Problematic Smartphone Use

See also: Status Anxiety

In recent years, psychologists have started to chart the rise of a new phenomenon, which has become known as nomophobia, or fear of being without a mobile phone (smartphone or cellphone). The word itself is a contraction of ‘no mobile phone phobia’. The condition has also been labelled cellphone addiction, smartphone overuse and smartphone dependency.

More recently, to avoid stigmatisation, researchers have suggested that the most appropriate term is problematic smartphone use.

In the overall scheme of things, overuse of smartphones does not sound like a major issue. However, the problem is not so much overuse of phones themselves as overuse of social media apps and internet sites. There is growing evidence that use of social media could be fuelling mental health problems, especially among young people.

This page discusses how to identify and manage smartphone overuse, both in yourself and in others. It also considers the wider mental and physical health aspects of smartphone and social media use, and how to protect yourself and if appropriate, your children.

Defining Problematic Smartphone Use

Problematic smartphone use is a shorthand for the overuse of any digital device with internet access—it’s especially an issue for smartphones because they are so prevalent and so portable.

Problematic use is considered to be:

  • Spending excessive time and/or money on or through your device;

  • Using your device at socially-inappropriate times, such as when in company with other people—which suggests that you are replacing ‘real’ relationships with your online network; and

  • Using your device in a way that puts you or others in danger, such as when driving.

Different people tend to use their devices slightly differently. However, the general consensus is that problematic smartphone use is fuelled by the use of websites, especially social media and social networks, rather than being an issue of ‘screentime’.

Social networks

Social networks is a term used to describe any app or website that allows you to connect with other people socially, and exchange information. They include Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

They are designed to encourage ongoing use, and to be hard to leave. They feed our dopamine systems through the system of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’, and they also encourage use through the rolling nature of the feed.

Effects of Problematic Smartphone Use

The evidence suggests that problematic smartphone use can have a number of effects. These include:

Effects on mental health

Self-esteem and self-confidence can be damaged from coming to believe from social media posts that other people’s lives are ‘better’. In some people, this can lead to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

It is important to remember that what is seen on social media is carefully curated: that people only post what they want others to see.
However, there is a darker, more deliberate side to this: social media can be, and often is, used for bullying. It is often an extension of ‘real world’ bullying, but the ‘always on’ nature of smartphones and social media mean that it is hard for anyone being bullied to escape.

For more about this, see our pages on Bullying and particularly on Helping Someone to Cope with Bullying and Cyberbullying.

Symptom or Cause?

Overuse of smartphones can often be a symptom of other problems in your life, including anxiety, depression or loneliness. However, it can also cause these problems to become worse.

It is therefore not clear whether it is a symptom or a cause of the problem—or possibly both.

Effects on relationships

There are some suggestions that people who overuse their smartphones and social media find it increasingly hard to build ‘real’ relationships.

This is true both of friendships and romantic relationships. Online dating apps in particular have been associated with the rise of the ‘hook-up’ culture.  Similarly, the ready access to online pornography has been linked to unrealistic expectations about sex and relationships, and particularly a view among teenage boys that sex should degrade and demean women.

There is also growing evidence that online relationships cannot replace the human connections that are essential to good mental health. This may be one of the causes of the apparent rise in mental health problems among young people.

Effects on attention span and ability to concentrate

A number of commentators have suggested that young people, who grew up in a world of social media and smartphones, find it much harder to concentrate for long periods of time.

Anecdotally, for example, teachers comment that children find it hard to sit and read a book and expect more action. This may be the result of being able to scroll on rapidly, and it may also be associated with computer games where the action and rewards are much faster than reading a book.

Effects on physical health

Around the world, obesity and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes are increasing in young people.

There are many causes of this, including the availability of fast food, the use of ready meals and junk food as a rapid source of nutrition, and the decrease in sports at school. However, there is no question that smartphones reduce the need to get out and see people, and encourage young people to spend time indoors on their phones.

However you wrap it up, that is not going to improve anyone’s physical fitness.

Research has also suggested that many people’s smartphones carry bacteria, including some that can cause potentially lethal infections such as E. coli. Smartphone use immediately before trying to sleep has also been linked to insomnia. There are therefore a number of ways in which smartphone use may be linked to poor physical health.

Effects on financial health

The internet and smartphones are not, in themselves, a financial issue. However, internet shopping and gambling have made it much easier to spend and/or lose money.

