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Understanding Cell Phone Addiction

I wake in the middle of the night and instinctively reach for my phone. I innocently tell myself that I just need to check the time. It’s still dark out and I will surely go back to sleep, but as soon as the iPhone is in my hand, muscle-memory takes over. Before I know it, I’ve checked my email, browsed through Instagram, scrolled through my Facebook feed, and gone back to Instagram.

I check my phone first thing in the morning and right before I go to bed at night. I feel anxious if my iPhone’s battery is under 10%. I not only tap away on my phone while in line at the coffee shop, but I may continue tapping away as the barista takes my order. I check my phone during lulls in meetings, even in the middle of my favorite shows.  It’s embarrassing to admit all of this, but I have a feeling that I’m not alone.

The percentage of smartphone users who would actually be classified as addicted is estimated between 10-12%, according to the director of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, Dr. David Greenfield. However, in a survey of cell phone users, Dr. Greenfield found that around 90% of Americans fall in the category of overusing, misusing or abusing their devices. A recent study also found that 50% of teens feel that they are addicted to their devices.

So Why Are Cell Phones So Addictive?

Cell phone addiction may not be an official psychological diagnosis just yet (as of the DSM-5), however it functions very similarly to gambling addiction.

Technology addiction expert, Dr. David Greenfield, refers to smartphones as “the world’s smallest slot machine.” He explains that smartphones, just like slot machines, operate on a variable reinforcement schedule. “Every once in a while you get a reward… a piece of information, a text, an email, an update… something comes through that you find salient or pleasurable, but you don’t know when you’re going to get it, what it’s going to be and how good it’s going to be.” This is exactly the same reinforcement schedule as a slot machine. What’s highly addictive about these things is the idea and the neurobiological expectation they set up that a reward is coming, but you don’t know when you’re going to get it.

Each of these little rewards, such as texts, likes, social media updates, trigger a dopamine release. Dopamine controls the pleasure centers in our brain. When this chemical is released, it feels good and makes us want more of whatever is boosting our dopamine levels. It’s the reason why we seek out more food and more sex. It’s also the reason why responding to one quick text message so often turns into a fifteen-minute time-suck of scrolling through internet memes. It causes a dopamine loop.

Dr. Susan Weinschenk explains this process clearly:

“With the internet, twitter, and texting you now have almost instant gratification of your desire to seek. Want to talk to someone right away? Send a text and they respond in a few seconds. Want to look up some information? Just type your request into google… It’s easy to get in a dopamine induced loop. Dopamine starts you seeking, then you get rewarded for the seeking which makes you seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, or stop checking your cell phone to see if you have a message or a new text.”

No wonder, so many of us are mindlessly overusing our devices.

Symptoms of Cell Phone Addiction

While all of us are vulnerable to our smartphones’ dopamine loops and many of us are compulsively turning to our devices, most of us likely wouldn’t meet the criteria for being considered an actual addict.

Dr. Greenfield emphasizes that addiction is a combination of two things. First of all, addiction involves an abuse or dependency on a substance or behavior (in this case technology use) that is “beyond your control and outside the realm of reasonable use.” Secondly, “and most importantly,” Dr. Greenfield says it must be “impacting your life in some negative way, whether it be your home life, work, school, economics or social relationships.”

Furthermore, these other ingredients are necessary in order meet the criteria for addiction:

  • Increased Tolerance: Needing more time on your phone, updated technology or new apps to get your fix.
  • Withdrawal: Feeling ill at ease or anxious when you are away from your phone.
  • Mood Altering: Using technology to alter your mood or change your state of mind. For example, sending out a bunch of texts when you feel a bit down or turning to an iPhone game when you feel anxious.

How to Break a Cell Phone Addiction

Whether you meet the criteria for a full-blown phone addiction or simply want to reduce your emotional dependency on technology, there are lots of helpful strategies for breaking this bad habit.

Outsmart your smartphone by using technology to limit your technology use. Want to use your phone less? There’s an app for that. In fact, there are LOTS of apps for that. The BreakFree app, for instance monitors your phone usage, tallying up the number of times your unlock the screen, how many minutes hours you spend on your phone, which apps you use the most. The app then gives you a daily addiction score. If your addiction score alone isn’t motivation enough to make you think twice before using your phone, the app also allows you to set up notifications to alert you when you’ve been on your phone for an extended period of time or opened an app too many times.

Get your phone out of the bedroom. There are lots of reasons why you should not sleep with your phone. For starters, using your phone within an hour of bedtime leads to poorer sleep quality and more insomnia. If you’re like me and you check your phone every time you wake up in the night, your sleep is even more negatively impacted. Furthermore, when you wake up and check your phone before getting out of bed, you are reinforcing the habit for the rest of the day. Buy a cheap alarm clock and stop sleeping with your phone by your side.

Put yourself on a digital diet. The same way reducing your waistline involves breaking unhealthy habits and eating more mindfully, reducing your screen time requires similar self-control. When you want to lose weight, you have to stop eating the junk food. When you want to cut back on smartphone use, you have to stop using the junk apps. Delete those deliciously addictive games. Cut back on social networks the way a nutritionist might suggest you cut back on carbs. Quitting technology cold turkey isn’t a realistic option for most people, so this requires some real will-power. Temporarily (if not permanently) deleting your most frequently used apps can be a huge help.

Set up a digital schedule. Assign certain chunks of time throughout the day to go phone free. Experiment with leaving your phone at home when you go to dinner with your friends. Turn your phone off for a couple hours every day at the office so you can work without distraction. Leave your phone in the other room in the evenings in order to spend more quality time with your partner or children.

Get drastic with a digital detox.  If you are open to trying something more extreme, Daniel Sieberg, author of The Digital Diet: The 4-Step Plan to Break Your Tech Addiction and Regain Balance in Your Life, suggests doing a full “digital detox,” where you spend an entire weekend with ZERO access to technology. Notify your loved ones in advance, power your devices off and stick them in a box or a bottom drawer, and ask a trusted friend to temporarily change your passwords to reduce temptation. After the detox, Sieberg suggests reintroducing technology slowly. He swears that a digital diet does wonders for reconnecting with the real world and improving relationships.

Decide on a few steps you can take this week and get started.

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