Smartphones are essentially highly-portable computers that can offer a wealth of benefits, like helping us stay connected and providing information at our fingertips. But there’s a darker side to smartphone use. The average time spent on smartphones is increasing and evidence shows smartphone addiction is linked to serious issues, including mental health problems and distracted driving.
With more than one in three people across the globe and more than four in five Americans owning a smartphone, it’s important to address the issue of smartphone addiction. By learning how to spot the signs of an overuse problem and discovering the resources available to help, you and your family can continue reaping the benefits of smartphones without the negative consequences of overuse.
In this guide, we’ll examine the definition of smartphone addiction and look at some statistics surrounding the problem. We’ll then look at the symptoms and consequences of this issue and discuss solutions for getting back on track.
What is Smartphone Addiction?
Although it might feel as though smartphones have been around forever, they are a fairly new technology. The issue of smartphone addiction is even newer. Even though many studies have been conducted around the topic, it’s still not fully understood.
We can generally define smartphone addiction as overuse of one’s device to the point that it causes damage or disruption to one or more areas of one’s life. We’ll go into more detail below, but the impact of smartphone addiction might include damage to relationships, decreased productivity at work, home, or school, or damage to physical or mental health.
Smartphone addiction is sometimes referred to as “nomophobia.” The term is derived from “no-mobile-phone phobia,” a fear of not having a mobile device or mobile contact.
Experts debate about whether or not this should be classed as addiction. Addiction has severe physical and psychological effects, and according to a 2018 study, the impact of smartphone overuse wasn’t found to be severe enough to warrant the term. It does exhibit some signs of addiction such as negative consequences and impulse control problems, but it’s suggested that “problematic use” would be a more correct term.
That said, we will use the terms “addiction,” “problematic use,” and “overuse” interchangeably in this guide.
What Causes Smartphone Addiction?
There is also much debate about whether people are addicted to the smartphone itself or the apps it provides access to. Indeed, it may be a mix of both. For example, someone who appears to have a smartphone addiction but almost exclusively uses their phone for gambling is more likely a gambliing addict. Even so, their addiction may be exacerbated by the easy access a smartphone provides.
Similarly, many users utilize smartphones primarily to access communication and social media apps. In this sense, it may be the social stimuli that they crave. One addiction expert has likened the use of smartphones to taking cocaine. And it’s fairly simple to make the link here. Social interactions such as messages and “likes” on social media platforms can cause the release of dopamine, the same chemical involved in drug addiction. Smartphones give us unlimited access to social stimuli and the resulting hits of dopamine.
Of course, there could be other factors at play here. Humans are generally prone to procrastination and smartphones offer the perfect excuse to procrastinate even more than they normally would. In addition, our attention spans are decreasing. Since the start of the mobile era around 2000, our attention spans have decreased from 12 to eight seconds. There are potentially many users who are not interested in one app in particular, but find it hard to resist the bevvy of apps that are easily accessible at any given time.
Smartphone Addiction Statistics and Facts
To give you an idea of the extent of the problem and who it is affecting, here are some facts and statistics surrounding smartphone addiction:
- The average time spent using the mobile internet for American adults in 2019 was around 3 hours and 30 minutes per day, up 20 minutes per day as compared to 2018. (Vox)
- Mobile traffic accounted for 53.3 percent of all internet traffic in 2019, a 222 percent increase compared to 2013. (Broadband Search)
- 95 percent of teens have access to a smartphone. (Pew Research Center)
- The risk of smartphone addiction is highest in young people, especially females. (NCBI)
- One in four youth is dealing with problematic smartphone usage. (BMC Psychiatry)
- Smartphone addiction is more common in users who are less emotionally stable. (University of Derby)
- Problematic smartphone use is linked to lower self-esteem. (NCBI)
- Amercians check their smartphones 96 times per day. (Asurion)
- More than one in five teen drivers involved in a car accident were distracted due to smartphone use. (Carsurance)
- One in four adults wake up at least once during the night to check their smartphones. One in three teens do the same. (Common Sense Media)
- 39 percent of children wish their parents would spend less time on their device, up from 28 percent in 2016. (Common Sense Media)
- 38 percent of children think their parents have a smartphone addiction, up from 28 percent in 2016. (Common Sense Media)
- 62 percent of parents and 64 percent of teens use a mobile device within 30 minutes of waking up. (Common Sense Media)
Symptoms of a Smartphone Addiction
Many of us would notice if smartphone use got to the point where it has a negative impact. For some people, however, it can really creep up. And what about children and teens? Do they know how much is too much? Here are a few of the common symptoms of overuse of smartphones:
- Experiencing feelings of anxiety or irritability when away from your phone
- Regularly relying on your mobile device to kill boredom
- The urge to use your phone when you shouldn’t, for example, while driving
- Spending an increasing amount of time on your smartphone
- Other people mentioning how much time you spend on your device
- Noticing that your phone use negatively impacts your work or relationships
- Having difficulty cutting down on your device use
- Experiencing phantom vibration syndrome (you think your phone is vibrating or ringing when it’s not)
Note that you don’t need to see all of these symptoms for your smartphone use to be problematic. Even seeing one or two of these could signal that you need to cut back.
