cell phone overuse is the triggering of this brain chemical that reinforces compulsive behavior. While very similar to behavioral addiction, the activation of the same brain regions is associated with drug addiction too.

Effects of Addictive Smartphone Behavior

The full extent of the effects of excessive smartphone use is not yet completely understood, but as continuous links between our psychological and physiological health and cell phone use, mobile phone addiction may not be something to ignore. A constant pressure to be available and plugged in 24/7 is bound to cause a range of problems.

Problematic smartphone use has also been associated with elevated mental health issues, including the occurrence of anxiety and depression, as well as greater alcohol consumption, poorer academic performance, and greater impulsivity.

Human beings are social beings, but the effects of smartphone addiction have also affected how we interact and communicate with each other. We can and do hide behind a screen. Neglect in favor of excessive cell phone use often causes harm to offline relationships among smartphone users.

Simultaneously, access to a continuous flow of information has decreased our attention spans. A buzz from your smartphone can distract you from tasks at school, interrupting crucial moments for problem-solving, or creativity. A loss of focus is accompanied by personality traits such as self-absorption, where there is also a constant comparison of self-appearance to what is portrayed on social platforms.

Cellphone addiction is associated with sleep disturbance too, as it has been linked to an increase in fatigue and sleep disorders. In a large UK cross-sectional study, 68.7% of young people who had cell phone addiction reported poor sleep quality. This is regardless of the duration of use. The bright light of the screen may decrease the quality of sleep, while the use of the phone may increase the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.

Social Media Apps and Mental Health

Apps consume very much of our time, and smartphone overuse is often because of time spent on social media. But, adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media are at higher risk for mental health problems, especially internalising problems. In some cases, depression, anxiety, or stress is self-soothed by excessive smartphone use.

Social platforms have a reinforcing nature. Our brains contain pathways that produce and transmit feel-good chemicals, such as dopamine, whenever we are in rewarding situations. The reward center is linked to pleasurable activities such as sex and food. Social interaction is another actor in stimulating the release of dopamine, but as phones have become tools of social interaction for many, we become accustomed to the screen. A ‘like’ or an emoji on a media platform can stimulate the release of dopamine in our brains, and 35 % of young adults in the US use at least one social media app almost constantly.

These platforms are designed to be addictive, in that, similar to a slot machine, the unpredictable outcome causes a person to repeat the behavior. A potential future reward is what drives a person to continue to play a slot machine, and the same goes for social media. People often post content with the hope of feedback to feel a sense of belonging within social circles and to boost self-esteem. The unknown possibility of how many ‘likes’ one will get on a post, who will ‘like’ it, and when it will be ‘liked’ keeps users in excessive use of an app, engaged, and constantly checking their platforms.

Anxiety and mental distress caused by smartphone use are often linked to the ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO). The PEW research center has found that 67% of cell owners check their cell phone for alerts, messages, or calls despite not noticing a vibration or ringing, while 44% of cell owners sleep with their phone next to their bed to ensure that they don’t miss any messages, calls or other updates during the night.

Concern about missing connections, invitations, or jokes can create both anxiety and depression, and when people do look online to find that they have been excluded from an activity, it can affect their thoughts and feelings. Constantly needing to be online, posting, and simultaneously seeing friends’ posts about their activity can instigate a person’s fear of missing out.

How to Break Smartphone Addiction

Those that do cut off their stream of digital content or smartphone usage start to lose their interest in it very quickly, so addressing a smartphone addiction may start with hacking our internal systems.

Switching to non-digital hobbies and deleting apps that take up your time could help. The number of applications can limit restrict web browsing and limit data usage, which could be useful for helping your child.

There are also group support organizations, like Internet Tech Addiction Anonymous (ITAA) that offer meetings to curb excessive smartphone use. Even though there is professional online therapy available too, the help of real-life therapy could be more beneficial as it would keep a person off their phone.

While many self-initiated measures may help, any addiction is difficult to beat on your own. This is especially true when temptation is within easy reach, making it easy to fall back into old habits. A mental health professional providing addiction treatment could greatly help you or your child’s cell phone addiction. Digital detox programs and cognitive behavioral therapy can help reclaim a sense of control over smartphone use.

Contact Us

At The Wave Clinic, our treatment programs encourage getting involved and trying new activities as part of a community. Offering a natural environment with opportunities for adventures and activities that are not possible in many other locations, The Wave can help your child disconnect from their smartphone use and get actively involved.

Our focus weighs equally on recovery from addiction and positive growth. That is why a treatment plan designed specifically according to each young person’s needs, and a stimulating program to regain self-esteem and confidence, can help build a brighter future for your child.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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