Cell Phone Addiction: What Are the Signs and Symptoms?

Cell phones and smartphones are some of the handiest, most entertaining, and most life-changing devices we have ever envisioned. Many of the electronics and devices of the past several decades have effectively been rolled into them, and at this point, there is little information they cannot access and little they cannot do in general. Have an electronic need? It’s right in your pocket.

Yet with such handiness, there is a bit of a darker side to them. People are often glued to the screens so much that they ignore the world around them. And while some say it’s just teens, it’s been teens for about a decade now, and those teens grew up. In truth, people of all ages deal with cell phone addiction, and it can be a serious matter. It deserves more attention, and researchers and even governments are realizing this (some faster than others). 

On a personal level, awareness is key, as is knowledge of your own phone habits. Here are some of the common signs and symptoms of cell phone addiction, and what you can potentially do about it:

What We Know So Far

Cell phone addiction, as compared to drug addiction, alcohol addiction, or other common problems, is a new issue. Cell phones have only been around for 30 years or so, and smartphones have only been widespread for perhaps a few decades (and that’s being generous). We as a society are still adjusting to them, and we are still mastering their capabilities and advancing them every year. 

However, our understanding of addiction is regularly changing, whether from a personal failing to a disease or the result of a greater societal issue. Our understandings of genetics and neuroscience are also evolving, giving us a better clue on the causes of addiction, people’s predisposition, and how we can treat the issues. As technology becomes more deeply ingrained in our lives (even more than it is), we hopefully will have a better understanding of its effects and how we can counteract the negatives. Eventually, we might not even be using smartphones as we know them anymore.

There is also the matter of the apps and sites that smartphones connect us to, which to many might be the real problem. After all, without a connection, apps, and sites, a smartphone is just a small yet expensive rectangle. It might make for a good paperweight without the internet. Many of them are admittedly designed to grab attention and be addicting. Whether it is social media sites whose newsfeeds are designed to draw outrage to games whose mechanics are designed to make people keep playing (and spending money), app developers are sometimes on the side of addiction and unhealthy habits.

Is It Real?

Yet one question that continually pops up regarding cell phone addiction is “is cell phone addiction real?” It might be a sign that people are getting dismissive of many new theories and syndromes, and people might not understand that they interact with smartphones differently than other people. Also, people associate addiction with drugs and substance abuse. Smartphones are not directly related to those issues. People are (hopefully) not injecting or ingesting smartphones in any way. What happens on cell phones is, in some ways, not real, so why would cell phone addiction be real?

However, the counterpoint is that the addiction from most substances and behaviors comes from the chemical release of dopamine into our system when we engage in that behavior. It feels great, and we want to do it more as a result. Therefore, the question then becomes whether using a smartphone triggers such a release of dopamine (or something similar). And the answer is often we aren’t entirely sure. Social media and gaming companies sure would like to hope so and are operating on the hope that their apps create a positive feedback loop for users, keeping them hooked. 

The debate continues, though it seems to lean in the direction that cell phones are causing some sort of problem. Practically, however, we can see the truth for ourselves. Many people simply cannot look away from their smartphones and feel jittery or anxious if separated for too long. Whether there is a physiological component to the problem or whether it is just psychological is irrelevant to a simple fact: many people are dependent on their cell phones to an unhealthy degree.

One more note for your own research: it may also go under the name of Nomophobia (no mobile phone phobia)/ However, the term is relatively rare compared to the more easily understood “cell phone addiction”. Whatever it is called and however it is classified, it warrants further investigation and study.

Common Symptoms

So now that we’ve identified it as well as we are able, what exactly does cell phone addiction look like? Here are a few of the common signs and symptoms:

  • You feel anxious or even panicked without your phone, even when you are in your own home or know exactly where it is.
  • You can’t stop checking it, even when you are sure there is nothing special to be notified or concerned about.
  • Your phone is the first and last thing you check each day, without fail.
  • You have more apps installed than you know what to do with, and yet you try to keep up with everything regardless.
  • Similarly, you follow far more people, sites, and brands online than anyone could keep track of.
  • You think your smartphone is the solution for everything, even when an alternative would make far more sense.
  • You compulsively check for missed calls, texts, and notifications, especially after being away from your phone for only a few minutes.
  • You use your phone at inappropriate times such as during a family gathering or in a meeting.
  • You will miss out on important opportunities to spend more time on your phone.
  • A strong aversion to separating yourself from your phone at any point.
  • You relapse on many or all of your attempts to cut back on usage.