Negative Impacts of Phone Addiction
Excessive smartphone use can seem harmless enough at first, but there are many potential negative consequences of overuse. Here are some of the impacts smartphone addiction can have:
Damage to relationships
One of the first things we think of when we talk about a smartphone addiction is how damaging it can be to various relationships. This subtopic could easily constitute its own article, as the impact will depend on a variety of factors including who the relationship is between and the nature of the smartphone use.
For example, parents of young children might find that they spend too much time checking work emails or social media sites. Negative impacts could range from children acting out to get their parents’ attention or parents feeling guilty for time spent away from their child. In addition, children are inclined to model parents’ behavior, so excessive smartphone use could be setting the stage for addiction to be passed down.
With older children and teens, the problem is often mirrored or reversed. Parents find it difficult to tear their children away from their screens and may find that increased smartphone use is linked to withdrawal symptoms such as irritability and anxiety.
Relationship problems will depend on what smartphones are being used for, for example, general internet browsing, email, messaging, social media, streaming, gaming, gambling, or pornography. There may be other underlying addictions associated with smartphone use, such as sex or gambling addictions.
Another thing to bear in mind is that although humans are social creatures, we are designed to thrive in a limited social structure, estimated to comprise around 150 individuals. A lot of social media users will find they have many times this number of connections on a single platform. This begs the question of how manageable all of these relationships are.
As with other effects, the psychological impacts of smartphone use depend on what the phone is being used for. For example, if someone is constantly on social media platforms, this can have a variety of consequences, including low self-esteem and depression. Similarly, the use of gaming applications has been linked to several psychological issues, including aggressive behavior and dissociative disorders.
Stress is another major concern among many smartphone users, particularly those who use their phone for work. The ability to check your work messages at any second from the moment you wake up until you go to bed (and sometimes in between) can make it feel as though you’re working constantly.
Of course, all of these things are potential issues without smartphones, as they involve internet-based platforms that can be accessed with any computer. However, the accessibility of smartphones makes it easier for users to spend more time on these applications.
Indeed, some reports have linked smartphone addiction in general to psychological problems. One study found links between smartphone use and ADHD, suggesting that a daily stream of alerts and notifications may cause inattention and hyperactivity.
One study even found a strong correlation between smartphone use and teen suicide, regardless of what the phone is used for.
Teens who spend five or more hours per day on their devices are 71 percent more likely to have one risk factor for suicide.
All of this is extremely concerning, especially given that the number of hours we spend on smartphones is increasing.
Damage to physical health
Studies suggest that overuse of smartphones can lead to a range of negative physical consequences, including:
- Carpal tunnel syndrome: Heavy smartphone use has been linked to wrist and hand pain, and could even cause carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Lack of or poor sleep: Numerous studies have highlighted the negative correlation between smartphone use and sleep quality. Effects are especially pronounced if you use your phone close to bedtime. Lack of sleep can lead to other issues such as poor concentration, lower productivity, and short-temperedness.
- Eye problems: Blue light from your phone can cause digital eyestrain and even lead to retina damage. Particularly concerning is that one study found that children’s eyes absorb more blue light than adult’s do.
