Cell phones are an integral part of daily life for most people. Almost all Americans — 95 percent — own a cell phone, and 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone. Mobile phones have become almost a necessity because how much easier they make our lives. We can stay in touch with our friends and family anytime. We can check our work email on the go. We can find the answer to nearly any question with just a quick Google search.
All these things are positive, but they also tie most of us to our phones. This reliance can turn into an addiction, and mobile phone addiction may cause psychological problems. What are the psychological effects of cell phone addiction? Can using a cell phone too often affect your physical and mental health? What are some of the symptoms of cell phone addiction?
Jump to a section:
- Symptoms of Mobile Phone Addiction
- Causes of Mobile Phone Addiction
- Can Cell Phones Cause Depression?
- Other Ways Cell Phones Impact Our Mental Health
- Solutions to Cell Phone Addiction
Cell Phone Addiction Symptoms
Nearly everyone uses a cell phone every day. This frequency can make it hard to pinpoint the difference between "normal" usage and addiction. Here are a few signs to check for if you are concerned about addiction and the psychological effects of cell phones.
- Inability to cut back on cell phone usage: Addiction as one of the consequences of cell phones isn't exactly a secret. Many people know they are too attached to their phones and try to do something about it. However, you might find you have difficulty limiting the time you spend on your phone. Trying to stop a behavior multiple times and failing is a red flag when it comes to addiction.
- Spending an increasing amount of time on your phone: When you got your first smartphone, even its most basic functions were probably exciting. As you grew accustomed to using the device, you probably downloaded more apps and eventually upgraded to a newer, better model. When struggling with addiction, people often increase the behavior to maintain the same feeling they had when they first started using.
- Using your cell phone as a solution to boredom: It can be hard to remember a time before smartphones, but we did not always have a handheld gadget to keep us occupied. If you find yourself filling all your spare time on your phone to stave off boredom or keep your mind occupied, this could be a sign of cell phone addiction.
- Feeling anxious or upset when you don't have access to your phone: Anxiety plays a role in cell phone addiction. If you find yourself feeling anxious or out of sorts when you can't access your phone, this could be another sign of addiction.
- Noticing how cell phone usage is affecting your relationships: Cell phones are nearly ubiquitous, but that doesn't mean using them anywhere, anytime is socially acceptable. Scrolling through your phone during an important work meeting or while a loved one is trying to have a conversation with you can negatively affect your relationships. If you find people in your life have mentioned or complained about your phone usage, but you cannot modify your behavior, you could be struggling with addiction.
What Causes Mobile Phone Addiction?
The typical person will pick up and check his or her cell phone 110 times a day. Three-fourths of people will check their smartphone as soon as they wake up, and 61 percent of people sleep with their phones turned on, and by or on their bed while they sleep. These statistics point to a pretty common reliance on and even addiction to our smartphones.
What are the causes of mobile phone addiction?
1. Smartphones Can Affect Our Brain Chemistry
Just looking at your smartphone can make you feel good. You can see a picture of your family and friends. You can watch a video of kittens playing. You can scroll through your Facebook and Instagram feeds. You can check some work off of your to-do list. You can stay updated on the latest news. Doing those things can cause our brains to release two feel-good hormones: dopamine and oxytocin.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in our bodies' "reward system." Our brains release the neurotransmitter when they perceive we have done something pleasurable or something that deserves a reward. In the case of cell phone addiction, just the act of looking at your device can be enough to release dopamine. That does not mean dopamine itself is addictive. Quite the opposite. Dopamine is a necessary component of brain chemistry that helps us learn and regulate our behavior. Dopamine can help us form good habits, like exercising, but it can help us form bad habits, like looking at our phones too much.
Oxytocin is also called the "love hormone." Our brain releases this neurotransmitter when we hug someone we care about, during sex and when mothers and infants bond. This hormone plays a prominent role in social bonds, and it feels good. Today, we do a lot of our socializing through our cell phones. We text, Skype and talk with the people we care about most by using our phones. So, it is no surprise our brains release a hit of oxytocin when we look at our phones. Like dopamine, oxytocin itself is an essential human hormone, but it can fuel bad habits and addictive behavior.
