Phone Addiction: Signs, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Katie Rapkoch, CHPC

Published on

May 13, 2024

Updated on

January 18, 2024

Medically reviewed by

Ben Ahrens, HHP

In today’s modern age, smartphones are a part of our everyday lives—a big part. One survey found that the average American will spend 76,500 hours, or almost nine years of their life, using their mobile device[1]. This is based on the average age of acquiring a smartphone, which is now just over ten years old[2], coupled with three hours (on average) daily use. Why do people spend so much time staring at these tiny screens? The answer largely comes down to phone addiction. Studies show that not only can people have addictive behaviors around their smartphone use, but also that smartphone addiction changes key areas in the brain in a similar way to drugs[3]. The automatic feeling of needing to check your phone dozens of times a day occurs due to dysfunction in a part of the brain called the limbic system[4]. The good news is that this unproductive circuitry can be rewired thanks to neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural pathways[5]. In this article, we’ll be discussing phone addiction, including how re-origin, a neuroplasticity-based treatment program, can help you eliminate the dysfunctional brain patterns that are perpetuating your excessive smartphone use. Phone addiction is also commonly referred to as:

  • Smartphone addiction
  • Cell phone addiction
  • Mobile addiction
  • Nomophobia (fear of being without a mobile phone)

Signs of Phone Addiction

For many people, smartphones make life more convenient. They make it easy to stay in touch with friends and family, follow the news, and quickly look up information, just to name a few things. Making a few calls, sending a few texts, looking up a couple of things on the internet, and checking the weather each day is normal behavior and doesn’t equate to a cell phone addiction. Smartphone use, however, can quickly snowball into a full-blown addiction. So, how can you tell if you have an overuse problem with your mobile device? Here are some of the telltale signs:

  • Reaching for your phone the moment you’re alone, bored, anxious, or have a minute of downtime.
  • Checking your phone first thing in the morning (or even in the middle of the night).
  • Feeling anxious, panicked, upset, or short-tempered when you can’t get to your phone or respond to notifications immediately.
  • Opening certain apps numerous times per day, even if you recently checked them.
  • Spending more and more time on your phone.
  • Using your phone in inappropriate places like the bathroom, church, the dinner table, or while driving.
  • Regularly choosing phone interactions over face-to-face interactions.
  • Feeling as though your phone interferes with your job performance, school work, or relationships.
  • Getting defensive or upset when people express concern over your phone use.
  • Trying to hide your smartphone use from others.
  • Continuing to use your cell phone excessively despite negative consequences (depression, anxiety, lost time, trouble completing tasks, etc.)
  • Poor sleep.
  • Reduced ability to concentrate and think deeply or creatively.
  • When you try to limit your use, you relapse quickly.
  • Wanting to use your phone less and knowing it’s not a healthy behavior, but you can’t seem to stop.

Additionally, those with phone addiction often have overlapping conditions[6], such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and OCD. This is not surprising when you understand that all of these conditions stem from a dysfunctional limbic system, which can cause a number of symptoms and conditions.

Causes and Risk Factors of Phone Addiction

What causes someone to go from using their smartphone in a normal, controlled way to having a phone addiction? The issue is two-fold. First of all, smart devices and apps are purposely designed to addict us[7]. There are whole teams of people whose jobs revolve around using psychological tricks to grab our attention. After all, the success of their businesses depends on our use of their products. While not everyone who uses a smartphone will become addicted to it, anyone can develop this compulsion, as mobile devices are inherently addictive. Alcohol works in a similar way. Not everyone who drinks will become an alcoholic, but alcohol itself is inherently addictive. The second part of phone addiction involves conditioning, or changes in the wiring of your brain. Phone addiction begins in a part of the brain called the limbic system[4]. The limbic system is not only involved in your behavioral and emotional responses, but it also drives your primal fight/flight/freeze response. In response to stress or trauma, the limbic system can get stuck in an overactive stress response pattern. This means that it becomes hypersensitive to potential threats, seeing danger where there really isn’t any. When a person’s brain is conditioned to be in this chronic state of fear, the “ping” of their smartphone immediately triggers a subconscious belief that the phone contains important information that they need to check. This belief stimulates the stress response in the body which creates an irresistible impulse or craving to check their phone. Once the person checks their phone, they experience a moment of temporary relief or happiness, however, this behavior only serves to further reinforce the maladaptive pattern. Now, each time they indulge their craving by checking their phone, it reinforces to their subconscious mind that they’re doing the right thing, and the next time the phone “pings,” they have a stronger urge to check. This person has become trapped in a maladaptive, conditioned cycle of addiction, which causes actual changes to the circuitry of the brain[3]. While anyone is capable of getting caught in this conditioned cycle, there are a few risk factors[8] that may increase the chances of developing a phone addiction. These include:

  • Having an existing mental health condition, such as anxiety, depression, or OCD
  • Having a high chronic stress load
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Social phobia
  • Experiencing traumatic or stressful life events, especially in close succession
  • Experiencing trauma in childhood

How Phone Addiction is Diagnosed

Smartphone addiction is increasingly being recognized[9] as a type of behavioral addiction, although it is not yet recognized as such by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Even so, a qualified mental health professional can determine if you’re demonstrating addictive behavior related to cell phone use. To do this, they will ask you a number of questions about your cell phone use and how it’s affecting your life.

