Our mobile phones have become an integral part of nearly every aspect of our lives, to the point that you may be asking, are you addicted to your smartphone? Understanding how the use of these devices and the apps they contain affects your brain is essential. When you better understand the potential effects, you can set boundaries for your phone use.
Is Smartphone Addiction Real?
According to Pew Research Center, more than 80% of Americans have cell phones with an internet connection. In 2011, that number was just 35%; while people tend to express a fear of being without their phones, experts aren’t sure if they’re ready to call it an addiction just yet.
There’s some debate among mental health professionals. Some feel that when you display addictive behavior with your phone, it’s an impulse control issue. Others are more likely to call it a true addiction.
If we are going to describe it as an addiction, it’s a behavioral addiction. The only behavioral addiction officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is gambling addiction. There are similarities among potential behavioral addictions, even if they aren’t in the DSM.
Signs of behavioral addiction, such as gambling, include:
- Loss of control over your behavior
- Having a hard time limiting the behavior
- Developing a tolerance, meaning you need to do the behavior more often for the same feeling
- Adverse effects stemming from it
- Withdrawal, anxiety, or irritability when you can’t engage in the behavior
- Relapse after a period of avoiding whatever said behavior is
The Effects of Cell Phone Addiction on Your Brain
As much as we hear talk about multi-tasking, our brains don’t work well this way; we can only really do one thing at a time. So, if you’re constantly getting notifications and alerts on your phone, your attention is always divided. The result is what’s called switch cost.
Sometimes, it may cost you just a second or so of time if you’re switching between tasks. If you’re doing it all day, as is the case when you’re constantly checking and engaging with your phone, the costs can add up. Some psychologists believe the switching between tasks can take up around 40% of your productive brain time.
You’re also increasing cortisol levels, a stress hormone, each time you’re switching tasks, even briefly. Your prefrontal cortex isn’t what you’re using and the prefrontal cortex is involved in reasoning and higher-level thinking.
Instead, dopamine goes up; dopamine is a brain chemical that plays a role in motivation and the seeking of reward. Dopamine is also central to substance addiction.
What’s happening when you’re connecting to your phone at all times is that your dopamine is going up. That’s making your brain want more of those interactions so that the dopamine spikes continue, and you’re stuck in a cycle.
Our brains can only process small amounts of information at a time. The more we divide our attention, the lazier our brains become. You’re doing less analytical and higher-level thinking when you’re always looking at your phone.
Recently, psychologists and computer scientists discovered the more interacting you’re doing with your phone, the nosier your brain signals become. Yet simultaneously, you’re over-relying on your phone to the point that it creates mental laziness. Are you addicted to your smartphone or is it just a habit?
Social Media Addiction Facts
For many people, the problematic behavior isn’t necessarily related to the phone itself, instead, the issue is with the apps they use on their phone – namely, social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.
As is the case with other behavioral addictions, it can impact your brain when you use social media frequently. Those impacts can be damaging. You may be so consumed with scrolling or getting likes that it interferes with other parts of your life and your real-life relationships.
According to social media addiction statistics, up to 10% of people in the United States have social media addiction. In reality, it may be much higher than even that number, with higher numbers seen in younger age groups. Worldwide statistics show up to a billion people may be experiencing social media addiction.
For Facebook users, it can signal increases in dopamine in your brain. Your brain then identifies this dopamine-triggering activity as rewarding, so excessive cell phone use results in positive reinforcement. Your brain wants to repeat rewarding activities. You may feel even more dopamine when you share content and receive positive feedback.
The feelings you experience or the rush you get is temporary. Since it’s quick, you’ll do it more often and for hours a day seeking those dopamine rushes. This is very much how substance addiction works, at least as far as the brain is concerned.
Harmful effects of time on social media and your mobile device can include:
- Low self-esteem because you’re constantly comparing your own life to others and feeling you don’t measure up
- Isolation and loneliness
- Social anxiety disorder
- Other mental health issues
- Fear of missing out
- Disruptions in sleep
- Decreased physical activity, impacting your overall health
- Problems in performance at school or work
- Neglecting your relationships in real life
- Inability to empathize with other people
How Do You Know If Your Phone or Social Media Use is a Problem?
So are you addicted to social media sites or your phone?
The following are some signs and things to look for:
- You have a hard time in daily life completing tasks at home, school, or work
- You may find that you’re often working later than you planned to because you didn’t otherwise finish work or tasks that needed to be done.
- A sign of problematic phone or social media use could be not engaging with coworkers, family, and friends. You may withdraw from your social life.
- Often hiding or trying to escape to use your phone or checking social media in secret is a possible red flag.
- Fear of missing out on what’s happening in the news or on social media could indicate that you have some level of addiction to your phone.
- If you leave your phone at home, you might feel panic or anxiety
- When you try to cut back on your smartphone or social media use, you could feel anger, irritability, restlessness, or even have cravings—these are withdrawal symptoms
- Constantly checking your phone, for no specific reason
- Using your phone while driving, or in other situations where it may cause a negative impact
What Can You Do?
There are things you can do on your own to break a potential smartphone or social media addiction once you answer the question: are you addicted to your smartphone?
First, recognizing that you have a problem is essential. Some apps can keep track of your usage. Seeing how much time spent on your device or particular social media usage or social networking sites can be eye-opening.
Look for patterns in that usage, and that can help you identify possible triggers. For example, it may be that you have an undiagnosed mental health disorder such as anxiety. You could be relying on your device to self-soothe. By learning more about your patterns and triggers, you might get professional help for the actual issue.
Start to set boundaries for yourself and build up coping skills that you can rely on when you urge to reach for the phone.
To hold yourself accountable, let someone you trust know that you’re working to reduce your phone usage.
You can start slow; If you take self-help steps and still can’t break your problematic patterns, you should call (858) 258-9883 and talk to a professional at The Mental Health Center of San Diego. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is an excellent way to stop compulsive behaviors and find better ways to cope with emotions that may be uncomfortable for you.