After reading this, we recommend that you put your phone down for a moment, take out a notebook and piece of paper, and take note of what your relationship with your smartphone looks like. How often and how do you use it? Could you go without it for a bit? Do you personally feel that you have a problem, or that someone around you does? Many of these questions only you can answer, and only you can know if you are comfortable with the truth or not.

However, also note that many people misreport how often they use and think about their phones. Many people check it without even thinking about it, and there are those times where you open it quickly and you don’t know where the rest of the hour went. It’s hard to track our usage unless we are making a conscious effort to. And if we make a conscious effort to, that might taint the findings.

How Much Do People Use Their Smartphones?

There are a few points that also help us ground the problem and put it into perspective in the real world. Your own usage, whether high or low, might be biased. The people around you might have formed the same habits.

  • As of 2019, the average adult in the United States spends three hours and 43 minutes on their phone each day. And the trend is going upward, though not as quickly as in prior years.
  • People are starting to use cell phones at younger ages. In a study conducted in Spain, researchers found that 30 percent of Spanish ten-year-old children had a phone. That number jumps to 83% by age 14. And children as young as two regularly access their parent’s devices. Given that the study was conducted some years ago, today the rates are likely higher.
  • On average, people check their phones dozens of times each day, with some sources pinpointing the number at 58. Someone who suffers from cell phone addiction likely checks far more than that (or far less, because they’re never off it).

Note that these stats and points are only the tip of the iceberg. There has been so much more interesting research done on smartphone and cell phone usage, both in the United States and around the world. We encourage you to seek it out and learn more. 

What Are the Risks?

Most types of addiction are extremely serious. Substance abuse can lead to overdoses and extreme antisocial behavior. It may cause irreversible health problems. When compared to a meth or heroin problem, cell phone use seems mild in comparison, and not worth much of our attention. In truth, though, the risks of smartphone addiction can be just as serious as any other addiction if usage is not kept in check. While we cannot list every possible consequence, here are some of the most common problems or worst outcomes:

  • People with smartphone addiction are more likely to engage in distracted driving. This obviously leads to a lot of problems, including risking the health and lives of oneself and others. There is a reason many states and countries have banned the non-hands-free use of smartphones while driving.
  • Simply living a more distracted life that is not engaged with the world around them. Many people check their phones immediately upon getting up, letting apps and algorithms decide their day and mood. The fear of missing out on a smartphone becomes so powerful that people start to miss out in the real world.
  • An enhanced feeling of anxiety revolving around using one’s smartphone, or not using it. People might have meltdowns or panic attacks if their phone goes missing or the signal drops for an extended period. It is hardly the best way to live, despite phones being as valuable as they are.
  • Too much time spent on a cell phone, or an unhealthy prioritization of the smartphone, can lead to people damaging their relationships or careers. They might not pay attention at work, but spend time on their phone ahead of other responsibilities, and engage in other unwise or neglectful behavior in favor of their smartphones. In the most extreme circumstances, parents can endanger their children.
  • People spending too much time online (on their smartphones) can be a problem in itself. While it can provide an outlet for connection and expression, it can also be a medium for radicalization, bullying, and low self-esteem. Ultimately, what is online isn’t real, it's curated and leads to poor comparisons. These feelings can lead to depression, further anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts.

Smart Phone Addiction and Children

Something we would like to make a special note of is that children can be especially prone to smartphone addiction. For better or worse, children are getting access to mobile devices at younger and younger ages. You might see a phone given to an energetic child in public, or a child talk about what games they’re playing on their phone. The specifics might differ by age, but the fundamentals remain the same: the phone makes for a great babysitter, and children might be missing out on other things as a result.

This leads to bad habits forming around phone use at a young age. Bored? Break out the phone and do something on it. Is a child causing a stir at a restaurant or at a family gathering? Give them a phone and they’ll be engaged in the corner. There’s always one more thing to check or be amused by online. This is hardly natural, and such stimulation is addicting for anything, especially for children. 

