Our relationship with technology has changed unrecognisably over the last two decades, and no facet of this relationship is more constant, explicit, or potentially damaging than our use of smartphones. For the majority of us, our smartphones are simply an extension of our body, our lives, and our work, and the notion of life without one is inconceivable, either constituting a pipe dream or a nightmare.

Our phones are the Swiss army knife of modern life: we have come to rely on them for directions, communications, time-keeping, entertainment, work. Understandably, therefore, we are all largely guilty of over-using our handsets. So, are we all addicted to our phones, or is addiction something deeper?

Essentially, yes, over-use and addiction are two different things. In basic terms, if your use isn’t harming yourself or others, if it doesn’t interfere with your life in a detrimental way, then it doesn’t constitute an addiction. Explained like this, many of us might sigh with relief that we aren’t, then, addicted. But perhaps we are doing ourselves more harm than we might think, more harm to our relationships, more harm to our bodies, but we justify these losses on some level because we our phones are so ingrained in our everyday life.

In order to deal with a problem, you first have to accept that it exists. This requires self-reflection and honesty. A few questions to consider that might help you better understand your relationship to your phone include:

  • Do you struggle to leave your phone out of sight and reach? Does this induce feelings of anxiety or tension?
  • Do you check your phone first thing in the morning and last thing at night?
  • Do you check your phone repeatedly in social situations?
  • Do you find you are compelled to use your phone when you feel bored, stressed, or anxious?
  • Do you use your phone when you know you aren’t supposed to: when driving, or in meetings?
  • Is it difficult to leave notifications unread and unanswered for any length of time?
  • Are you often surprised by the amount of time you have spent on your phone?
  • Do you feel you need the newest handset or apps?
  • Do you often feel or hear ‘phantom alerts’, believing that you felt your phone vibrate or heard it ring, only to find that’s not the case?

If you answered yes to many or all of these questions, you may be addicted to your smartphone, or at least have a dependent relationship that may be worth addressing.

How does this relationship begin? A smartphone addiction could be explained by the idea of ‘contingent communication’. Our first experience of contingent communication happens when we are babies. You cried when you were hungry, and your caregivers – hopefully – responded by feeding you. This effective and satisfying response reinforces your attachment to your caregivers. These call-and-response behaviours quickly become deeply rooted in our psychological networks, and the same thing is happening in our use of smartphones. We put out a message and, if we continually and quickly get a response, we form an attachment based on expectation of this happening each time we use our phones.

How can an attachment develop into an addiction? Rather than being comparable to an addiction to alcohol or drugs, a phone addiction is best understood as being similar to a gambling addiction. Both smartphone addiction and gambling addiction are largely rooted in the neurological impact of unpredictability. Our compulsion to check our phones is driven by the systems that govern expectation, anticipation and reward in the brain. Receiving new Instagram followers, Facebook likes, or texts from someone we like floods the brain with dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical associated with reward and is therefore pleasurable, so it’s simple to understand that we would want more of it. So how do we go about chasing it down? By sustaining and ultimately increasing our smartphone use and time on social media, or wherever it is that we get our hit.

Dopamine and reward is a facet of all addiction, but it is uncertainty that connects phone addiction to gambling. We don’t know if that vibration signals good news or bad news, so we always go back to check, in case it’s the former. We don’t know whether the email we just received needs answering as soon as possible, or what opportunities we may be missing out on. Not knowing what we might have missed on Facebook or Instagram creates excitement and anticipation in the brain, and we are compelled to log in and check, in the same way an individual with a gambling addiction may be compelled to throw the dice. We seemingly can’t get enough of our social networks, emails, the Internet in general, because we cannot prescribe a predictable pattern to it. The more unpredictable something is, the more addictive it can be. This type of psychological hook goes some way to understanding the complicated nature of interpersonal emotionally manipulative or abusive relationships also: the reward can be so intense when it does arrive, that we are compelled to wait until we feel the same reward again, and tend to minimise the time and behaviour in between as it doesn’t fit into the pattern we wish to see.

A further comparison with gambling involves a network called the ‘Ludic Loop’. The ludic loop is something that slot machines have perfected, and we also see it happening with smartphone use. By the time you have checked Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Instagram, it’s time to check Facebook again – and on and on. This loop lulls you into a pattern which feels peaceful, and time elapses beyond your conscious estimation.

Our relationship with our smartphone, though potentially damaging, may be rooted in something intrinsically human and essentially positive – particularly in terms of social media. As explored in Psychology Today, our habitual public updates, sharing and online conversation are arguably driven by a desire for connection. We are deeply social beings, and social networks provide a platform that has the potential to satisfy our need to be seen and to be heard. A lot of how we feel, think, and behave is driven by how we see ourselves through the eyes of other people. How much this means to us is not something to be disdainful about – it’s fundamental to our experience and our evolutionary make up. ‘Theory of mind’ is integral to normal cognitive development in early life; it’s this that enables us to see through the eyes of other people, to understand their behaviours and speculate about their inner world. It is this, therefore, that enables us to be empathetic, to behave considerately, and to build and maintain healthy relationships. As our cognitive development is largely formulated around other people, it’s in many ways the most normal thing in the world to seek validation and self-worth from our peers. As anyone who has felt high over the number of likes on their photo, or despaired over not being acknowledged will know, however, this can become a harmful cycle.

The ease of communicating with others can also potentially damage our relationships with those in our direct personal circle. We feel offended and/or anxious if our WhatsApp message is sent, received, and read with no immediate response. We are more curt and less polite with our colleagues, friends, and family because it costs us nothing to send a text or email; there are no practical obstacles to communicating our thoughts and wants and so we direct them towards other people without pause for thought. Many of us feel immense pressure to respond to our messages quickly, leading to anxiety when we forget to for a matter of hours or days, but many of us exert the same pressure on those around us and therefore encourage the same pattern. 

You may be reading this article and thinking, ‘that’s all well and good, but the thing is, I need my phone, otherwise I couldn’t possibly get as much done in the time I do’. This encapsulates how a lot of us feel about our smartphones, but the idea that they enable us to get more done could be a fallacy. Smartphones, which empower us to deal with multiple demands at once, to answer emails while we’re doing another job, can make us feel like multi-tasking heroes.  According to Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT interviewed in the Guardian, the brain is not designed to multi-task. What we are really doing is switching from one task to another very quickly, and incurring a cognitive loss every time we do so. Multi-tasking increases the levels of the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline in the body, increasing anxiety and leading to impulsive or aggressive behaviours. Smartphones also negatively affect our ability to concentrate. Research has shown that knowledge that an email or notification is sitting unattended to on your phone reduces your IQ by ten points when trying to focus on a different task.

What can you do to build a healthier relationship with your smartphone?

  • Turn off all notifications that aren’t possibly urgent
  • Cut down use on most used apps: if Instagram is your cat-nip, be diligent and stick to checking it once a day
  • Dedicate yourself to maintaining phone-free zones in life and in your home: during dinner, when engaged with social events, in the bedroom. Use your phone as an alarm? Buy an alarm clock
  • Replace phone habits with something else: pick up a book, write a few words in a journal, listen to some music, go for a walk, do some stretching
  • If you feel unable to take any of these steps, it might be worth talking to someone about it. A therapist can help you explore deep-rooted issues around anxiety, self-worth, and addictive behaviours that might be keeping you stuck in a problematic relationship with your smartphone