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Is smartphone addiction real? We ask the experts

The idea that new technology is revolutionary is overstated, but if there’s one device that has truly transformed our lives in the last few years, it’s the smartphone.

Our smartphones are with us all of the time. They keep us in contact with loved ones. They record important moments in our lives. They offer easy access to the depths of human knowledge and the delights of our creativity. They entertain us when we are bored. They guide us when we are lost. They keep us company when we are lonely.

Smartphones are enormously useful, but sometimes their allure can prove too strong. We feel compelled to respond to them, even if it means ignoring the people we’re with. They wake us in the night, interrupting our sleep. We feel anxious or naked when they are not there. They interrupt our work and our play. Are we obsessed with these miraculous devices? Is it compulsion that causes us to prioritize our phones above other things? Is there such a thing as smartphone addiction?

Smartphone addiction is real, but rare

“Most people habitually use their phone; they use it a lot, but it’s not what I would call an addiction,” explains Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. “Just because something is very important in your life, and you carry it everywhere, and when you forget it, you feel like your left arm’s missing, that doesn’t mean that you’re addicted.”

“Often, the excessive use is symptomatic of other underlying problems in that person’s life.”

Our smartphones are our primary communication devices, they’re often our main points of contact with the Internet, and they serve important functions for work and entertainment. It’s natural to feel that they’re important.

“Even although people may be using their smartphones a lot, it’s generally life-enhancing,” says Dr Griffiths. “But there will always be a small minority, with any technological advancement, that do it to excess and it causes them problems. The good news is, particularly when it comes to smartphones, the genuine incidence of addiction is small.”

To put it in some context, in his paper, Adolescent mobile phone addiction: A cause for concern?, Professor Griffiths suggest that we would have to answer yes to at least six of the following statements to show signs of a true addiction:

  • “My mobile phone is the most important thing in my life”
  • “Conflicts have arisen between me and my family and/or my partner about the amount of time I spend on my mobile phone”
  • “My mobile phone use often gets in the way of other important things I should be doing (working, education, etc.)”
  • “I spend more time on my mobile phone than almost any other activity”
  • “I use my mobile phone as a way of changing my mood”
  • “Over time I have increased the amount of time I spend on my mobile phone during the day”
  • “If I am unable to use my mobile phone I feel moody and irritable”
  • “I often have strong urges to use my mobile phone”
  • “If I cut down the amount of time I spend on my mobile phone, and then start using it again, I always end up spending as much time on my mobile phone as I did before”
  • “I have lied to other people about how much I use my mobile phone”

Many of us may worry that we use our smartphones too much, and many of us will be able to answer yes to some of those statements, but very few of us are genuinely addicted.

“We know that some people do spend excessive amounts of time on their smartphone, but if it’s not interfering with their job, or their education, or their relationships, or other hobbies, then we shouldn’t be pathologizing them,” says Dr. Griffiths.

People may seem to have a real issue with smartphones, but it’s not always right to focus on the device.

Smartphone addiction
Moment

“Often, the excessive use is symptomatic of other underlying problems in that person’s life,” says Dr. Griffiths. “Therapeutically, if you find out what that problem is, then the excessive use can disappear.”

It’s also worth considering whether it’s really the smartphone that we’re addicted to. We don’t talk about laptop or computer addiction, and yet they offer access to most of the same things as our smartphones. Dr. Griffiths is an expert on various addictive behaviors and he draws a parallel between smartphones and the Internet.

Related: How much screen time is safe for kids?

“There’s a massive difference between addiction on the Internet and addiction to the Internet,” Dr. Griffiths explains. “Addictions on the Internet, which could be gaming, gambling, shopping, sex; these people are not Internet addicts. They use the medium of the Internet to fuel those other addictions, and that’s exactly the same for smartphones.”

We might be obsessed with our smartphones

So, if we’re not really talking about addiction here, what are we talking about?

“For most people, smartphones are more of an obsession than an addiction,” says Dr. Larry Rosen, Professor Emeritus and Past Chair of the Psychology Department at California State University, “We’re finding it’s the need to reduce anxiety that seems to be driving the behavior with the smartphone.”

In the study, Out of sight is not out of mind: The impact of restricting wireless mobile device use on anxiety levels among low, moderate, and high users, smartphones were taken away from test subjects for 75 minutes, and their anxiety levels were recorded 10 minutes in and then at two 20 minute intervals. Heavy users showed an increase in anxiety 10 minutes into the study, and that anxiety continued to increase over the next hour. Light users showed no change in anxiety, and those in the middle showed some increase in anxiety, but it leveled off.

“For most people, smartphones are more of an obsession than an addiction.”

There’s also clear evidence of increased anxiety when we’re not allowed to answer our phones. The study, The Extended iSelf: The Impact of iPhone Separation on Cognition, Emotion, and Physiology, found that people who were unable to answer their iPhones when they were ringing experienced a faster heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, they began to sweat, and they showed decreased cognitive performance.

