Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Can You Get Addicted to Your Smartphone?

A new study suggests we are more dependent on smartphones than you might think

The rise of the smartphone has opened up a whole new world of possibilities to the average user. Not only can we use them to stay in touch with anyone else in the world (and vice-versa), but they can also be used for just about anything else we can think of doing with them. Whether it be email, Internet surfing, Twitter, Facebook, GPS applications, weather information, games, or taking a quick picture, these smartphones are amazingly handy.

Communications researchers have also suggested that cellular communication has become an essential part of social connectedness, especially among young people. Staying connected means creating a "psychological neighbourhood" consisting of all the people in our lives who can be reached with a single telephone call. Smartphones have also meant almost total liberation from the landlines used by previous generations.

But what happens when people who depend on their smartphones are cut off from these handy devices? How do we handle losing the ability to communicate and interact with the outside world? Research looking at the psychological effect of cellphone withdrawal has shown that heavy users become anxious if they are separated from their phones even for a short period of time. This emotional effect strongly suggests that people who use their smartphones heavily develop a psychological dependence that may actually be unhealthy if taken to extremes.

And the effect of this dependence doesn't appear to be limited to just our emotions. According to James Harkin, author of the book Mobilization: the Growing Public Interest in Mobile Technology, mobile phones "function as comfort objects, antidotes to the hostile terrain of wider society" and, in a real sense, become extended parts of ourselves, an "an umbilical cord, anchoring the information society's digital infrastructure to our very bodies." This is understandable enough considering that young adults (aged 18 to 24) send an average of more than 100 daily text messages while also checking their cellphones about 60 times a day. Because many people use their smartphones as alarm clocks, they often keep them under their pillow or on their nightstand so they are available at all times.

This sense of attachment seems to stem from the fear of missing an important call, message, or simply being cut off from information about the outside world. The constant need to check messages and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter has generated a new form of social anxiety, which has earned the pet name of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Operationally defined as "the fears, worries, and anxieties people may have in relation to being out of touch with the events, experiences, and conversations happening across their extended social circles," FOMO tends to be a general form of anxiety stemming from not being online.

As for the fear of being out of mobile phone contact specifically, there is another term you should be aware of: nomophobia ("no-mobile-phone-phobia"). This new syndrome has been proposed to help explain the stress that people who ordinarily depend on being connected to the rest of the world through technology are deprived of that contact for any length of time.

One theory that seems to make sense of why FOMO and nomophobia are so common is known as the extended self theory. First proposed by Schulich School academic, Russell Belk, this theory proposes that our possessions, whether intentionally or unintentionally, become an extension of ourselves. Just as we might control an arm or a leg, we also view possessions such as a car, a home, or a smartphone as parts of our body. That means that losing these possessions, whether temporarily or not, can leave us feeling diminished as a result, much in the same way that losing use of an arm or a leg would (if not to the same degree). For people separated from their smartphones, that could lead to that same sense of losing part of themselves.

But along with the emotional sense of loss is the very real loss of information that comes with being separated from the Internet-driven reality most of us take for granted. Having virtually any fact available at our fingertips creates an enriched environment that may make it more difficult to process information when we're cut off. Would this make basic cognitive skills such as memory and problem-solving more difficult for heavy smartphone users who are forced to do without them?

A new research study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication suggests that even a temporary loss of smartphone use can have an impact on the ability of heavy smartphone users to complete simple puzzles. Conducted by Russell B. Clayton of the University of Missouri and a team of fellow researchers, the study used 136 journalism undergraduates, of whom 117 were iPhone users (the others were either Android or Galaxy S5 users). After completing surveys measuring phone use and general attitudes about media use, those participants who were iPhone users were recruited for the experiment that followed (only 41 agreed).

The researchers then conducted a laboratory experiment looking at the emotional, cognitive, and physiological effects that not having access to an iPhone had on users trying to solve word puzzles. All of the participants completed the puzzles in two sessions (one with the iPhone and the other without). Because of the way the experiment was set up, none of the participants knew what it was really about. All participants were told that the study was looking at how quickly they could complete word puzzles as well as the effectiveness of the blood pressure cuff they were asked to wear.

When phones were taken away, they were placed out of reach but still visible to the participants. They were told that this was necessary due to "interference" between the phone and the test equipment. Along with blood pressure and heart rate measurement, participants were also asked to complete psychometric tests of anxiety and discomfort.

As part of the experiment, all participants who had their phones taken away received phone calls while they were trying to complete the word puzzles (the silent mode had been secretly disabled). After six rings, the call ended. During sessions when the participants had their phones with them, the silent mode was on at all times.

What the results showed was that heavy iPhone users who were separated from their phones experienced elevated heart rates, elevated blood pressure and feelings of unpleasantness. Being unable to answer a phone while it was ringing produced significant symptoms of anxiety as well as affecting the ability of participants to do problem-solving tasks. For participants who had their phones while solving puzzles (even when they weren't using the phones to solve the puzzles), cognitive performance, blood pressure, and heart rate were all normal.

So, do smartphones become part of the extended self the way the researchers predicted? The results do seem to suggest that being separated from an iPhone while solving puzzles can cause problems with attention and concentration, even when the phone wasn't needed to help solve the puzzle. Also, being unable to answer a phone that was ringing appears to cause acute separation anxiety that can affect users both emotionally and physically.

Although this was a fairly small study with a limited sample size, these results have intriguing implications for understanding how important smartphones and other technological tools for staying connected can be. If future studies with larger sample sizes show similar findings, it could suggest that being separated from smartphones for any length of time has a far greater impact than any of us realize.

So, are we addicted to our smartphones? You be the judge.

More from Romeo Vitelli Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Romeo Vitelli Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today