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Phone Addiction: Effects, Signs, Risk Factors, And Treatment

Last Updated: November 23, 2021

Authored by Sharon Levy, MD, MPH

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

In America, 90% of adults and 75% of 12-17 year-olds own a cell phone. The number of youth using cell phones had gone up drastically since 2004, when it was a mere 44%, whereas the adults’ use has held a steady incline. With the integration of the online world into our lives via smartphones, new pathologies are developing every day. This can lead to dependence or addiction to cell phones.

Smartphone addiction signs also can suggest additional behavioral problems and disorders, such as online gambling, shopping, virtual sex addiction. Currently, the DSM-5 has only recognized compulsive gambling as a behavioral addiction, considering the rest of these types of abuse as impulse disorders. Read along further to find out what cell phone addiction is, no cell phone usage signs and symptoms, the negative effects of cell phone, and various treatment strategies.

Smartphone Addiction Overview

Repetitive behavior that disrupts functionality in daily life and interpersonal relations should be considered addictive. It is when a substance, item, or act is used to achieve satisfaction. However, with prolonged use, satisfaction is harder to reach. Eventually, it becomes a priority, making it impossible to function without.

If we accept this definition of addiction, smartphones definitely fall under that category. It can also be correlated with other behavioral disorders such as technology, gambling, and sex addiction. Smartphone addiction can be defined as excessive use of the mobile, which affects a person’s daily life and relations. The negative effects of cell phones affect not only the addict but his loved ones also.

Phone addiction has not been classified as an addiction by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-5 or IDC-11. Nevertheless, various studies have been carried out that label this excessive phone usage as addictive. According to this study, phone addiction ranges from 0% to 35%, with 48% of undergraduate university students being addicted to their phones. Another study indicates that 10% to 20% of teenagers are addicted to their phones.

many red cell phones on yellow background.

How Much Time Do People Spend With Smartphones?

A 2015 Gallup survey of smartphone users over the age of 18 carried out by the bank of America found that 52% check their phones every 5 to 10 minutes. Additionally, they stated that 37% check them while cooking, and 32% even during important meetings. Falling asleep while using a smartphone was reported by 25% of the surveyed.

What’s more, according to findings from a 2014 study on smartphones, college students show signs of anxiety when separated from their smartphones. Similarly, another study showed that the age group of 25-34 has the smartest mobile phone usage of 62%.

According to the latest survey carried out in 2020, over 65% of people sleep with their phones. They also stated that 66% of Americans check their phones 160 times a day. These are staggering numbers that indicate a problem with excessive phone usage.

Smartphone Dependence and the Brain

Individuals who excessively use mobile phones show a similarity in how their brain transmits various signals to that of behavioral addictions. The feel-good chemical called dopamine is transmitted across the brain pathways when a person is in a rewarding situation. For the majority of people, social interactions stimulate the release of dopamine. Many people use their smartphones for social interaction, and they keep on checking their mobiles to see if they got a like or a comment or a message on social media, which gives them that hit of dopamine. This eventually leads to a dependence where they are simply compelled to use it.

Smartphone Dependence Symptoms

A study done in New York City by Basch, C.H., Ethan, D., Zybert, P. et al. found that of those crossing busy intersection on the “Don’t Walk” signal, 42% was using a smartphone at the time- talking, wearing headphones or looking at the screen. This kind of behavior has influenced the tenfold increase in phone use injuries from 2005 to 2010 and is still on the rise.

