Why Are People Addicted to Their Phones: 10 Ways To Stop It

Lauren-Ann

Medical reviewed by Lauren Ann Teeter, CNS, LCSW

Functional & Integrative Approach To Mental Health, Functional Nutrition, Functional & Integrative Medicine, Psychotherapy, Mental Health

Are you aware of the time you spend on the phone? While using it as a productive tool, are you unconsciously controlled by it? And gradually find yourself uneasy when leaving your phone behind? 

“But is it a bad thing?” You might ask yourself. “Is phone addiction real? What kind of effects could it have on me? How do I know if I have a phone addiction, what are the signs, and how do I get over it?”

Fear not. Let’s dive into this little gadget.

Why are people addicted to their phones: Unveil the reasons

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Addiction is, according to Merriam-Webster, “a psychological need for a habit-forming behavior having harmful physical, psychological effects.” In the same logic, phone addiction is an obsessive inclination for the smartphone, which may negatively impact physical and mental health. 

According to a 2011 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, up to 85 percent of Americans have their own smartphones. This figure is about 2.5 times higher than 10 years ago (1). The excessive use of smartphones also gives rise to terminology: nomophobia, the fear of going out without cell phones (2). 

So, what makes us so obsessed with the phone? 

Why are phones addictive?

Of course, it is normal within the proper amount of time. But the fact is that people constantly check their phones. They are afraid of missing any messages or posts, being indifferent to their loved ones, and being “phubbers.” But it is actually the apps that are designed to hook you.  

The pull behind your phone addiction: Dopamine 

Dopamine is a chemical substance or neurotransmitter produced by our brain. It plays an essential role in motivating behavior, such as successful social interactions. Research has shown that positive social activities can trigger dopamine’s reward pathway. This pathway may include smiles from others or recognition from loved ones (3).

However, there is another characteristic of dopamine neurons called “reward prediction error encoding.” This research explores how our brains process errors in predicting rewards to help us gain other enjoyments in life (4).

Our addiction to social media: Reward prediction error encoding

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For example, when we play scratch cards, we experience strong anticipation. This delayed span extended the activity of our dopamine neurons, stimulating them to create a beneficial feeling.

If negative emotions accumulate too much, dopamine activity will be diminished, leading us to disengage from the behavior. Thus, behavior must maintain a balance between positive and negative outcomes to keep the brain active.

To further explain, when posting on Instagram, we expect to receive many “likes.” So, when we receive fewer than anticipated, we feel disappointed. At this point, those initial negative results have already triggered the dopamine centers.

At this moment, if we suddenly receive a large number of positive replies, we will respond strongly to the sudden influx of social validation. This is the mechanism of cell phone addiction and the charm of social media. 

Cell phone addiction test: Signs to know if you’re addicted

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To solve the problem, we must first be aware of its existence. But there’s a line between normal and obsessive use. After all, it’s not wrong if we just use the phone in structured and purposeful ways, under control. So how to differentiate whether we have cell phone addiction? Essentially, if you feel as though your functioning and well-being are affected by your cell phone use, this may be a good indication.

Below are some signs categorized into two parts for you to discern. 

When you find yourself:

  • Having trouble completing your work within the assigned time, which you normally could. 
  • Checking peoples’ profiles repeatedly due to anxiety. Or some may call it the fear of missing out. (shortened as FOMO in some texts or dialogue.)
  • Reaching or craving for the phone the moment you are alone or bored.
  • Thinking the phone buzzes when it doesn’t. Or some would call it Phantom vibration (5). 

When your loved ones express:

  • Their concern for the overuse of your phone.
  • Their complaint about your weak real-life social interaction.
  • Their feeling of lost connection with you.

Though mobile phones are an integral part of modern lives, the impact of their compulsive usage could lead to phone addiction. When diving in, we can find that the app developer craftily utilizes the psychological mechanism to hook us. 

If you have worries about whether you are addicted to phones, try to check if most of the signs listed above match your current situation.

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Psychological effects of cell phone addiction

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As smartphones have become increasingly pervasive in our lives, it’s imperative to understand how they can affect our minds. By learning about the psychological aspects of phone addiction, we can gain a deeper understanding of the potential threat to our well-being.

GABA and gray matter: What are their roles?

GABA

Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in our brain. It plays an important role in the amygdala in modulating anxiety-related behaviors by blocking certain brain signals and decreasing activity in the nervous system (6).

A small-scale survey conducted in 2020 compared youth addicted to phones with healthy counterparts. It found that GABA to creatinine ratios were higher in the brains of subjects with internet and smartphone addiction in comparison to their healthy controls. These ratios also decreased following Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) treatment (7). These findings highlight the role of brain chemistry in phone addiction.