How Phone Addiction is Treated

Traditional treatment for phone addiction is similar to the treatment of any other addiction. The most common treatment methods are as follows:

Making Practical Changes

Type “phone addiction” into Google and you’ll be presented with dozens of articles providing self-help tips to help you overcome smartphone addiction. Common tips include:

  • Using phone apps that track screen time or block apps you wish to avoid.
  • Making rules for yourself around your phone usage.
  • Don’t charge your phone near your bed.
  • Change your phone settings (i.e. turn off notifications, set a longer passcode, remove distracting apps from your home screen, set screen to black and white, etc.)

While these tips may help temporarily curb your smartphone use, almost everyone will resume their addictive behavior within minutes, hours, or days. Why? Because these tips don’t address the underlying conditioning in the brain that’s perpetuating the addiction.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a type of talk therapy that can help illuminate the links between your thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. It can be helpful in changing certain negative behavioral patterns, however, sessions are expensive and the effectiveness of treatments can vary based on the skill of the therapist administering the therapy. Additionally, CBT typically doesn’t address the neurological glitch in the limbic system that the addiction stems from.

Meditation and Mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness can be used to become aware of your triggers and behaviors. This is a crucial step in the recovery process, as you can’t make changes until you become aware of the dysfunctional patterns that are perpetuating the addiction. At re-origin, we use elements of mindfulness in our program, but that’s only one step in a five-step process. In other words, mindfulness is certainly crucial, but on its own, it’s unlikely to help you break your phone addiction.

Recovery Centers

Some recovery centers, or rehabs, are now accepting people with phone addictions. Treatment at these centers typically involves individual and group therapy, relaxation practices, and self-reflection. While some benefit may be gained from receiving treatment at a recovery center, rehab typically costs hundreds of dollars per day, making this option inaccessible to most people. Additionally, treatment at these centers likely won’t address the neurological cause of the phone addiction.

Medications

Certain antidepressant medications are often used in conjunction with therapy to help those with addictions. These can help control compulsive behaviors and make therapy more productive. The downsides are that antidepressants don’t address the root neurological cause of the addiction. When people start to wean off antidepressants, their addiction often starts up again. This class of medications also comes with a long list of potential side effects and many people have difficulty discontinuing use.

How We Approach Phone Addiction

At re-origin, we approach phone addiction as a limbic system impairment. Phone addiction occurs when the limbic system is stuck in a chronic stress response, which can lead to a conditioned cycle of behavior and reward.

The good news is that you can retrain your brain to break excessive smart phone use. At re-origin, we focus on addressing the root cause of phone addiction: an impaired limbic system. By interrupting faulty neural pathways in the brain and calming the overactive stress response, you can make a full recovery.

Using specific neurocognitive exercises, re-origin helps you systematically work to create new, healthy neural pathways and get back to a place of safety and balance where normal, healthy phone use can resume. After rewiring your brain, a “ping” from your cell phone won’t trigger the immediate need to check your phone. Instead, you’ll be able to realize that it’s not urgent and settle back into a balanced, relaxed state. Your compulsions to check your phone every spare moment will also fall away, as your brain will no longer be conditioned to seek the reward of checking your phone.

re-origin’s approach does not chase or mask symptoms, but rather works to rewire the part of the brain (the limbic system) that is causing the dysfunction, resulting in long-lasting recovery. The program is easy to follow, self-directed, cost-effective, and takes just minutes a day to implement.

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How to Live and Cope with Phone Addiction

At re-origin, we believe that nobody should have to live or cope with phone addiction. We want you to eliminate your addiction so that you can re-engage in life and take back control of your time. Your phone addiction is a temporary state due to some faulty wiring in your brain. By applying our easy-to-follow, five-step neurocognitive technique, you can override and rewire faulty conditioning in the brain and create new, functional neural pathways. The key to overcoming phone addiction lies in applying our techniques and being persistent in your efforts. With dedication and repetition, you can create new neural pathways in your brain that are not obsessed with and dependent on your phone.

A Final Word from re-origin

If you’re suffering from phone addiction, first of all, take a deep breath—you’re human. Smartphones are designed to be addictive and it’s not your fault that you developed this addiction. While it may feel very distressing right now, phone addiction is completely reversible, as it stems from a conditioned pattern in your brain. If you’re ready to reclaim your time, life, and mental health and break free from phone addiction once and for all, get started with re-origin today. With our proprietary neuroplasticity training program, you undo the faulty wiring in your brain and make a full recovery.

FAQs

Is phone addiction a mental illness?
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Phone addiction isn’t officially recognized as a mental illness, however, addiction in general is considered a mental illness because addiction changes the brain in fundamental ways, disturbing a person’s normal hierarchy of needs and desires. The resulting compulsive behaviors that continue despite negative consequences are similar to hallmarks of other mental illnesses, such as OCD.

How does phone addiction affect your brain?
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At its core, phone addiction is a limbic system disorder that results from changes in that part of the brain[10]. Thankfully, the maladaptive patterns in the brain can be rewired using re-origin’s program, leading to full recovery.

How can I stop my phone addiction?
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In order to stop your phone addiction, it’s crucial to understand what’s causing it: conditioning in your brain. By applying re-origin’s neuroplasticity training program, you can learn to undo the underlying cause of your phone addiction, putting an end to the cycle you’re stuck in once and for all.

By

Katie Rapkoch, CHPC