Smartphones and other digital devices have helped individuals keep in touch with their loved ones, stay informed and work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. According to Pew Research Center, access to the internet has become essential for 53% of Americans during this unprecedented time in public health history. Mobile device usage has also enabled children to participate in remote learning, with about 29% of parents reporting their children have to use smartphones to do their schoolwork.
While smartphones help us work, entertain ourselves and perform daily tasks, using them too much can lead to smartphone addiction. In a recent study about smartphone addiction and sleep published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, 39% of young adults surveyed in the U.K. said they were addicted to their phones.
The signs and symptoms of smartphone addiction are similar to those of other addictions such as compulsive gambling and drug abuse. These include anxiety, depression and behavioral issues, as well as strained personal relationships. For example, a person struggling with gambling may become easily irritated when they cannot place a wager. In individuals with smartphone addiction, feelings of anxiety or irritability arise when they are not near their phones.
Smartphone Addiction Statistics
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and social distancing requirements, smartphone use has increased. According to Ofcom, a communications regulator, average mobile phone use surged during the early weeks of the pandemic in the U.K, with call times increasing from three minutes and 40 seconds before the lockdown to five minutes and 26 seconds after the lockdown.
Increased phone time does not necessarily indicate smartphone addiction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic; however, related trends, such as the growing number of online gambling and gaming users, directly correlate to increased smartphone use. Online gaming and gambling addictions are growing amid the pandemic. Factors in the rise include feelings of isolation and reduced financial stability due to the economic downturn.
Smartphone addiction is not new. In its 2019 mobile fact sheet, Pew Research Center reports that 81% of Americans owned a smartphone — up from 35% in 2011. At the time, Americans spent a lot of time on their smartphones, too, checking it 96 times daily (or roughly once every 10 minutes), according to a report from tech device insurance and support firm Asurion. In fact, “nomophobia,” a term that describes the fear of being without a smartphone, was the People’s Word of 2018 according to the online Cambridge Dictionary.
The following usage and smartphone addiction statistics provide additional insights about the growing reliance on digital devices (both before and during the pandemic):
- A drastic spike in usage occurred in the first 90 days of the COVID-19 pandemic response. Verizon reported over 519 billion text messages and over 10 trillion megabytes of data, equivalent to 10.3 trillion Instagram photos.
- American teens and parents think that too much screen time and device usage is a problem. The Pew Research Center reports that nearly 55% of U.S. teens admit they’re addicted to their smartphones, and two-thirds of parents are worried.
- A Common Sense Media report on media use by teens and tweens says that teens spend more than seven hours on their phones each day, while tweens average almost five hours.
- Americans love their phones, with 75% saying they are addicted to them and over 65% admitting they sleep with their phones, according to Reviews.org.
- An unhealthy correlation exists between digital screens and sleep for teens; about one-third sleep with their devices, according to Common Sense Media.
- Deloitte reports that more than 90% of people use smartphones daily, and 17% of 18- to 24-year-old adults check their smartphones about 200 times a day, equal to every 7.2 minutes.
Smartphone Effects on the Brain
Experts suggest that smartphone addiction can impact brains negatively. Smartphone overuse can create unhealthy dependencies that can trigger psychological issues. Examples of smartphone effects on the brain include:
- Fear of missing out (FOMO).Research published in Cogent Psychology shows that smartphone users’ anxiety can be reinforced by their fear of missing out. FOMO describes a state of mind in which smartphone users get anxious with uncertainty. For example, not knowing what their friends are doing may leave them feeling outside of the group. As a result, they may feel less important among their group of friends. In response, they feel they must regularly check their phones to stay up to date on current news.
- Attachment. The Cogent Psychology study also discusses attachment as an effect of smartphone addiction on the brain. Attachment describes an emotional bond. In psychology, attachment theory describes the connection between human beings, such as between a newborn and a mother, and the separation experience, which can create anxiety and distress in children. Similarly, smartphone users’ attachment refers to the anxiety and stress they feel when they are separated from their phones.