Gray matter 

Gray matter forms the outer layer of the brain (8). It contains an extensive number of neurons, enabling it to process and release a vast amount of new information. Most importantly, it is indispensable for movement control, memory, and emotions, making it essential for various aspects of human life (9). 

Two small-scale studies conducted in South Korea have indicated that individuals who excessively use social media and those with internet gaming disorder have significantly smaller gray matter volumes compared to control groups (10, 11). These studies further indicate the implications of excessive internet use.

Effects of cell phone addiction: What science says

Numerous studies have shown that phone addiction can be attributed to the following psychological effects and may also be a precursor to mental health problems: 

Poor sleep quality

A study conducted at Ohio State University studied 532 students ranging from 18 to 39. It shows that cellphone use before bedtime may worsen sleep quality. The potential causes, according to these findings, are suggested to be the bright light emitted by the devices, disrupting the circadian rhythm (12).

In 2015, a study was completed in Iran to investigate how using social networks via smartphones could affect the sleep of 380 medical undergraduate students. The results indicated that overusing the internet and social networks via smartphones was related to poor sleep quality and quantity (13). 

Creativity blocks 

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) region is part of the brain that controls our actions and thoughts. It helps us make smart decisions, develop self-control, and improve our thinking abilities. Studies on creative cognition have reported the critical role of the PFC and temporal cortex in generating original ideas (14, 15).

A 2023 study provided evidence of the negative impacts of smartphone addiction on creative cognition. The participants were split into two groups: one group consisted of individuals with a smartphone addiction tendency (SAT) and another group of healthy controls. The results revealed that PFC and temporal regions were less active in the SAT group than in the healthy control group (16).

However, as the research suggests, we still need more evidence and research to further confirm the relationship between smartphone addiction and our creative thinking.

Lower concentration. 

Our ability to concentrate is linked to two important things: working memory and fluid intelligence. Working memory helps us deal with complicated tasks by picking, keeping, and processing the information we need now. Fluid intelligence is about being able to choose, store, and play around with information in a smart way (17).

A study from The University of Chicago Press that found an interesting finding. They looked at how the presence of smartphones can disrupt concentration. They split participants into three groups. One group had their phones in sight, another group had their phones nearby but out of sight, and the last group had their phones in different rooms.

Interestingly, just having their phones in sight, whether the phones were turned off or not, caused a small but important drop in how well people could concentrate. The research highlights that this drop affected their working memory and fluid intelligence, even if they weren’t using their phones or thinking about them, indicating that the phones’ mere presence reduced cognitive capacity availability (18).

Psychologically, phone addiction has an overall negative impact on our emotional regulation and cognitive abilities. According to research, the main reasons for these impairments are the dysfunction of GABA, dopamine, and the loss of gray matter.

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How to not be addicted to your phone: 10 simple ways

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After knowing the crafty strategy of the developers and the various adverse effects of phone addiction, learning how to get over phone addiction becomes the priority at this point. Below are some suggestions for you to consider:   

  1. Mindful scrolling. On most occasions, we use our smartphones to pass the time. This subconscious action instinctively makes us reach for our phones whenever we are free. Next time, try to fully engage with your phone. You can achieve this by setting a timer to increase your awareness or to remind yourself. These timers can serve as a positive reminder (19).
     
  2. Take good advantage of the apps. Not all apps are designed to hook your attention, but there are some that can help you be less dependent on this device. Try to look for apps that can track your data usage or apps that can set limits on screen usage time to help you stop wasting time on your phone (20).
  3. Change the settings of your app. It includes turning off unnecessary notifications to reduce the time you check your phone or deleting the apps you find yourself wasting the most time on, such as games or social media.
     
  4. Develop or engage in outdoor activities that aren’t with your phones. Discovered that participating in physical activities can improve mental well-being and lower stress. Consequently, this can also help manage reliance on our phones (21).
  5. Set up obstacles. Create barriers around your phone. For example, set up a lock screen that asks, “Do you need to use the phone now?” or a sticker on the back that says, “Stop staring at your phone!” By doing so, you can pause for seconds and force yourself to think about what you’re doing.
  6. Out of sight, out of mind. In other words, try to physically separate yourself from the phones. You can start the practice by setting aside one day or one week, then proceed to challenge a 30-day experiment. But remember to take your time, starting small.
  7. Don’t charge your phone. This may be extreme compared to physically staying away from the phone, but it is also one approach. If you don’t charge your phone, you won’t have the opportunity to use it. With fewer chances, you may gradually get used to living without it.
  8. Identify your triggers. According to this 2014 study, phone misuse usually results from various reasons (22). It could be a desire for social connection or an avoidant behavior from an awkward situation. Try identifying your triggers to gain awareness and address the question. Mindfulness around your use may help in reducing excessive and maladaptive use.
  9. Build up your support network. Dedicating or scheduling time with your friends and family, or interacting with people having similar interests. Forming bounding and strengthening your support network will enhance your life (23).
  10. Reach out for professional help. It’s always OK if you feel you need help. If you find yourself addicted to phones and losing control over the issues, consider reaching out to a therapist. Though more studies are needed to confirm, one small study showed that CBT may be helpful in dealing with phone addiction (24).

