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Addicted to Your Smartphone? Here's What to Do

Why smartphones hook us in, plus tips on reclaiming your time and concentration.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

I'll admit it: I check my smartphone compulsively. And the more I use it, the more often the urge to look at it hits me. 

In the orthodontist's office. Walking my kids to school. In meetings. Even while making breakfast. Sometimes it is in my hand before I even know what I'm searching for. Sometimes I tap the screen absent mindedly -- looking at my email, a local blogger, my calendar, and Twitter.

I'm not the only one struggling with this very modern compulsion. According to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center, 46% of all American adults now own a smartphone -- up a whopping 25% from 2011. 

And smartphone use can get very heavy. In a study of 1,600 managers and professionals, Leslie Perlow, PhD, the Konosuke Matsushita professor of leadership at the Harvard Business School, found that:

  • 70% said they check their smartphone within an hour of getting up.
  • 56% check their phone within an hour of going to sleep.
  • 48% check over the weekend, including on Friday and Saturday nights.
  • 51% check continuously during vacation.
  • 44% said they would experience "a great deal of anxiety" if they lost their phone and couldn't replace it for a week.

"The amount of time that people are spending with the new technology, the apparent preoccupation, raises the question 'why?'" says Peter DeLisi, academic dean of the information technology leadership program at Santa Clara University in California. "When you start seeing that people have to text when they're driving, even though they clearly know that they're endangering their lives and the lives of others, we really have to ask what is so compelling about this new medium?"

Hook or Habit?

Whether smartphones really "hook" users into dependency remains unclear. 

But "we already know that the Internet and certain forms of computer use are addictive," says David Greenfield, PhD, a West Hartford, Conn., psychologist and author of Virtual Addiction: Help for Netheads, Cyber Freaks, and Those Who Love Them

"And while we're not seeing actual smartphone addictions now," Greenfield says, "the potential is certainly there."

A true addiction entails a growing tolerance to a substance (think drugs or alcohol) so you need more to get "high," uncomfortable symptoms during withdrawal, and a harmful impact on your life, Greenfield says. 

Computer technologies can be addictive, he says, because they're "psychoactive." That is, they alter mood and often trigger enjoyable feelings. 

Email, in particular, gives us satisfaction due to what psychologists call "variable ratio reinforcement." That is, we never know when we'll get a satisfying email, so we keep checking, over and over again. "It's like slot machines," Greenfield says. "We're seeking that pleasurable hit." 

Smartphones, of course, allow us to seek rewards (including videos, Twitter feeds, and news updates, in addition to email) anytime and anywhere. Is such behavior unhealthy?

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