Watch out: Cell phones can be addictive

Too much dependence on your smartphone isn’t smart

image of guy holding smartphone

What’s on your smartphone? The apps young men and women spend the most time on give clues about why cell phones might be addictive.


The average college student uses a smartphone for about nine hours each day.

That’s longer than many of those students spend sleeping. In fact, such extended cell phone use shows that the technology could become an addiction, according to a new study. An addiction is a type of uncontrolled and unhealthy habit.

It’s well known that people can become addicted to drugs, such as alcohol, narcotics and the nicotine in cigarettes. What’s not so well known: “People can be addicted to behaviors,” says James Roberts. He’s a marketing professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Roberts also was the lead author of the new study. It appears in the August Journal of Behavioral Addictions.  

Some cell phone users show the same symptoms that a drug addict might have, Roberts explains. Certain people use smartphones to lift their moods. And it may take more and more time on those phones to provide the same level of enjoyment.

For such people, losing a phone or having its battery die could cause anxiety or panic. That’s withdrawal, says Roberts.

Too much phone use can interfere with normal activities or cause conflicts with family and other people, he adds. Yet despite these social costs, people may not cut back on their heavy phone use. Indeed, he says, people might be unable to stop on their own.

The new study asked college students how much time they spent on different phone activities. It also asked them how much they agreed or disagreed with statements suggesting possible addiction. “I spend more time than I should on my cell phone,” said one such statement. “I get agitated when my cell phone is not in sight,” said another. (Agitated means nervous or troubled.) The more calls someone made, the more likely they were to show signs of addiction.

The data also differed a bit for men and women.

Among men, for instance, signs of a possible addiction showed a positive link, or correlation, with time spent on a Bible app and apps for reading books. As use of either app increased, so did the risk of addiction. Men’s use of social media apps, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, also correlated with risk of addiction.

Women were more likely to show signs of addiction if they often used Pinterest, Instagram, Amazon or apps that let them use their phones like an iPod. Apps for the Bible, Twitter, Pandora and Spotify showed an inverse correlation. That is, heavy use of those apps was linked to a lower risk of phone addiction. 

A correlation does not prove that one factor causes another. But those links can provide helpful clues. Roberts says the study’s results point to the types of rewards each gender might seek from cell phone use. For instance, “men use technology — cell phones in particular — more for entertainment and information,” Roberts notes.

“Women use the phone more for maintaining and nurturing social relationships,” he says. Those types of activities often take more time. And, on average, women did use phones longer each day than men did.

But simply because people used their phones a lot does not mean they were addicted.

Tracii Ryan is a psychologist at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. She’s also the lead author of a report on Facebook addiction in the same issue of the Journal of Behavioral Addictions. “Withdrawal and excessive use are certainly two legitimate symptoms of addiction,” she notes. But, she adds, “They are not the only two that would be required for a diagnosis.”

Roberts agrees. However, he points out, there isn’t a good scale yet for measuring all of the factors behind cell phone addiction.

Ryan makes a similar point about studies on Facebook addiction. “Researchers have not always measured Facebook addiction using all of the accepted symptoms of addiction,” she says. “More consistent research is needed.”

Yet Ryan’s report offers insight into the main reasons why people use Facebook. Some want to interact with friends. Some want to pass time. Some want entertainment. And some people seek companionship.

“Any one of these motivations might cause a lift in mood, which then leads to Facebook addiction,” Ryan says. Someone might turn to Facebook to relieve loneliness, for example. But that person might use the site so much that it causes problems.

“The important point to take away from both studies is that technology use can become addictive for some people,” says Ryan.

As researchers keep asking questions, ask yourself some, too: How much time do you spend with your phone or other technologies? What activities do you use them for —and why? Do you use the technology when you should be paying attention in class or to other things? And how easily can you go a day — or even a week — without a phone or logging onto a social media or networking site?

Remember, the researchers say: Technology helps when it’s a tool — not when it is an unhealthy addiction.

Power Words

addiction  The uncontrolled use of a habit-forming drug or uncontrolled and unhealthy behavior (such as video-game playing or phone texting). It results from an illness triggered by brain changes that occur after using some drugs or after engaging in some extremely pleasurable activities. Persons with an addiction may feel a compelling need to use a drug (which can be alcohol, the nicotine in tobacco, a prescription drug or an illegal chemical such as cocaine or heroin), even when the user knows that doing so risks severe health or legal consequences. (For instance, even though 35 million Americans try to quit smoking each year, fewer than 15 out of 100 succeed. Most begin smoking again within a week, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.)

app  Short for application, or a computer program designed for a specific task.

correlation   A mutual relationship or connection between two variables. When there is a positive correlation, an increase in one variable is associated with an increase in the other. (For instance, scientists might correlate an increase in time spent watching TV with an increase in risk of obesity.) Where there is an inverse correlation, an increase in one value is associated with a decrease in the other. (Scientists might correlate an increase in TV watching with a decrease in time spent exercising each week.) A correlation between two variables does not necessarily mean one is causing the other. 

diagnosis  Identification of a causal problem or disease. 

marketing  The strategy for getting people to adopt a new policy or to buy new products or services. In many cases, the marketing may rely on advertising or getting celebrities and other trendsetters to endorse a policy or product.

media      (in the social sciences) A term for the ways information is delivered and shared within a society. It encompasses not only the traditional media — newspapers, magazines, radio and television — but also Internet- and smartphone-based outlets, such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook and more. The newer, digital media are sometimes referred to as social media.

nicotine  A colorless, oily chemical produced in tobacco and certain other plants. It creates the ‘buzz’ effect associated with smoking. It also is highly addictive, making it hard for smokers to give us their use of cigarettes. The chemical also is a poison, sometimes used as a pesticide to kill insects and even some invasive snakes or frogs.

psychology  The study of the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behavior. Scientists and mental-health professionals who work in this field are known as psychologists.

smartphone  A cell (or mobile) phone that can perform a host of functions, including search for information on the Internet.

social media     Internet-based media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr that allow people to connect with each other, often anonymously, and share information.

social network    Communities of people that are interrelated owing to the way they relate to each other, such as sharing details of their life and interests on Twitter or Facebook, or perhaps belonging to the same sports team, religious group or school.

symptom  Sign that suggests or indicates a possible disease or condition.

technology  The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

withdrawal  (in medicine) An almost disease-like syndrome that can develop after animals (including people) attempt to stop using a drug (including alcohol) to which they have become addicted. Shaking, sweating, trouble sleeping, anxiety, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramping, muscle aches and flu-like symptoms can occur and last for days.

More Stories from Science News Explores on Health & Medicine