Physical Signs and Symptoms

Some of the physical no cell phone usage signs include the following:

  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: seen especially in computer addicts; causes numbness in hand, thumb and little finger structural deterioration, pain, squeezing. Symptoms such as a decrease in strength are observed as well.
  • Paralysis in the neck muscles: constantly looking down while using a smartphone can cause symptoms from numbness to long-term hardening of the neck muscles.
  • Eye fatigue: constantly looking at the phone screen causes fatigue in the eyes. Eye strain, redness, and burning, as well as watery eyes, can be seen.
  • Rigidity
  • Muscle pain
  • Neck pain caused by staying in a strained position for a long time while looking at the mobile phone
  • Pain and weakness in the thumbs and wrists leading to de Quervain’s tenosynovitis

Psychological Symptoms

The psychological no cell phone usage signs and symptoms associated with cell phone addiction include the following:

  • Sleep problems: insomnia can be caused by staying awake till late hours on a smartphone. Also, continuous exposure to blue light emitted from the screen disrupts sleep quality, reflecting in decline in success in school and work.
  • Substance addiction: there is a significant correlation between cell-phone abuse, school failure, depressive symptomatology, cannabis, and other drugs, smoking, and consumption.
  • Associated psychiatric disorders and problems: anxiety, depression, and stress are observed, as well as problems with sleep and loneliness. Relationships between cell-phone abuse, chronic stress, emotional stability, and depression have also been found.
  • Drug addiction
  • Personality and psychiatric problems

Visual System:

Excessive use of mobile phones can also cause some visual signs and symptoms that include:

  • Computer Vision Syndrome
  • Ocular afflictions
  • Dryness, blurry vision
  • Ocular irritation
  • Ocular redness

Auditory System:

Auditory and tactile illusions, i.e., the sensation of having heard a ring or felt a cell phone vibration, are some auditory no cell phone usage signs of this dependence.

Neuropsychiatric symptoms:

Smartphone addiction also shows some neuropsychiatric no cell phone usage signs such as:

  • Persistent use in dangerous situations or prohibited contexts
  • Social and familial conflicts and confrontations
  • Loss of interest in other activities
  • A continuation of the behavior is observed despite the negative effects or the personal malaise caused
  • Preferring the cell phone to personal contact
  • Frequent and constant consultations in brief periods causing insomnia and sleep disturbances
  • Anxiety and loneliness when unable to send a message or receive an immediate response
  • Stress and changes in mood due to the need to respond immediately to messages
black girl holding phone at night.

A brain imaging study of 19-year-old smartphone or internet addicts showed significantly higher levels of the neurotransmitter GABA than glutamate-glutamine. This meant that there was more of the neurotransmitter that inhibits neurons than one energizing them. GABA is responsible, among other things, for motor control and vision. Therefore, with such high levels of it, these functions are slowed, resulting in poorer focus and attention. This is a big factor in the number of accidents related to smartphones.

Additional Side Effects

Apart from the above-mentioned signs, some other side effects of this addiction may manifest in some other signs that include the following:

  • Headaches due to constantly looking at the screen
  • Asocial tendencies in real life due to the popularization of social media and messaging applications online
  • Losing concentration during mobile phone use, leading to accidents and problems at work and in personal lives
  • Easy communication with everyone enables unhealthy and illegal activities, without the risk of being captured
  • Being able to interfere in people’s private lives with spyware

What is Nomophobia?

Because of certain underlying psychological factors such as low self-esteem and an extrovert personality, individuals can start overusing their mobile phones, which, in turn, can lead to nomophobia. Nomophobes are also more likely to never switch off their phones as this disconnectivity can cause them anxiety, stress, and panic attacks. According to this study about the impact of nomophobia on students of a university, there existed an inverse relationship between their nomophobia scores and their academic performance.

Woman lost hep phone on a park bench.

Nomophobic Self-Test (NMP-Q)

A study on smartphone addiction and nomophobia done by Caglar Yildirim and Ana-PaulaCorreia resulted in the development of a twenty question quiz. The first phase of this development involved “a qualitative exploration of NMP through semi-structured interviews conducted with nine undergraduate students.”

This enabled them to define four dimensions of NMP: not being able to communicate, losing connectedness, not being able to access information, and giving up convenience. After this, the NMP-Q (nomophobia questionnaire) was created. It was then tested on over 300 university students, resulting in a proof of its effectiveness for NMP detection.