They are so ever-present in our lives that we may even be blurring the lines between our sense of self and our smartphones.

“One of the telltale signs, is these phantom vibrations that we get when we believe that we feel the phone in our pocket vibrating, but really it’s not there,” says Dr. Rosen. “Because it’s a 24-hour a day process, our phone has sort of become an appendage, like an arm or a finger, our arm is always with us and our phone is always with us, but our phone is a whole lot more interesting than our arm.”

Related: Is blue light keeping you up at night?

What compels us to constantly check our phones? Why do we find it so difficult to ignore them? Many psychologists are attributing it to fear of missing out (FoMO).

“It’s all about communication, I don’t think we’re getting anxious about missing a cute video or a TV show,” says Dr. Rosen. “I think we get anxious because we have so many ways to communicate now, and we’re juggling them all. There’s an expectation of instantaneous communication, many people feel they have to text back immediately, or post, or comment, or like, or whatever.”

The potential impact on sleep is particularly troubling. In his latest research, Dr. Rosen found that many young adults are checking their smartphones in the night.

“Three quarters of teenagers have their smartphone next to the bed, and it’s either on vibrate, or it’s on. That disrupts your sleep,” says Dr. Rosen. “About half of the young adults in our study get up at night to check their phones; that’s a serious problem. If you don’t sleep well, not only does it make you groggy, it affects your ability to remember things, it affects your ability to learn, it affects your ability to think clearly; your brain needs to time flush out the junk it accumulates during the day.”

Tracking your phone use can help you set limits

Part of the problem is that we aren’t always aware of just how much we are actually using our smartphones.

“I developed Moment to solve my own phone use problem,” explains app developer, Kevin Holesh. “When I moved in with my fiancé, it was great for a couple weeks, but soon after that, we settled back into our old habits. We’d finish work, eat dinner, then move to the couch and scroll around on our phones for hours. We were spending time physically together, but we were in totally different worlds.”

It’s a story that many people understand. Smartphones are everywhere, and many of us use them to fill any available gap of time.

“If you have any little bit of downtime, you feel the need to fill it with something, and your smartphone in your pocket is that path of least resistance,” suggests Kevin. “Instead of waiting in line at the grocery store for two minutes, you pull out your phone and check your work email. Instead of letting a conversation have a 10 second awkward pause, you pull out your phone to check on that text you felt vibrate in your pocket a few minutes ago.

The Moment app records how much time you actually spend on your iPhone. It will tell you how often you pick the phone up and use it. If you have an Android smartphone, then the Breakfree app can offer you a similar insight.

“I like to think of myself as realistic and down to earth, but I was off by 100 percent on my actual phone usage,” says Kevin. “I pegged myself at around 45 minutes a day before I built Moment. Soon after using Moment, I realized I was over 90 minutes a day on average. I’ve heard that echoed many, many times, too.”

Dr. Rosen uses a similar app, called Instant, with his students. Last year he found that the average student unlocked their phone 60 times per day for an average of a little more than three minutes each time.

How to use your phone less

Identifying or acknowledging that you may have a problem is the first step, but if you’re worried about your own smartphone use, what should you do about it?

“We’ve got to start weaning ourselves back off this constant need to check in, we have to recondition our brains,” says Dr. Rosen.

Some of us may be using our smartphones more than we realize or more than we really should, but that doesn’t make us addicts.

He suggests that we take technology breaks, but make it a gradual process. Check every app that you care about for a minute, and then turn everything off, and leave your phone alone for 15 minutes. Once the 15 minutes is up, you can check your phone again. Repeat the process until you’re comfortable, which he says can take weeks for some people, then begin to increase the gaps to 20, 25, and eventually 30 minutes.

You should also stop sleeping with your phone. Buy a cheap alarm clock and use it instead. An hour before bedtime remove your smartphone from the room. Put it in another room and turn off the sound. Spend the last hour before going to sleep doing something we know is calming, like watching TV, reading a paper book, or listening to familiar music.

“Taken together those two actions should get you through the day with a little more focus and little less anxiety,” says Dr. Rosen.

We’re not all addicts

For most people, smartphones are wonderful devices that fulfill multiple roles. They can make our lives easier, like good technology is supposed to do. Some of us may use smartphones more than we realize, and some of us are probably using them more than we really should, but that doesn’t make us addicts.

“There are people who are addicted to gambling in the very same way that people are addicted to heroin or alcohol or nicotine,” explains Dr. Griffiths. “The thing is, if you accept that gambling can be a genuine behavioral addiction, and it has been recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as an addiction, then there’s no reason to say that people can’t become addicted to any behavior, whether it’s exercise, work, sex, eating, video games, the Internet, or even smartphones.”

To answer our original question, smartphone addiction may be real, but there simply isn’t enough empirical evidence, and it’s certainly not widespread. If we don’t keep the risks in mind and control our smartphone usage to some extent, then it could become a bigger problem in future, but the vast majority of us will never be smartphone addicts.