And worst of all, these habits can stick with someone for a lifetime and be even harder to break. They formed during a developmental period, and they’re seen as normal. This can lead to serious detriments over time and be a weight someone never entirely gets over. We’re only starting to see the effects, and we’re waiting to see the long-term implications. 

For teens, the problems can be greater. A great deal of bullying happens online and on social media, where it is not so easily spotted, and teens cannot so easily escape it. Teens who use their phones too much might feel utterly trapped in a loop of bullying, unable to escape the torment of their peers. It does not need to be said that this has negative effects, both short-term and long-term. And while overuse of a smartphone is not the cause, it does enable the problem.

What You Should Do About Cell Phone Addiction

Cell phone addiction is one of those issues that is tricky to deal with if only because cell phones are constantly surrounding us and most of us need one to work and survive in the modern world. It’s not so easy to get rid of, even if we can use it less. People will feel as though you’re burdening them if you do not have one, and you might find yourself with fewer opportunities. Nonetheless, tackling the problem head-on is necessary, or it will likely only get worse over time.

We are not licensed professionals, and you should see one If you have a problem, here are some things that can help:

  • Do not take the phone with you to bed. That is one of the worst habits you can form if you already have cell phone addiction. A few minutes before bed can quickly turn into hours. If you’re worried about waking up, investing in an alarm clock is cheap and easy. In fact, keep your phone out of the bedroom altogether, leaving it in the kitchen or living room when you are ready for bed.
  • When you want to focus on something else, keep your phone out of reach. Too many of us pick it up as a force of habit. If we must get out of our seats and move around the house to get to our phones, then we are more likely to think about what we are doing.
  • Try to diversify into other objects what you do on your phone. For example, take a physical book or magazine with you instead of using your phone. Consider investing in a game console (portable or not) instead of gaming on your phone. Try to use a TV to watch your favorite shows. Have everything have its place, and keep your phone mostly for communication.
  • Meet more people face to face when possible. It might not always be possible in a globalized world and during a global pandemic which has kept many of us apart, but meeting people in person makes us more likely to pay closer attention to them, and gives us a reason to not look at our phones.
  • On a related note, if you are going to see someone soon, save the information you were going to text them or share on social media. Of course, important information should be communicated as soon as possible, but not everything we want to say is important.
  • Try to add more real experiences and commitments to your life. A hiking trip (perhaps with limited WiFi) can be a great way to face cell phone addiction and have a nice experience at the same time. A trip to the library and finding some new (physical) books can be similarly great. Find some new interests and find spaces in the real world that support them.
  • Make sure you only check it a few times a day, or when someone calls. We promise that unless you are using it for work anything that comes over a text or a notification can wait. There are even apps that can restrict your usage for you, though they can be a bit extreme.
  • Many people check their phones to fill in the time and then get carried away. Try finding another way to fill this time or form a healthy habit instead. Mindfulness and meditation are great ways to feel more in tune with the present.
  • Downgrade your phone. You can’t spend too much time on your phone if all it really does is text and call people. At the very least you might not enjoy using it as much and will consider other activities instead.

On Social Media Addiction

On a closely related note, there is the problem of social media addiction, which is just as recent and just as a problematic phenomenon. People, hoping to become the next social media star or just get more friends, followers, and likes than they did the day before, constantly check and post on social media. They do so to the detriment of themselves and potentially the world around them. Chances are you probably know someone who has this problem to some degree, and you worry a bit about their habits.

While we won’t go into extreme detail in this piece on the issue, we will say that the two problems are closely linked, and one might be part of the other. We recommend that you pay attention to your social media usage regularly and consider taking a break occasionally if only to see how you handle it.

Similarly, there might be a more general internet addiction, which is a problem for many people, especially younger people who grew up with electronics. While these problems are like smartphone or cell phone addiction, they are indeed different. As such, they should be researched and handled separately, except for the parts where they might intersect here. While the root is technology and a constant connection to the virtual world, the psychological causes might be different.

Conclusion

Cell phone addiction is a serious and growing problem, yet there is a lot we are still figuring out about it. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem on an either a societal or individual level, and we still have so much work to do combating it. Like many things, smartphones can be extremely helpful if used properly and in moderation, but sometimes people can go too far. We hope that the information above has been helpful to you and that you or your loved ones can overcome this problem if it’s there. It won’t be an overnight fix and it won’t be easy, but your life can and will improve for it.