- Cancer risks: There is concern that radiofrequency radiation emitted from cell phones could be involved in some types of cancer. However, it should be noted that studies have generally shown that there isn’t a link between cellphone use and cancer.
- Bad posture: Using a smartphone often involves a less-than-ideal body position. This misalignment can lead to pain and posture issues.
In addition to these direct physical impacts, you could put yourself and others in danger of serious injury if you try to do other tasks such as driving or operating heavy machinery while using your phone. Even something as seemingly simple as cooking while using your phone could have disastrous results.
Obviously, if you’re doing something on your phone that isn’t work-related, then this is taking away from time you could be spending working. A 2016 Kaspersky lab study reported a strong correlation between smartphone accessibility and decreased productivity.
The worst case scenario for most workers is that they are fired for spending too much time on their phone or other connected devices at work. But even if you don’t get caught or fired, if your productivity is lowered, chances are that you’re also decreasing your chances of promotion.
One thing that appears to distract employees at work is watching shows, movies, and sports events. An extreme case is that of an ex-employee of Robert DeNiro who allegedly binge-watched 55 hours of Friends over a four-day period while she was supposedly working.
Clearly, not everyone takes it to this extreme, but studies have shown that many employees have no issues using their device while at work. One report suggested more than one-third of white-collar Americans watch TV shows or sporting events during their workday. And a Udemy report found that 36 percent of millenials and Gen Zers admit to using their phone for personal activities for more than two hours during working hours.
Problems in your career will ultimately have an impact on your bottom line. But that’s not the only area where smartphone addiction can burn a hole in your wallet. Depending on what you’re using your phone for, you could find yourself deeper in the hole after every session.
For example, many online gaming apps appear to be just for fun at first, but lots of them offer in-app purchases. Once they get you hooked, the spending begins. In fact, gaming apps accounted for 72 percent of iOS App Store spending in 2019.
Similarly, gambling apps represent a huge problem for gambling addicts. They are essentially holding a casino in their hand wherever they go. And the same goes for ecommerce sites; ads prey on users with a sense of urgency and purchases can be made with just one or two clicks. Other activities you might use your phone for such as online dating or cybersex can also rack up huge bills.
How to Overcome a Smartphone Addiction
As with other problematic behaviors, it can be difficult to change habits related to smartphone use. One thing to bear in mind is that this is a widespread problem and there are tools and resources available to help you. Here are some steps you can take to help you or a family member address the issues associated with overuse of smartphones and decrease the time spent on apps.
- Assess the extent of and reasons for the addiction
- Decide where you want to cut back
- Don’t use your phone for everything
- Focus on other activities
- Use the tools available
- Seek professional help
- Work to change policies around smartphone use
Let’s look at these in more detail:
1. Assess the extent of and reasons for the addiction
As with any addiction problem, it’s important to assess the extent of the issue and to get to the root of it. Why do you think you may have a problem? Do you feel like this is affecting your health, relationships, or career? Is the problem severe or do you think you need to just cut back a bit?
You also need to determine what’s causing you to spend so much time on your phone so that can address individual issues. Do you feel the need to be on social media? Are you checking your email or other apps for work? Are there emotional triggers that cause you to pick up your phone such as stress or loneliness?
We’ll discuss other tools below, but iOS’s Screen Time and Android’s Digital Wellbeing are great for finding out how much time you spend on various applications on your phone. They will even tell you how many times a day you pick up your phone.
Once you have an idea about where the real problems lie, you’ll be better equipped to face them head on.
2. Decide where you want to cut back
With smartphones, it generally doesn’t make sense to go cold turkey. Most people genuinely need their phones for some reason or another, be it to stay in touch with friends and family or to access applications for work. That said, you can create your own set of rules around your phone use. Here are a few examples:
- Only allow use of certain apps at select times of day.
- Delete apps you spend too much time on.
- Check your phone at select times. For example, if you need to keep an eye on your phone for work, allow yourself to check it at acceptable intervals such as every half hour or hour.
- Ban phones completely at certain times, for example, during dinner or while putting the kids to bed.
- Give yourself a time limit for the day.