  1. I would feel uncomfortable without constant access to information through my smartphone.
  2. I would be annoyed if I could not look at information up on my smartphone when I wanted to do so.
  3. Being unable to get the news (e.g., happenings, weather, etc.) on my smartphone would make me nervous.
  4. I would be annoyed if I could not use my smartphone and/or its capabilities when I wanted to do so.
  5. Running out of battery in my smartphone would scare me.
  6. If I were to run out of credits or hit my monthly data limit, I would panic.
  7. If I did not have a data signal or could not connect to WiFi, then I would constantly check to see if I had a signal or could find a WiFi network.
  8. If I could not use my smartphone, I would be afraid of getting stranded somewhere.
  9. If I could not check my smartphone for a while, I would feel a desire to check it.
  10. If I did not have my smartphone with me …
  11. I would feel anxious because I could not instantly communicate with my family and/or friends.
  12. I would be worried because my family and/or friends could not reach me.
  13. I would feel nervous because I would not be able to receive text messages and calls.
  14. I would be anxious because I could not keep in touch with my family and/or friends.
  15. I would be nervous because I could not know if someone had tried to get a hold of me.
  16. I would feel anxious because my constant connection to my family and friends would be broken.
  17. I would be nervous because I would be disconnected from my online identity.
  18. I would be uncomfortable because I could not stay up-to-date with social media and online networks.
  19. I would feel awkward because I could not check my notifications for updates from my connections and online networks.
  20. I would feel anxious because I could not check my email messages.
  21. I would feel weird because I would not know what to do.

How You Score:

  • 20: Not at all, nomophobic. You have a very healthy relationship with your device and have no problem being separated from it.
  • 21-60: Mild NMP. You get a little antsy when you forget your phone at home for a day or get stuck somewhere without WiFi, but the anxiety isn’t too overwhelming.
  • 61-100: Moderate NMP. You’re pretty attached to your device. You often check for updates while you’re walking down the street or talking to a friend, and you often feel anxious when you’re disconnected. Time for a digital detox?
  • 101-120: Severe NMP. You can barely go for 60 seconds without checking your phone. It’s the first thing you check in the morning and the last at night and dominates most of your activities in-between.

If your score suggests that you are suffering from nomophobia, It might be time for a serious intervention. To find out more about technology addiction and how to fight it, call now.

Dangers of Addiction to Smartphone

Cell phone addiction can cause various severe consequences. Some of the negative effects of cell phones are listed below:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia and other sleep-related problems
  • Poor academic or work performance
  • Problems in marriage and relationships
  • Compulsive mobile users often use them during driving, which can make them take their hands off the wheel, their eyes off the road, or their mind off driving. This distraction can and does cause life-threatening accidents.
woman with a phone in café.

Cell Phone Addiction Risk Groups

Some people are more at risk of developing phone addiction as compared to others. This is discussed in-depth below:


Teenagers are the most at risk of developing an addiction to their mobile phones as compared to individuals in the other age brackets. They tend to be more active on social media and dating websites, which can cause them to compulsively use mobiles for a longer period of time, thus may also result in social network abuse. According to the study about teenagers’ psychological and physiological health in correspondence with phone addiction, 33% of 13-year-olds never switch off their phones. This study also stated that the younger a teenager acquires a cell phone, the more their chances of being addicted to it. This usage pattern tends to decline later on in life.

Young Girls

Girls are more at risk of developing an addiction to mobiles as compared to boys since girls use them primarily for their social interactions. On the other hand, boys tend to use mobiles more in risky situations and prefer actual social contact.

Certain Personality Traits

According to this research, individuals with certain personality traits and mental health disorders are more likely to be addicted to their mobiles as compared to others.

These traits or conditions include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Low impulse control
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Being highly extrovert

These mental health conditions fuel excessive mobile use, which can, in turn, aggravate these symptoms, which will then cause more excessive mobile usage, and this cycle continues with one condition fueling the other and vice versa.

Environmental Or Social Pressures

Certain environmental, social, and peer pressure can also cause excessive mobile usage. When people all around a person are fixated on their mobiles, the person will also be tempted to use it just to fit in if nothing else. This can eventually lead to excessive mobile usage and its dependence.