2. Mobile Phones Become a Part of Our Identities
Cell phones are in many ways a digitized version of ourselves. They contain our closest contacts, our conversations, our banking information, our photo albums and so many other components that come together to form our lives. That can sound overdramatic, but objects we hold dear are an important part of who we are. It is obvious most people view their cell phones as highly valuable. Most people, 84 percent, can't go even one day without their phones. It is hard to put down something that means so much to you, whether or not you want to admit it.
3. Anxiety Often Plays a Big Role
Fifty percent of people report that they feel uneasy if they leave their cell phones at home. If you do not have access to your phone, do you feel nervous? What if you miss an important work email, or a piece of breaking news? What if you fail to see a phone call or text from a friend or relative? All those "what ifs" can make you feel very anxious. Just thinking "what if" can lead you to pick up your phone to make sure you didn't miss anything.
Many of us also use our cell phones as a way to alleviate any anxiety that stems from other places in our lives. If we feel stressed or bored, we address those feelings by picking up the phone and creating a distraction. Even when we do have our cell phones on hand, using them doesn't always feel good. The release of cortisol, a hormone linked to stress, can be one of the effects of cell phones.
Can Cell Phones Cause Depression?
The average user spends 1.8 hours online on his or her smartphone, and 89 percent of that time using mobile apps. People might be responding to email, playing games, posting to social media, texting or talking on the phone. No matter what the activity is, spending a lot of time on your phone every day can affect your mental health. Is heavy cell phone use linked to depression?
Several different factors can cause or contribute to depression, including:
- Genetic predisposition
- Traumatic events
- Mood regulation imbalances
A recent study found excessive cell phone use may not be the cause of depression or anxiety, but it may be a symptom. People who overuse their cell phones may be exhibiting escapist behavior. Distracting yourself with the limitless information you can access via your phone can be a way to avoid addressing real-life problems, such as anxiety and depression.
The same study also questions whether excessive cell phone usage and depression are part of a cycle. Perhaps people who already struggle with anxiety and depression are more likely to overuse their phones, or maybe overuse of cell phones can make people more prone to anxiety and depression.
"It may be that individuals with higher anxiety/depression use [phone] devices more intensively or that using devices more intensively can eventually lead to the development of anxiety/depression. Or it can mean that there is a cyclical relationship," said study co-author Tanya Panova.
Why does cell phone use affect our mental health this way when it seems so useful and harmless? Research suggests when cell phone use becomes an addiction, the behavior becomes stressful. People addicted to using their cell phones probably feel compelled to check it and become stressed when this isn't possible, which feeds into mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
So many of us might feel compelled to check our phones so many times in a short span of time because of the feeling called "FOMO," or the fear of missing out. What if we miss an update or phone call from a friend? What if we overlook the latest news and seem uninformed?
Our cell phones also give us 24/7 access to social media, which can also play a role in depression. We find ourselves comparing our lives to what others post online, which is, of course, rarely the whole truth. This kind of comparison and envy does not have a positive effect on mental health. Researchers analyzed 11 studies that examined the connection between online social networking and depression. They found 45 percent of those studies linked the two.
Other Ways Cell Phones Can Affect Our Mental Health
Cell phones and psychological problems do not have to go hand in hand, but how you use these devices will determine the effect of your cell phone on your health. While depression can be one of the psychological effects of smartphone addiction, there are other ways our phones can impact our mental health.
A growing body of research suggests the more we look at our phones, the more likely we are to develop anxiety that centers on the phone use. Psychologists call this effect a positive feedback loop. Constantly using your cell phone makes you anxious, yet the only way to alleviate some of that anxiety is to continue looking at your phone.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and social anxiety are two common types of anxiety. An inability to control worry characterizes GAD. Someone with GAD may worry excessively about issues in their life, such as work, family and money. This level of stress can lead to physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches. Social anxiety relates to worry about how others will perceive us. Someone with social anxiety fears negative judgment from other people so much that they struggle to function in social situations.
GAD or social anxiety may not be direct cell phone addiction symptoms, but the excessive cell phone usage could be a coping mechanism for people with these disorders. You turn to your phone to distract yourself from worry, whether general or social. However, the positive feedback loop is going to come into play. Constantly using your phone, something you hoped would distract you, is likely contributing to your anxiety symptoms. It seems there is always bad news every time you pick up your phone. Plus, social media is, in some ways, the ultimate tool for passing judgment on people, which is not going to have a positive effect on someone already struggling with social anxiety disorder.