The above 10 ways are suggestions for you when considering cutting back on excessive phone use. Some methods require self-discipline, and some rely on the support of loved ones or professional help. While implementing, remember not to expect to reach the goals immediately. The brain takes time to adapt to change. Expect some setbacks and learn from each experience.

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How to avoid using the phone too much for children: Tips for parents

As caregivers, it is essential for parents to prevent their children from excessive use of smartphones. But since it is challenging to completely avoid smartphone usage, the question becomes, “How to avoid using phones too much for children?” 

Let them release energy outdoors

Take your child out to the park or playgrounds, or take them to walk into and explore nature. By doing so, parents can activate their curiosity, capture their attention, and develop their creativity. 

Set the limit on their usage

Since it is difficult to keep phones away from children, trying to restrict their usage of phones is a practicable way. But first, you can discuss with your children and make agreed-upon rules for their usage of phones, such as no phones during mealtime and studying hours. 

Set and maintain barriers

It may be hard for you to be around your children all the time to check whether they’ve followed the rules. So you can either hide the phones away or set up the passwords to dissuade them from using them.  

Practice what you’ve preached

Children learn and mimic their parent’s behaviors, so set a good example of how to use the phone properly. You can start by restricting your time on the phone or physically away from it. But if it’s your work that needs frequent phone usage, explain it to your child.

Educate them about the safety of the internet

Have an open discussion with the children and teach them about personal information. More importantly, emphasize the importance of cyberbullying. Let them be aware of the potential dangers of the internet, so they have more self-discipline.

Strengthen your bond with children

Though busy with work, it’s important for parents to form a relationship with their children. Having a family trip, spending time chatting during mealtime, and taking them out to nearby parks are all useful. It is important to be attuned to the needs of your child or adolescent, as this connection is the one that truly matters.

Parents can help children avoid excessive phone usage through education, setting good examples, establishing phone usage limits, and cultivating a strong emotional bond with them.

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What are phone withdrawal symptoms?

Congratulations on deciding to try reducing your phone usage! But before you proceed, it’s essential to know that research has found that during phone withdrawal, some symptoms similar to other types of behavioral addictions may arise (25): 
 
-Psychological withdrawal, such as moodiness, irritability, and anxiousness.
-Physiological withdrawal symptoms include sweats, nausea, insomnia, headaches, etc.
 
Besides the above symptoms, this study also indicates that during withdrawal, one may experience a fear of missing out (FOMO). This term refers to concern over being excluded from taking part in enjoyable experiences others might be having. 

What are the side effects of staring at your phone?

As the prevalence of phones increases, concern over the side effects of using mobile phones for a long time has arisen. Numerous studies have shown that staring at the phone for a long time may cause the following symptoms (26, 27):

-Eye fatigue. Such as achy, tired, itchy, burning, dry, or watery eyes, and blurred vision.
-Trouble keeping your eyes open.
-Headaches, especially a dull ache around your eyes.

What’s more, is that long screen time can, according to the research, have a negative impact on our sleep quality (28), and even worsen mental health (29).

How many hours is phone addiction?

There is no set rule or specific numbers for scientists to agree upon. But experts do suggest a 20-20-20 rule for us. That is, try to look away at something that is 20 feet away for 20 seconds after 20 minutes of staring at the screen. This can help in supporting the brain. 

However, distance and time are not strictly limited; you can just try to focus on something far away and look away long enough. Or, if you are sitting in the office, try standing up to refill the water or stretch in the public areas.
 
As for the 20-minute rule, try setting up an alarm or an app to remind you of the time. 

Summary

Smartphones are useful for providing information and keeping us connected to loved ones. As they become an indispensable part of modern life, studies start pondering the negative impacts they may bring on us. 

With evidence emerging, we start realizing excessive use of smartphones may result in phone addiction. Worse still, it poses risks to our physical well-being. Some may even experience the psychological effects of cell phone addiction. Thus, it’s important to pay attention to the time we spend on them. 

Here, we learn how to use phones properly, ask questions about why people may be addicted to their phones, and identify the signs of phone addiction. Though these skills take time to practice, being late is always better than never. 

Let’s start by checking how much time we’ve spent on the phone today!

How Do You Feel About This Article?

Lauren-Ann

Medical reviewed by Lauren Ann Teeter, CNS, LCSW

Functional & Integrative Approach To Mental Health, Functional Nutrition, Functional & Integrative Medicine, Psychotherapy, Mental Health

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