Smartphones are becoming an increasingly ubiquitous part of daily life, but how do we draw the distinction between ordinary use and addiction? Dr. David Greenfield, an expert in technology and Internet addictions, suggests that as many as 90 percent of Americans overuse, abuse or misuse their smartphones, and he has developed a diagnostic quiz to help people determine if they fall into this category. The rates of full-fledged addiction are likely much lower, but are you at risk of becoming addicted to your smartphone?
Technology Addictions: The Basics
Understanding technology addiction really only requires an understanding of all addictions. Any addictive substance or activity you’d care to name creates its effect through its interaction with brain chemicals, most often the “reward” chemical dopamine. Cocaine addiction, sex addiction and gambling addiction, for example, could really all be classed as a dopamine addiction. Dopamine is designed to both reward us for engaging in activities like having sex or eating (although the opioid system is also central to the enjoyment process) and to help us remember how we obtained that reward, but other, less crucial activities have the same impact. Technology use is increasingly being shown to be one of them, including e-mailing, texting, social media use and Internet use. When something impacts dopamine like this, it has the potential to be addictive. Even from a personal perspective, it’s easy to see how the constant socialization you likely engage in via your smartphone “rewards” you with instantaneous, round-the-clock interaction. As social animals, we’re pretty much programmed to enjoy socializing.
Smartphone Addiction or Problematic Usage?
Although many studies suggest addiction-like behaviors in large numbers of smartphone users, it’s important to note that there’s a difference between overuse, abuse and addiction. Doing something like keeping your smartphone under your pillow and checking it just before you go to sleep and the first thing in the morning is a sign of a problem, but not necessarily of an addiction. Addiction is a consideration when things get a little more extreme. The classic signs of addiction still apply to smartphone use, namely tolerance, withdrawal, using it to fill emotional “voids” or to chase away unpleasant feelings, and that the habit has serious impacts on your daily life. If you feel agitated, irritable and anxious when you can’t use your smartphone and if you need to use it for longer and longer to feel satisfied, these are well-recognized signs of addiction. Similarly, if it’s causing serious issues in your life—for example, if your relationship is breaking down because you spend too much time looking at your screen or you’ve been in trouble for texting while driving—it’s a sign of a more serious issue. Like most addictions, the rate of smartphone addiction is much lower than that of over-users and is expected to be around 10 percent to 12 percent.
Signs of Smartphone Addiction
An online smartphone abuse test gives 15 signs to look out for to determine if your smartphone use is getting out of hand. Answering yes to over five of these is a sign that there may be a problem.
- Do you spend more time on your smartphone than you realize?
- Do you mindlessly pass time staring at your smartphone even though you have more productive things to do?
- Do you feel like you lose track of time when you’re using your smartphone?
- Do you spend more time texting, tweeting or e-mailing than talking to people in the real world?
- Are you spending more time on your smartphone than you did in the past?
- Do you wish (even secretly) that you could be a little less connected to your phone?
- Do you leave your smartphone switched on overnight and keep it under your pillow or next to your bed?
- Do you view and answer texts, e-mails or social media conversations at all hours of the day, regardless of what you’re doing?
- Do you use your smartphone while driving or doing other activities that require concentration and focus?
- Do you think your smartphone decreases your productivity?
- Do you feel reluctant to be without your smartphone, even if it isn’t for long?
- Do you always have your smartphone with you and feel uncomfortable or anxious if you leave it somewhere or can’t use it for any other reason?
- Is your smartphone always by your side when you’re eating meals?
- When your phone rings, buzzes or beeps, do you feel an intense urge to check for updates, texts or calls?
- Do you check your phone several times a day even if there’s probably nothing to see?
Again, answering yes to more than five of these doesn’t mean you’re addicted to your smartphone, but it does mean that you should think about how much you’re using your phone and try to limit it where possible. For example, switch your phone off at night and start a “no smartphones at the table” rule.
The 21st Century Addiction?
We’re only in the early days of smartphone addiction. As we gain understanding of the addictive potential of technology, it will undeniably become recognized as a serious issue like drug, alcohol, sex or gambling addiction, but it’s not wise to wait for official recognition to do something about a developing problem. If you’re having issues because of your smartphone use (or other technology use), try to cut back, and if you can’t do it, it’s time to think about what further support you can find. As an addiction, many of the same approaches used for other addictions are effective at helping with smartphone addiction, too. It might feel impossible to avoid, but you can regain control.