Are We All Addicted to Our Smartphones?

It all depends on who you ask.


Most of us use our smartphones excessively—even when not texting our friends, calling our parents, checking our email at all hours, listening to music, pulling up directions, thumbing through social media or playing games, we still seem to be weirdly glued to them most of the time. In fact, we’re so attached to these devices that reaching into the wrong pocket can prompt an absolute meltdown. There’s even a proposed name for those feelings of anxiety or distress we experience when we’re without our phone: Nomophobia (or, no-mobile-phone-phobia).

This tight connection many of us have with our devices has encourages researchers and regulars alike to throw around the phrase “smartphone addiction,” a phrase which would imply that heavy smartphone users are physically and psychologically dependent on their devices (and therefore, would experience physical withdrawals if they were to cut themselves off).

But are smartphones actually addictive, in the very real way that drugs and alcohol are? And if so, what can we do to curb our smartphone addiction?

It’s… complicated.

“People are no more addicted to smartphones than alcoholics are addicted to the bottle,” explains Dr. Mark Griffiths, professor of behavioural addiction and director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University. “It’s the applications—gambling, gaming and social networking—that are potentially addictive activities.”

These application are indeed addictive in that they’re capable of producing physical withdrawal symptoms: Researchers at Swansea University found that self-reported internet addicts (who spent an average of five or six hours on the internet per day) experienced spikes in heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety when stripped of their devices.

They also have very real repercussions. When you spend more time flipping through social media or playing online games than you do interacting with people face-to-face, you put yourself at an increased risk of loneliness and depressionnot to mention anxiety.

That said, many researchers continue to go back and forth regarding the classification of problematic smartphone use as an actual behavioral addiction. Many researchers are considering classifying problematic smartphone use as a compulsion, which would imply that while still an issue, heavy smartphone use does not reshape the brain’s chemistry in the way drugs and alcohol do.

Either way, these quick tips provided by Griffiths can help you curb your phone use:

  1. Set Specific Times to Respond to Messages : Responding to texts and emails only at set times throughout the day—for instance, once in the morning, once in the afternoon and once in the evening—will reduce the urge to constantly be checking your smartphone.
  2. Avoid Using Your Smartphone as an Alarm: Using a standard alarm clock instead of your smartphone will help you avoid the temptation to check your texts, emails and social media right before you go to bed and the moment you wake up.
  3. Invest in a Watch: We constantly pick up our smartphones to check the time, then get sucked in by their digital trance when we notice an attractive notification on the screen. Using an old-fashioned wrist watch can help you avoid this conundrum altogether.

It’s also helpful to engage in activities that make it impossible to access your smartphone simultaneously—jogging, swimming and meditating are just a few—and to set aside periods of non-screen time (maybe you make a point to put your phone out of reach during the time it takes to cook and eat dinner with your family).

These tips aren’t just for the compulsive smartphone user, either: They can help anyone spend less time pointlessly scrolling through their phone—something everyone could afford to do a little less of, considering most of us use our smartphone roughly twice as much as we think we do.