Smartphone addiction can be a major sleep disruptor. A study found that one in three smartphone users will wake up in the middle of the night and check their phones. That number is even higher for people ages 18 to 24. Fifty percent of people in this age group woke up and checked their phones in the middle of the night. Many people also check their phones right before bed and first thing in the morning, which means phones are a big part of many people's sleep routines. Research has found the bright light of a phone's screen makes it difficult to sleep. Another study found smartphone use right before bed results in a longer period before actually falling asleep and poorer quality of sleep. Ideally, cell phone users would stop using their devices completely at least an hour before bedtime to allow their bodies and minds time to prepare for a good night's rest.
Cell phone addiction can make creating a healthy sleep routine challenging to accomplish. You have to consciously decide to put the phone away while you are still awake.
Social Problems and Relationship Issues
Smartphones are rewriting the way we interact socially with one another. We can call, text or video chat with anyone anywhere in the world, a capability people did not have even just a few years ago. While it is a wonderful way to keep in touch with people, cell phone use should not be a replacement for social interaction. Addiction might mean you find yourself checking your phone incessantly, even when you are spending time with someone else. This kind of cell phone use can harm personal relationships, create communication barriers and even lead to social isolation.
No one likes feeling ignored, but that is exactly what people feel when you spend more time paying attention to your phone than them. It might seem easier, even more important, to express yourself via text message or on social media, but this mindset will inevitably lead to social issues with the people in your life. Close relationships need careful attention to form, and you must nurture and maintain them. Losing interest in in-person communication can erode those relationships you already have and prevent you from forming new ones.
The Solution to Cell Phone Addiction
If a person close to you or anybody in your family is getting addicted to their mobile phone, it is important to curb their phone usage and protect their mental health. You might try:
- Spending more time together: Sometimes loneliness can be one of the causes of cell phone addiction. If you notice someone you care about is spending too much time on their phone, make an effort to engage them in other activities. Instead of talking on the phone, see if you can find time to go out for a quick cup of coffee or a meal instead. When you are together, do not be afraid to ask them to put down the phone. It has become more and more socially acceptable to keep our eyes on our phone, even if we are engaging in a face-to-face conversation with someone else. Try to change this. Ask the person for their undivided attention. It does not have to be a rude request. The more someone gets used to leaving the phone out of their in-person interaction, the easier it can become to break the larger addiction cycle.
- Shifting the focus to in-person interaction: It is unlikely you can singlehandedly break someone else's cell phone addiction. Any kind of addiction requires the person involved to make changes themselves. In addition to spending time together, suggest he or she make an effort to integrate more in-person interaction into their lives. Suggest group hobbies they might enjoy. Getting them to participate in different kinds of social activities can help them see what they are missing when they spend too much time on their smartphone.
- Suggesting other ways to alleviate boredom: Someone addicted to a cell phone might not be lonely at all. He or she might just be bored. Smartphones offer a quick, easy way to fill any spare time we have, but using them to alleviate boredom will not have a positive impact on mental health. Sit down with the person you care about and talk about different ways to spend that downtime. Pick up a hobby that keeps your hands busy. Start a new book. Pick up a different kind of exercise. Next time you feel the itch to pick up the phone for no other reason than boredom, resist the urge. Instead, try a craft, read the book your favorite movie is based on or go for a run. There are plenty of ways to fill the time other than by looking at your phone, but you need the discipline to form a new habit.
- Talking about the negative effects of cell phone addiction: Although smartphone addiction is becoming a major issue, especially considering how many people have them and how often they use them, it can still be an easy problem to dismiss as a symptom of modern life. If someone you care about shrugs off your offers of help, bring up your concerns. Talk about the negative effects of cell phone addiction and the changes you have noticed in that person. Do they complain about being tired? Do they seem anxious or depressed? Is their cell phone use affecting their professional and personal relationships? Nearly everyone uses a cell phone, so it can be hard to see just how much it affects our mental health. Hearing a loved one tell us just how much smartphone addiction has changed us can be an eye-opening experience.
If you are experiencing anxiety and depression as a result of excessive cell phone usage, you may need help to resolve this issue. There may also be underlying mental health issues that need to be resolved. Get the help you or your loved one needs by contacting Brookhaven Retreat. Our women-only mental health treatment facility provides a variety of services to improve your mental health and put you on a path to a happier, healthier life.