Managing Smartphone Addiction

Smartphones have become an essential part of everyday life. Globally, people spend an average of 3.75 hours a day on their smartphones. Despite all the benefits, there are concerns about addiction and overuse, particularly for younger users. Here, we explore how researchers are tackling smartphone addiction.

Why are smartphones good for society?

Smartphones enable us to be more connected than ever. In our pockets are multiple options for communication—video, audio, text—at any moment from almost anywhere.

Moreover, they enable people to connect who would never normally have connected, across geographical boundaries, over mutual interests, and more. Interests can be pursued in greater depth, with seemingly unlimited access to music, videos, and writing. You can learn about almost anything or entertain yourself with media easier than ever.

And that’s not it. Smartphones feature what would previously require a backpack full of technology and tools: camera, GPS, MP3 player, phonebook, calendar, timer, etc.

For these reasons and more, the majority of people say that smartphones are good for society. However, smartphones are a double-edged sword: with all this convenience also comes a potential for addiction.

Why are smartphones addictive?

Firstly, smartphones are almost always with us thanks to their small size. This means accessing them is often as simple as reaching in your pocket or bag.

The colourful screens, alerts from notifications, and various options for media can overstimulate the brain’s reward systems, particularly those associated with pleasure and novelty. When we receive new information or notifications, it triggers a small dopamine release, rewarding our brain and encouraging us to carry on seeking new stimuli.

Because of this, we’re conditioned to expect quick rewards when we use our phones, which is only furthered by how portable and accessible they are.

Social media and games

Furthermore, apps are designed in ways that promote addictive behaviours. Features like endless scrolling and an attractive interface resemble slot machines.

Slot machines were once an afterthought in casinos, but now they make up 70‒80% of their revenue. They are designed on a basic psychological principle that explains why apps like social media are so addictive: intermittent rewards.

On slot machines, rewards come randomly; they are spaced out in such a way that users are not always winning but are winning enough to keep playing. This balance keeps them in a state of tension and release, creating a sense that something exciting could happen at any moment.

Slot machines, like social media apps, have benefited from the use of data to know how many rewards are needed to keep people hooked. Algorithms are designed to keep users on there. But what are the consequences of getting users hooked?

Effects of smartphone addiction

Heavy smartphone use is often a symptom of other underlying problems, but it can also exacerbate them. This means that the effects can also resemble the causes, contributing to creating cyclical dependence on smartphones.

Here are the commonly listed effects:

  • Loneliness and depression;
  • Anxiety;
  • Stress;
  • Worsened attention deficit disorders;
  • Diminished ability to concentrate;
  • Disturbed sleep.

Younger smartphone users are particularly at risk for addiction and overuse, with teenagers spending an average of 9 hours a day on their smartphones.

Additionally, phone use can lead to distraction and a lack of presence, which can cause dangers in everyday life. For example, mobile phone use causes over 20% of car accidents.

How are researchers working to tackle smartphone dependence?

Tackling smartphone addiction

MDPI makes all its research immediately available worldwide, ensuring readers have free and unlimited access to the full text of all published articles. Open Access is essential to tackling issues like smartphone addiction that are affecting a broad and vulnerable section of the population.

So, let’s look at what researchers from the MDPI journal Behavioural Sciences found when they investigated smartphone and social media addiction.

Social media detox

An article looks at the effects of taking a two-week social media digital detox on problematic smartphone and social media use.

Digital detox is a popular term referring to a time when someone refrains from or reduces their usage of one or all their electronic devices or certain applications. The authors highlight how smartphones have become an almost necessary component of everyday life, so complete abstinence is very hard. Instead, they encouraged participants to take a two-week break from social media followed by a period of reduced use.

After a few challenging days of adjustment, the effects of the detox were generally positive. The participants had significant improvements in their sleep duration and quality. Moreover, they had reduced negative feelings and stress, and increases in positive feelings, productivity, and confidence.

The authors cite how easily people return to their pre-detox levels afterwards. As such, the participants made some suggestions on how to make reduced use more likely to succeed:

  • Be realistic with and personalise time restrictions;
  • Limit notifications, so you are less tempted to go on social media;
  • Some apps are more destructive to people than others, so it’s better to focus restrictions on the ones that are more addictive for individuals.

In short, the study found that a digital detox can show you the positive effects of reducing use, such as improving sleep, to inspire the active development of better habits.

Mindfulness to reduce smartphone use

Mindfulness refers to the exercise of purposefully bringing your attention to experiences in the present moment without judgement. It often revolves around meditation practices and focuses on grounding the self in the present.

An article looks at how mindfulness weakens the risk factors for adolescent smartphone addiction.

The authors suggest that anxiety is a driving factor for smartphone overuse in adolescents. This can occur because they may favour online socialisation over in-person interactions to escape feelings of anxiety. This can counterproductively cause more anxiety during in-person interactions and increase smartphone dependence.

To deal with this, they suggest using mindfulness to potentially reduce anxiety, as it can enable people to better control their attention. They cite studies that suggest mindfulness can help fight the risk factors associated with addictions, like perceived stress, anxiety, and craving. And it can help people resist social media apps that are designed to grab users’ attention.

In short, the authors suggest mindfulness may help adolescents addicted to smartphones learn to be more present and subsequently develop healthier ways to cope with undesirable emotions, therefore breaking the chain of anxiety triggering phone use.

Addiction and anxiety are highly complex topics, with many different factors affecting individuals. As such, the article’s suggestions should be seen as a starting point and not a definitive answer to addiction. It’s always worth speaking to a medical professional if you have concerns about your health.

Reducing smartphone dependence with exercise

Finally, an article examined the relationship between physical exercise and smartphone addiction in students. They used core self-evaluation in the study, which is a basic evaluation made by an individual of their own abilities and values.

The study found that physical exercise has a significant effect on students’ smartphone addictions. They cite that exercise can improve the body’s dopamine signalling ability, potentially reducing the addictive effect of apps.

Furthermore, physical exercise improved the participants’ core self-evaluations, which could also further reduce problematic smartphone use.

Again, smartphone addiction is a highly complex and individual issue. And the findings here involved noticing patterns in a large group of people whilst considering various factors. So, keep in mind that the study provides a starting point for tackling smartphone addiction broadly, not a universal solution.

Healthier smartphone use

In summary, smartphones have become an almost necessary part of everyday life. With apps designed in ways that can create addictions and cause overuse, especially in people already suffering from mental health issues, addiction is a risk.

Researchers have found taking a digital detox can help show the benefits of reducing use, encouraging the development of healthier habits. And they found that mindfulness and physical exercise can help reduce the chances of smartphone addiction.

If you’re interested in reducing your screen time, why not start with our article What is Technostress?