- Sleep patterns. Smartphone addiction can also affect sleep patterns. A study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry investigated how smartphone addiction lowered the sleep quality of 1,164 university students. It found the sleep disturbance was prevalent among nearly 16% of the students.
Other psychological impacts of smartphone addiction include depression, anxiety and behavioral and compulsive disorders. For example, social media apps may lead users to compare themselves with others, increasing their feelings of depression. Additional psychological impacts of smartphone addiction on people’s lives include loss of focus and negative personality traits such as self-absorption.
Research also points to physical changes in the brain due to smartphone overuse. In a recent study published in Addictive Behaviors, researchers analyzed MRI images of a small group of 18- to 30-year-olds who met the criteria for smartphone addiction. The MRI data revealed “lower gray matter volume in insula and temporal cortex,” a measure of brain activity indicative of physical changes in the brain and associated with substance abuse addictions.
How Does Phone Addiction Affect Mental Health
A growing number of research studies investigate the mental health impacts of smartphone addiction and find that it affects individuals from all backgrounds. So, exactly how does phone addiction affect mental health?
The following data and statistics reveal the concerning link between smartphone addiction and severe mental health risks:
- U.S. adolescents who spend over three hours a day on social media are potentially at higher risk for mental health problems, including internalizing problems, according to a JAMA Psychiatry study.
- Excessive smartphone and social media use can raise “mental distress, self-injurious behavior and suicidality among youth”; the effect is higher among girls, according to research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
- Smartphone addicted individuals often experience increased loneliness. This can have serious mental and physical health implications, such as low sleep quality and reduced immune system function.
- Once smartphone users fall into a pattern of frequently monitoring negative news, their mood can worsen and make them more anxious. This type of activity is also known as “doomscrolling.”
- Increased parental smartphone use during the COVID-19 pandemic may be impacting children’s development.
Resources: Mental Health Impact of Smartphone Addiction
The following are useful links to resources, including studies, which offer insights, guidance and other information on smartphone effects on brains.
- Hackensack Meridian Health, “Has COVID-19 Made You Addicted to Your Phone?” — Digital dependency, which describes reliance on smartphones and social media, can lead to mental health issues.
- Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, “Addiction to Electronic Devices” — This resource offers descriptions and signs of cellphone addiction, including how it impacts relationships.
- Tech Times, “MRIs Show How Much Damage to Your Brain a Smartphone Addiction Can Inflict” — Evidence is growing that smartphone addiction can physically affect your brain, including changing its shape and size.
How to Break Smartphone Addiction
Smartphones are designed to keep users glued to their screens, and push notifications are one technique used to do this. A push notification is when a message is sent from a server to a device without the user initiating the request. These notifications arrive with sounds, alerts and images that attract smartphone users’ attention, inviting them to engage with something. Algorithms that predict user behavior and preferences and user-friendly interfaces also make it easy for people to scroll through content.
Not everyone becomes addicted, but for those who are exhibiting smartphone addiction signs, the following tips and strategies on how to break smartphone addiction may help:
- Recognize the triggers that compel you to use a smartphone. The first step is recognizing the problem. For example, a smartphone may distract you from mood swings caused by depression, stress or anxiety. But reaching for a smartphone may make these mental health issues worse. Try healthier alternatives including relaxation and stress management techniques.
- Understand how in-person interactions differ from online interactions. Social anxiety and avoidance is common in people with smartphone addictions. Taking the time to reconnect with others can help you to alleviate feelings of isolation.
- Develop coping skills. Limiting phone usage can be frustrating. But the more a person overcomes the difficulties, the more resilient they become. Relational connection, such as a good talk with a friend, can go a long way in helping you feel calm, getting others to understand you better and increasing your resilience.
