Does Smartphone Addiction Really Exist? | Center on Addiction

Does Smartphone Addiction Really Exist?

Does Smartphone Addiction Really Exist?

You know the feeling…the phone buzzes and you can’t help but grab your phone to find out what’s happening. We may joke about our smartphone addiction, but what if there really is something to it?

While smartphone addiction is not an official diagnosis, some researchers believe that the problematic ways people use their smartphones and the ways in which such use affect the brain have important parallels to addictive behaviors. Because no substance is ingested, the compulsive or problematic use of smartphones could be considered more similar to what are called behavioral addictions. Currently, the only behavioral addiction recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is Gambling Disorder, although food, sex, internet, gaming and pornography are considered by many to be addictive behaviors or disorders.

Researchers have proposed criteria for assessing compulsive or problematic smartphone use that parallel some of the diagnostic criteria of an addictive disorder, such as:

  • A disproportionate amount of time and money spent engaged in the behavior
  • Use in socially inappropriate or physically dangerous situations (e.g., texting while driving an automobile)
  • Adverse effects on relationships
  • Withdrawal (e.g., distress experienced when away from the device or when without adequate cellular service)

Other investigators are exploring new ways to measure problematic smartphone use. They have suggested that measuring the amount of time one spends on smartphone activities like texting, e-mailing and visiting social media sites could indicate whether someone is “dependent” on their smartphone. But experts point out that other factors should be considered, such as the main motivator driving excessive use of the device. For example, is the smartphone being used primarily as a coping mechanism to escape or distract oneself from life’s problems? Or does the smartphone user enjoy the excitement or arousal derived from using the device? At extreme levels, both of these can be unhealthy and indicative of a problem.

How to be mindful of your smartphone use

The best advice is to stay mindful of the ways you interact with your phone and, if needed, to take steps to limit your use. Setting limits on how many hours you use your phone each day can help prevent a future problem, and there are some digital apps that can help you to monitor your use. Many people are surprised by the amount of time they spend on potentially addictive behaviors when they engage in self-monitoring programs like these.

While people in general have legitimate reasons for frequently using their phone (e.g., work, communication and security), experts suggest learning to distinguish “problematic” from “very frequent” smartphone use. 

Clearly, the term addiction can be over-applied and misused. However, when certain repeated behaviors interfere with one’s well-being and daily adaptive functioning, and the behavior still continues despite these detrimental effects, the concept of addiction becomes relevant to consider. As researchers and clinicians begin to explore the validity of a smartphone addiction construct, the desire for a simple and powerful explanation for compulsive behaviors must be balanced with the need to explore these issues via rigorous scientific study.

  Alma Hidalgo, MA

  Alma Hidalgo is a Research Associate at Center on Addiction  

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