Cell phones have become such powerful and versatile tools that, for many people, they feel literally indispensable.
In fact, it’s easy to feel like you’re the one who’s lost when you can’t find your phone. So, how do you know whether your attachment to your phone is just a 21st century cultural phenomenon or a genuine, life-altering addiction?
To figure out the answer, let’s take a look at what current research has to say. Also, we’ll take a closer look at the symptoms of phone overuse, the side effects, and how to break the hold your phone may have on your daily life.
Pew Research Center reports that 81 percent of Americans now own smartphones — up from just 35 percent in 2011. And, over the past 5 years, Google Trends indicates that searches for “cell phone addiction” have likewise been rising.
And pathological phone use has given rise to a raft of new terminology, such as:
- nomophobia: the fear of going without your phone
- textaphrenia: the fear that you can’t send or receive texts
phantom vibrations: the feeling that your phone is alerting you when it really isn’t
There’s little doubt that excessive cell phone use is a problem for lots of people.
But there’s some debate among medical and mental health professionals about whether problematic cell phone use is truly an addiction or the result of an impulse control issue.
Many medical experts are reluctant to assign the word “addiction” to anything other than habitual substance misuse.
However, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the handbook used in the medical community to diagnose mental disorders) does recognize one behavioral addiction: compulsive gambling.
It’s worth noting that there are some important similarities between cell phone overuse and behavioral addictions like compulsive gambling. The similarities include:
- loss of control over the behavior
- persistence, or having real difficulty limiting the behavior
- tolerance, the need to engage in the behavior more often to get the same feeling
- severe negative consequences stemming from the behavior
- withdrawal, or feelings of irritability and anxiety when the behavior isn’t practiced
- relapse, or picking up the habit again after periods of avoidance
There’s some debate in the medical community as to whether phone overuse is an addiction or impulse control issue.
There are, however, a lot of similarities between phone overuse and other behavioral addictions, like compulsive gambling.
And there’s another similarity between behavioral addiction and cell phone overuse: the triggering of a chemical in the brain that reinforces the compulsive behavior.
Your brain contains several pathways that transmit a feel-good chemical called dopamine when you’re in rewarding situations. For many people, social interaction stimulates the release of dopamine.
Because so many people use their phones as tools of social interaction, they become accustomed to constantly checking them for that hit of dopamine that’s released when they connect with others on social media or some other app.
App programmers are counting on that drive to keep you checking your phone. Some apps even withhold and release social reinforcements, such as “likes” and “comments,” so we receive them in an unpredictable pattern. When we can’t predict the pattern, we check our phones more often.
That cycle can lead to a tipping point: when your phone ceases to be something you enjoy and becomes something you’re virtually compelled to use.
Your brain releases a chemical called dopamine when it feels rewarded.
Some phone apps are designed in a way to keep you coming back again and again for positive social reinforcements that can trigger the release of dopamine in your brain.
What researchers do agree on is the fact that adolescents are more likely to demonstrate addiction-like symptoms with their cell phone use than other age groups.
Excessive cell phone use among teens is so common that 33 percent of 13-year-olds never turn off their phone, day or night. And the younger a teen acquires a phone, the more likely they are to develop problematic use patterns.
For girls, dependent use patterns may develop because phones become important tools of social interaction, whereas boys demonstrate a greater tendency to use phones in risky situations.
Teenagers tend to overuse their phones more than other age groups. Studies show the earlier a teen starts using a phone, the higher the risk of problematic use patterns.
These personality traits include:
- low self-esteem
- low impulse control
- being highly extroverted
Researchers point out it’s not always clear whether the problems with cell phone overuse are causing these conditions, or whether the conditions themselves make people more vulnerable to overuse.
So, how can you tell if you have an overuse problem with your phone?
Some of the telltale signs include the following:
- You reach for your phone the moment you’re alone or bored.
- You wake up multiple times at night to check your phone.
- You feel anxious, upset, or short-tempered when you can’t get to your phone.
- Your phone use has caused you to have an accident or injury.
- You’re spending more and more time using your phone.
- Phone use interferes with your job performance, schoolwork, or relationships.
- People in your life are concerned about your phone use patterns.
- When you try to limit your use, you relapse quickly.
One of the hallmarks of any addiction is keeping up the compulsive behavior, even when it can cause severe negative consequences.
Take, for example, the risks associated with texting while driving. The
- your eyes off the road
- your hands off the wheel
- your mind off driving
That kind of distraction kills nine people every single day. It also injures many more.
The dangers of using a cell phone while driving are widely known, yet people ignore the risk in pursuit of the small jolt of connectedness a phone provides.
That list doesn’t take into account the many ways cell phone compulsions subtly affect your life.
If your phone habits are interfering with your health, relationships, and responsibilities, it might be time to make some changes.
The good news is that there are steps you can take to change the way you interact with your phone to help limit the negative impacts on your life.
First, find out if there are underlying worries
So, one of the first things to consider is whether there’s something deeper bothering you. Resolving the underlying issue could be the key to reducing your anxiety.
Knowing what’s truly bothering you could help reduce your need to compulsively text, buy, pin, tweet, swipe, or post.
Consider cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
This therapeutic approach helps illuminate the links between your thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. It can be a very effective type of therapy to help you change certain behavior patterns.
At least one small study suggests that CBT may be effective in balancing changes in brain chemistry associated with cell phone addiction.
If you think this type of therapy may help you, talk with your primary care doctor about where or how you can find a therapist.
Try these other practical steps
- Remove time-consuming apps from your phone and access them through a device you don’t carry with you all day.
- Change your settings to eliminate push notifications and other disruptive alerts.
- Set your screen to gray scale to keep it from waking you at night.
- Place some barriers around your phone use that force you to think about what you’re doing. For example, you could create lock screen questions, like “Why now?” and “What for?”
- Keep your phone out of sight. Charge your phone somewhere besides your bedroom.
- Develop hobbies that feed your soul. Replace the games and social media apps with hands-on, real-world activities, like meeting up with friends, creating music or art, or doing volunteer work.
- Adopt a growth mindset. Brief relapses, adjustments, and withdrawal symptoms are part of a journey toward healthier phone use. Don’t expect to get it right immediately. Expect some setbacks, and learn from each experience.
It’s always OK to reach out for help when you’re dealing with any issue that concerns you, or that you feel you don’t have control over.
If you’re noticing symptoms of addiction or dependence, or if the people in your life are talking to you about the amount of time you spend on your phone, it may be a good idea to ask for help.
Consider reaching out to a therapist or your doctor, checking out a self-help guide, or following a digital detox program.
Problematic cell phone use shares a lot of characteristics with behavioral addictions like compulsive gambling.
People who develop a dependent pattern of phone use typically experience a loss of control. They often find that their cell phone habits are causing real damage in their lives.
If your phone use has become problematic, or if it feels like it’s become an addiction, there are steps you can take to retrain yourself to use your phone in healthier ways.
Cognitive behavioral therapy and digital detox programs can both be very effective at reclaiming a sense of control over your phone use.
Feel that phantom ringing? It’s a productive, restful life calling. It’s OK to answer it.