Instead of having to physically get up and go somewhere to gamble or shop, it is now possible to do so from your home or any other location, at any time of the day or night provided that you have internet access. This has meant that problem gambling has become a much bigger issue.

Help for problem gambling

If you, or someone you know, is affected by problem gambling, you may need to seek help. Gamblers Anonymous runs a 12-step programme similar to that of Alcoholics Anonymous and also offers help such as a chat room and forum, via its website.

Managing Smartphone Use

What, therefore, can you do if you have identified that your smartphone use (or that of someone in your family) is problematic?

There are a number of ways that you can help yourself and others to overcome problems. These include behavioural and technological options.

Behavioural solutions include:

  • Understanding why and when you use your smartphone. Keep an eye on what you’re doing, and notice when you are most tempted to check your phone—then find other ways to manage those times. For example, if you check your phone when you’re alone or bored, take a book or a newspaper with you. If you use it when you’re upset, find other ways to relax and de-stress.

  • Our pages on Stress and Relaxation Techniques may be helpful.
  • Reducing or controlling your smartphone use. Set aside ‘phone-free’ times and enforce them. Put your phone onto silent, and put it away in a drawer, or in another room, where you won’t be tempted to look. Start by doing this for short periods and extend them gradually. If you really find this hard, try giving your phone to someone else to keep for the phone-free period.

  • Don’t respond immediately. If you need to have your phone with you, perhaps for work reasons, then do. However, it’s a good idea to think about whether you need to respond to emails or notifications immediately, especially if you’re not working at the time. Set aside ‘work’ and ‘home’ time and try to keep them as separate as possible.

  • Turn off your phone at night—and leave it downstairs or away from your bedroom. This will help you to sleep better, and it will also avoid you checking your phone before you have even got up in the morning. If you use your phone as an alarm—don’t. Go and buy an old-fashioned alarm clock instead.

  • Distraction techniques. Go and do something else. Go for a run or a swim and leave your smartphone at home. You actually are shallow enough that if you give your brain and body something else to do, you will be able to manage without your phone.

  • Going out and meeting friends. Many of us use our smartphones to replace real-life interactions. To stop yourself from doing this, arrange to go out and meet your friends in real life. Build and nurture your network of relationships and make it work for you.

  • Getting professional help. Smartphone or internet addiction can often by helped by techniques like cognitive behavioural therapy. If you are finding it very difficult to cut back on your use of technology, you may need to seek professional help from a counsellor or therapist.

Technological solutions include:

  • Tracking your smartphone use. There are apps that will help you see what you use your phone for. This may sound ironic—using your phone to reduce your phone use—but it can help you see which apps are a problem, or perhaps which times of day. The more you understand about your smartphone use, the easier it will be to control.

  • Setting up controls on your access time and/or apps. It is hard to be self-disciplined all the time. But if you set controls on your access time—just as you would for a child—then it at least gives you pause for thought.

  • Taking apps off your phone. It may be helpful to delete apps from your phone, especially social media. This will mean that you can only check them when you are sitting in front of a computer, making a deliberate effort, as opposed to ‘all the time’.

Managing smartphone use in others

Parents, teachers and employers may all feel a responsibility to manage smartphone use in others. They may have a duty of care to them, or they may simply wish to improve productivity and ability to work. There are a number of actions that employers, schools and parents have taken, including:

  • An absolute ban on smartphone use under certain circumstances (for example, within certain hours, or in certain places);
  • Physically removing technology during particular hours (for example, during lesson times at school, in meetings, or at night);
  • Placing restrictions on use of particular websites or apps through controls on the device or at the router or server; and
  • Teaching children and young people about appropriate use of technology, and encouraging them in good practice (for example, how to check and apply privacy settings, and use of admin mode).
  • Acting as role models by taking time out from smartphones and limiting your own use.

Moving Away from Smartphones

As you try to cut down on your smartphone use, you may find that you show ‘withdrawal symptoms’. These include irritability, anxiety, restlessness, inability to sleep and difficulty concentrating, as well as a compulsion to reach for your phone.

These will pass, especially if you don’t give in to temptation.

However, they can make it very hard to keep to your good intentions. You may find that you need help from other people, such as family or friends, or even counsellors or therapists. If so, there is no shame in seeking that help—in fact, it is far better to ask for help than struggle on alone.