Phone Addiction: Warning Signs And Treatment

There are over 3.8 billion smartphone users in the world; within that population, 6.3% have a phone addiction.

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What Is Phone Addiction?

Phone addiction is the obsessive use of a smartphone. The behavioral addiction is often dubbed as “nomophobia,” or the fear of being without a mobile device. There are over 3.8 billion smartphone users in the world. Research published by Virgin Mobile discovered that those billions of smartphone users receive 427% more messages and notifications than they did a decade ago. They also send 278% more texts. The rise in phone use seems like a natural necessity for modern life, however, it can also cause concern and negative consequences. The heavy use of these devices has consumers questioning their cellular habits. According to Google Trends, since 2004 searches for “cell phone addiction” have been rising. 

Designed To Be Addictive 

Access to a smartphone can make life easier by making information accessible. Still, the convenience comes at a price. The devices are carefully designed to be hard to put down. Through its colors, sounds, and vibrations, the technology purposely keeps its users engaged. According to former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, features like “pull to refresh” were inspired by slot machines and other casino games. Designers and engineers meticulously develop every aspect of the device to create fanatical users. 

Negative Effects Of Phone Addiction 

Chronic phone use is a recently developed form of addiction. The American Psychiatric Association does not officially recognize the condition. Still, it is acknowledged as a behavioral addiction by many medical professionals and researchers worldwide. According to several studies, over time, the devoted use of smartphones can alter and negatively impact an individual much like gambling.

Phone addiction may lead to: 

  • Sleep deficit
  • Lower concentration 
  • Creativity blocks 
  • Aggravated ADD
  • Anxiety
  • Reduced cognition 
  • Stress
  • Loneliness
  • Insecurity 
  • Impaired relationships
  • Poor grades
  • Psychological disorders

Chronic phone use can also cause other physical dysfunctions, like GABA (a neurotransmitter in the brain) dysfunction and a loss of grey matter in the brain, which are highly correlated to substance use disorders. 

GABA Dysfunction

Chronic phone overuse is proven to change reward circuits in the brain chemically. One of the primary affected neurotransmitters is gabapentin (GABA). GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that produces a calming or euphoric effect. It can even control fear and anxiety. The inhibitor plays a significant role in addiction by rewarding substance use and reinforcing addictive behaviors.

Research shows that chronic phone use can increase or decrease GABA production. Disturbances to the GABA system are proven to be a warning sign of addiction. In a study by the Radiological Society of North America, heavy phone use was linked to an upsetting ratio of GABA to other neurotransmitters. When the teen test subjects received cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for the disorder, their brain chemistry reverted to a non-addicted ratio. 

Decrease In Grey Matter 

Grey matter in the brain is connected to the part of the central nervous system responsible for enabling individuals to control movement, memory, and emotions. A recent study scanned participants’ brains with a phone addiction and discovered a change in their brain’s grey matter. According to the researchers, the physical shape and size of their brains resembled that of drug users. Grey matter volume among people addicted to their phones diminished in critical areas, a condition similarly observed in people with a substance use disorder.

Suicide

It is important to note that there has also been a rise in depression and suicide among teenagers in recent years correlated to phone addiction. Adolescent girls are particularly susceptible to the risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2010-2015, the suicide rate rose by 65%. At the same time, the rate of severe depression among girls increased by 58%. Many researchers believe the rise in suicides is a direct reflection of the negative effects of phone addiction. 

Signs And Symptoms Of Phone Addiction

There is a fine line between healthy and compulsive mobile use. Depending too heavily on a device can lead to a mobile addiction. A scholarly journal published by the National Library of Medicine reports that 6.3% of the overall population is addicted to their smartphone. The pattern of abuse is greatest among those under 30, with an average of 16% of adolescents addicted. Though chronic phone use is prevalent, how can you distinguish between “normal” phone use and phone addiction? 

Below are a few ways to discern if someone has signs and symptoms of a phone addiction:

  • Lying about smartphone use.
  • Loved ones expressing concern.
  • Neglect or trouble completing duties at work, school, or home.
  • More and more time using a phone.
  • Checking peoples’ profiles repeatedly due to anxiety.
  • Accidents or injury due to phone use.
  • Working later to complete tasks.
  • Weak or non-existent social life.
  • Isolation from loved ones. 
  • A feeling of lack of connection.
  • Angry or irritated if phone use is interrupted. 
  • Getting up at night to check a phone.
  • Reaching for the phone the moment they are alone or bored.
  • Phantom vibrations (thinking the phone buzzes when it doesn’t).
  • Limiting phone use is difficult.
  • Craving access to a smartphone or another device.
  • Fear of missing out.

It is essential to remember that there is no specific amount of time, frequency, or messages sent that indicates phone addiction. Yet an accumulation of the above warning signs is an indicator of an underlying phone use problem.

Phone Addiction Treatment 

Phone addiction is pervasive. Still, there are ways to combat and treat the disorder. There are specialized addiction treatment centers that can help. Some of these detox centers offer a variety of programs to help their patients kick the digital addiction. 

Below are a few treatment approaches used by facilities to treat phone addiction:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy 
  • Group therapy
  • Marriage or couples counseling
  • Group support (e.g., Internet Tech Addiction Anonymous) 
  • Psychotherapy 
  • Motivational interviewing
  • Medication-assisted treatment

Don’t Let Phone Addiction Win

Though smartphones are an excellent resource, they also can be potentially dangerous tools, especially for children and young adults. The extent of issues that arise from excessive phone use is still not completely understood. However, as science continues to link health problems to cell phone use, it is essential to be proactive.

If you are worried about yourself or a loved one, there are steps you can take. Do not let a phone consume anyone’s life. Take an empowered step towards recovery, possibly by delineating a short timeframe in which to complete an all-out “phone detox.” If that’s not feasible for you or for the one with the problem, then bring as much awareness to the issue as you can — sometimes, being conscious of our issues and tracking our behavior as best we can is all we can do.

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