- Modify smartphone use. Putting your phone away may seem like a simple step. Still, for individuals with smartphone addiction, withdrawing from their smartphones can be tough. Try turning off notifications, setting time limits and using social media limiting apps.
9 Smartphone Addiction Apps
Smartphone addiction apps can help beat smartphone addiction. Here are nine popular smartphone addiction apps that may help users decrease their dependence on smartphones.
Users can set their own rules for apps to reduce heavy usage. AppDetox also sends reminders to help you take breaks from mobile app usage.
What if you could hide social media apps and games? The Flipd app can help you unsee those distractions so you can unplug and stay on task.
Use this app to help control mobile device usage and see your virtual tree grow. But the virtual tree dies when you stop using Forest. Using this app also supports the planting of trees in Africa.
What will you do with some free time? Be more productive? With the Freedom app, gaining your time back is as easy as selecting the devices, setting your schedule and blocking apps and websites.
Offtime helps you have access to the things you need on your phone but can block you from distracting apps that take you away from time spent with family or friends.
Are you a metrics type of person? QualityTime provides an in-depth analysis of your smartphone activities and lets you curb your phone time through alerts and break notifications.
7. Screen Time
For parents wanting to limit their screen time, as well as their children’s, Screen Time may be able to help. The app shows most active times, sets time limits and filters inappropriate content.
Siempo removes distractions by interrupting you only when you want. How? Notifications from social media, email and apps can be batched together to be sent at certain times of the day.
In addition to setting goals and tracking your progress, the Space app lets you compare how you’re doing with others anywhere in the world.
Prioritizing Self-Care by Participating in Other Activities
In addition to apps, other activities can help people with smartphone addiction. This includes prioritizing self-care and participating in physical activities, such as taking up a new hobby, going for a run or walk or meditating.
- Mindful breathing. This relaxation practice can help you focus your attention on your breath and help manage mood swings.
- Exercising. Physical activity can improve your well-being, lower your stress levels and improve your mood.
- Sleeping. Moodiness, irritability and other symptoms could be made worse by lack of sleep. You should rest your mind and body for seven to nine hours every night. Endorphins created by exercise can also enhance sleep quality.
- Picking up a hobby. Set aside 10 to 15 minutes a day to actively not use your smartphone and instead pursue a new hobby. Activities can include gardening, reading or bird-watching, which, according to Audubon, has been a hobby many people have picked up during the pandemic.
Resources: Tips and Strategies for Breaking Smartphone Addiction
The following links offer useful resources —from organizations that offer treatment for people suffering from smartphone addiction to strategies and studies for breaking smartphone addiction.
- The Conversation, “Our Smartphone Addiction Is Killing Us — Can Apps That Limit Screen Time Offer a Lifeline?” — Suggestions for beating smartphone addiction include apps, persistence, goal setting and more.
- Insider, “How to Take a Break from Social Media and Why It’s So Important, According to Mental Health Experts” — Taking hourlong to weeklong breaks from social media can benefit your health and improve your happiness, according to this resource.
- ReStart, “Video Game Addiction Treatment, Screen-Time, Internet Gaming, Social Media Use” — This organization offers treatment for video game addiction and internet gaming disorder and supports other mental health conditions.
Manageable Strategies for Social Media Addictions
Smartphone addiction has the potential to become a public health issue. While it is not a formal clinical diagnosis, the body of research on the subject is growing. For example, a study published in Health Policy and Technology cites that smartphone overuse “can potentially lead to gaming disorders and internet use disorders,” and unless efforts are taken to address the issue, it “can turn into an emerging public health challenge to annihilate lives by perpetuating the socio-psychological problems.”
Human beings are social creatures. Smartphones help people interact with friends and meet new people. But when smartphone use becomes excessive and replaces face-to-face interactions, it can result in feelings of isolation. Other effects of smartphone addiction include inactivity, lack of focus and a wide range of mental health issues. Manageable strategies include taking essential steps to improve self-care, using apps that limit phone time and spending more time with others.