- Set a task that you can reward with a set amount of phone time.
There are lots of other options, but you need to set limits that work for you.
3. Don’t use your phone for all tasks
There is seemingly an app for everything these days. But using our phones for all the tasks they’re capable of can result in us relying on them too much. Plus, picking up a smartphone to use a timer or calculator can encourage us to use them for other things at the same time. How many times have you picked up your phone and become distracted by a notification, forgetting what you were going to use it for in the first place?
Think about how you could go back to basics to negate the need for some applications. For instance, you could use a traditional calendar, calculator, or stopwatch instead of your phone. One thing that many people are reverting back to is a traditional alarm clock. This is an especially good idea as it alleviates the need to have your phone beside your bed.
Consider only allowing yourself to use a computer for certain applications such as social media. This can drastically cut your usage and prevent you from checking Facebook when you’re on a date or out with friends.
4. Focus on other activities
Clearly, there are times when you should be doing something other than using your phone, for example, completing work tasks or schoolwork. But you might also be wasting valuable leisure time on your phone. If this is the case, it’s worth thinking about other things you could channel your energy into. The key here is to identify times during the day when you find yourself using your phone too much. Then replace the phone activity with something else.
For example, if you’re taking a planned break from work or schoolwork, consider doing something other than turning to your phone, such as meditating, going for a walk, or making a soothing cup of tea. Do you find yourself reading low-quality content on your phone? Consider reading physical books or magazines instead. Studies have shown that you actually retain more information this way. Do you spend hours on your phone in the evening and on weekends? Think about a hobby you’ve been wanting to try and take that up instead.
5. Use the tools available
One of the most basic features that can limit smartphone distraction is the “Do Not Disturb” option built into most smartphone operating systems. This will prevent your phone from lighting up, vibrating, or making noise when you receive calls, alerts, or notifications.
In addition, while you might be trying to limit your use of some apps, there are others that can help you. Here are a few examples:
- Screen Time (iOS): We mentioned this iOS app above as it’s great for determining exactly how much time you spend on your phone and on what applications. It allows you to schedule downtime and set limits on certain applications.
- Digital Wellbeing (Android): This Android app works in a similar manner to Screen Time.
- SPACE (iOS/Android): Dubbed a “phone/life balance” app, SPACE lets you set goals for phone use and compare your behavior with that of friends and family.
- RescueTime (iOS/Android): This app helps you limit access to certain applications, and gives you greater control than Screen Time or Digital Wellbeing.
These may take some time to set up, but once you get started using one of these apps, you should find yourself taking back control over your smartphone usage.
6. Seek outside help
If this is something you don’t think you can do alone, it’s a good idea to seek outside help. Children and teens in particular may be more receptive to help from adults other than their parents, such as family friends, teachers, coaches, or doctors.
There are various avenues you can take to seek professional help. Counseling or therapy in a one-on-one or group setting can be beneficial to people dealing with smartphone overuse. This is particualry true of those facing underlying issues, such as depression or anxiety, or other addictions such as gambling or sex addictions.
One common treatment for smartphone addiction is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on changing specific behaviors and improving emotional regulation.
7. Work to change policies around smartphone use
Sometimes smartphone addiction can be perpetuated by the culture surrounding device use. For example, if it’s acceptable for children to use their phones in the classroom or school hallways, then it’s possible they’re going to spend more time on devices.
Similarly, if an employer expects workers to respond to emails at all hours of the day, then employees will naturally check their phones more often and become more attached to their devices.
In some regions, there are bans against the use of smartphones in schools or strict regulations outlining when and how they may be used. For example, in France, there’s a ban on cellphone use in schools and employees have the right to ignore emails outside of work time.
In the US, many employers are now recognizing the need to help alleviate employee stress by implementing policies against being constantly connected. Some companies have a “going dark” policy when employees go on vacation. This involves a colleague changing the vacationing employee’s email password so that they can’t check emails while away, even if they’re tempted.
In these cases, change needs to come from above. It could be worth asking about a change in policy in your school or place or work to create an environment that helps stymie overuse of smartphones.
Image credit: “iPhone” by Jan Vasek licensed under CC BY 2.0