Mobile Addiction Treatment

Having cell phone addiction does not mean the end of the road. There are several treatment options that can help one overcome this dependence and lead a normal addiction-free life without the negative effects of cell phones. There are several treatment approaches for phone addiction, which might include therapies, medication, and support groups.

These are discussed below:


Some of the successful therapies that have shown promising results in this regard include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – it aims to address the interaction of thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and behaviors. It helps patients recognize thoughts and feelings that cause them to excessively use their mobiles and then teaches them ways to deal with those emotions in a healthy and productive manner.
  • Motivational Interviewing (MI) – Motivational Interviewing is a patient-centered and directive approach that emphasizes personal choice and responsibility. Individuals who deny having a problem with their excessive mobile usage can benefit from this therapy approach since it teaches them to take responsibility, acknowledge the problem, and then devise ways to deal with the problem.
  • Mindfulness Behavioral Cognitive Treatment (MBCT) – Mindfulness Behavioral Cognitive Treatment (MBCT) or Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) is a psychoeducational intervention that combines traditional cognitive-behavioral relapse prevention strategies with meditation training and mindful movement. The main aim of this therapy is to help patients deal with cravings and difficult emotions so that they are able to tolerate them and channelize them in a healthier manner and overcome the negative effects of cell phones.
Doctor consult in psychotherapy session.

Complementary Treatment Approaches

There are certain complementary treatment approaches that have proved to be successful for cell phone addiction.

These Include:

  • Family Therapy – Family therapy involves nurturing communication and cohesion within families, so the underlying causes of addiction can be dealt with.
  • Therapeutic Recreation – Therapeutic recreation is a professional intervention that provides quality leisure experiences and develops personal and environmental strengths that help in improving the well-being of the patients. These can include family and outdoor activities, sports, wilderness experiences, and others.
  • Music Therapy – Music therapy has been proven successful for various types of addictions as it helps the patients feel soothed and relaxed. This helps them to avoid triggers such as anxiety and stress, which are usually the main causes of dependence.
  • Art Therapy – Art therapy also helps to teach patients self-control, which helps them overcome their dependence. This therapy may be done alone or in a group setting.


Although there are no FDA-approved medications to help treat phone addiction, certain medications can be used as a combination with psychotherapy to ensure better recovery rates.

These Medications Include:

Support Groups

There are several support groups that help patients with phone addiction, internet addiction, and other technology addictions. Through these support groups, patients can find individuals who are going through similar circumstances and problems. This helps them make a connection with them, which increases their motivation to overcome dependence together. Internet and Tech Addiction Anonymous (ITAA) is a similar 12-step program based on the model of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which can be joined by people addicted to mobiles if they wish to find support and guidance in overcoming the negative effects of cell phones.

Tips To Break This Addiction

According to this research, the people who are addicted to smartphones are usually the ones who are trying to avoid difficult situations in their lives that they feel they cannot resolve. Excessive mobile usage acts as an outlet for all their negative and stressful emotions. However, there are certain tips that a mobile addict can adopt to break his dependence.

These Include the Following:

  • Resolving the underlying issues such as anxiety, stress, and other triggers that are causing excessive mobile usage.
  • Removing time-consuming apps and games from their cell phones.
  • Silenting the app notifications and only allowing the most important ones so that the addict is not compelled to look at his mobile every time he hears a notification sound.
  • Try to place some blockage on the mobile, so the addict is constantly reminded that he is not supposed to use it excessively. This can include thought-provoking screensavers and background images.
  • Try to charge mobile phone in a different room from where they are sitting.
  • Develop hobbies that will keep them occupied so that they do not feel the need to use their mobiles out of boredom.
  • Expect some setbacks and relapses along the way, and don’t be discouraged by these setbacks.

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Published on: December 8th, 2017

Updated on: November 23rd, 2021

About Author

Sharon Levy, MD, MPH

After successful graduation from Boston University, MA, Sharon gained a Master’s degree in Public Health. Since then, Sharon devoted herself entirely to the medical niche. Sharon Levy is also a certified addiction recovery coach.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.

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