While a smartphone, tablet, or computer can be a hugely productive tool, compulsive use of these devices can interfere with work, school, and relationships. When you spend more time on social media or playing games than you do interacting with real people, or you can’t stop yourself from repeatedly checking texts, emails, or apps—even when it has negative consequences in your life—it may be time to reassess your technology use.
By learning about the signs and symptoms of smartphone and Internet addiction and how to break free of the habit, you can better balance your life, online and off.
What is smartphone addiction?
Smartphone addiction, sometimes colloquially known as “nomophobia” (fear of being without a mobile phone), is often fueled by an Internet overuse problem or Internet addiction disorder. After all, it’s rarely the phone or tablet itself that creates the compulsion, but rather the games, apps, and online worlds it connects us to.
Smartphone addiction can encompass a variety of impulse-control problems, including:
Virtual relationships. Addiction to social networking, dating apps, texting, and messaging can extend to the point where virtual, online friends become more important than real-life relationships. We’ve all seen the couples sitting together in a restaurant ignoring each other and engaging with their smartphones instead. While the Internet can be a great place to meet new people, reconnect with old friends, or even start romantic relationships, online relationships are not a healthy substitute for real-life interactions. Online friendships can be appealing as they tend to exist in a bubble, not subject to the same demands or stresses as messy, real-world relationships. Compulsive use of dating apps can change your focus to short-term hookups instead of developing long-term relationships.
Information overload. Compulsive web surfing, watching videos, playing games, or checking news feeds can lead to lower productivity at work or school and isolate you for hours at a time. Compulsive use of the Internet and smartphone apps can cause you to neglect other aspects of your life, from real-world relationships to hobbies and social pursuits.
Cybersex addiction. Compulsive use of Internet pornography, sexting, nude-swapping, or adult messaging services can impact negatively on your real-life intimate relationships and overall emotional health. While online pornography and cybersex addictions are types of sexual addiction, the Internet makes it more accessible, relatively anonymous, and very convenient. It’s easy to spend hours engaging in fantasies impossible in real life. Excessive use of dating apps that facilitate casual sex can make it more difficult to develop long-term intimate relationships or damage an existing relationship.
Online compulsions, such as gaming, gambling, stock trading, online shopping, or bidding on auction sites like eBay can often lead to financial and job-related problems. The availability of Internet gambling has made gambling far more accessible. Compulsive stock trading or online shopping can be just as financially and socially damaging. eBay addicts may wake up at strange hours in order to be online for the last remaining minutes of an auction. You may purchase things you don’t need and can’t afford just to experience the excitement of placing the winning bid.
Smartphone or Internet addiction can also negatively impact your life by:
Increasing loneliness and depression. While it may seem that losing yourself online will temporarily make feelings such as loneliness, depression, and boredom evaporate into thin air, it can actually make you feel even worse. A 2014 study found a correlation between high social media usage and depression and anxiety. Users, especially teens, tend to compare themselves unfavorably with their peers on social media, promoting feelings of loneliness and depression.
Fueling anxiety. One researcher found that the mere presence of a phone in a work place tends to make people more anxious and perform poorly on given tasks. The heavier a person’s phone use, the greater the anxiety they experienced.
Increasing stress. Using a smartphone for work often means work bleeds into your home and personal life. You feel the pressure to always be on, never out of touch from work. This need to continually check and respond to email can contribute to higher stress levels and even burnout.
Exacerbating attention deficit disorders. The constant stream of messages and information from a smartphone can overwhelm the brain and make it impossible to focus attention on any one thing for more than a few minutes without feeling compelled to move on to something else.
Diminishing your ability to concentrate and think deeply or creatively. The persistent buzz, ping or beep of your smartphone can distract you from important tasks, slow your work, and interrupt those quiet moments that are so crucial to creativity and problem solving. Instead of ever being alone with our thoughts, we’re now always online and connected.
Disturbing your sleep. Excessive smartphone use can disrupt your sleep, which can have a serious impact on your overall mental health. It can impact your memory, affect your ability to think clearly, and reduce your cognitive and learning skills.
Encouraging self-absorption. A UK study found that people who spend a lot of time on social media are more likely to display negative personality traits such as narcissism. Snapping endless selfies, posting all your thoughts or details about your life can create an unhealthy self-centeredness, distancing you from real-life relationships and making it emotionally devoid.
Self-help tips for smartphone addiction
There are a number of steps you can take to get your smartphone and Internet use under control. While you can initiate many of these measures yourself, an addiction is hard to beat on your own, especially when temptation is always within easy reach. It can be all too easy to slip back into old patterns of usage. Look for outside support, whether it’s from family, friends, or a professional therapist.
To help you identify your problem areas, keep a log of when and how much you use your smartphone for non-work or non-essential activities. There are specific apps that can help with this, enabling you to track the time you spend on your phone. Are there times of day that you use your phone more? Are there other things you could be doing instead? The more you understand your smartphone use, the easier it will be to curb your habits and regain control of your time.
Recognize the triggers that make you reach for your phone. Is it when you’re lonely or bored? If you are struggling with depression, stress, or anxiety, for example, your excessive smartphone use might be a way to self-soothe rocky moods. Instead, find healthier and more effective ways of managing your moods, such as practicing relaxation techniques.
Understand the difference between interacting in-person and online. Human beings are social creatures. We’re not meant to be isolated or to rely on technology for human interaction. Socially interacting with another person face-to-face—making eye contact, responding to body language—can make you feel calm, safe, and understood, and quickly put the brakes on stress. Interacting through text, email or messaging bypasses these nonverbal cues so won’t have the same effect on your emotional well-being. Besides, online friends can’t hug you when a crisis hits, visit you when you’re sick, or celebrate a happy occasion with you.
Build your coping skills. Perhaps tweeting, texting or blogging is your way of coping with stress or anger. Or maybe you have trouble relating to others and find it easier to communicate with people online. Building skills in these areas will help you weather the stresses and strains of daily life without relying on your smartphone.
Recognize any underlying problems that may support your compulsive behavior. Have you had problems with alcohol or drugs in the past? Does anything about your smartphone use remind you of how you used to drink or use drugs to numb or distract yourself? These are red flags for you.