Phone Addiction: Symptoms, Psychological Effects, and Tips for Recovery

phone addiction

American adults spend an average of 4.5 hours a day on their phones; teens spend even more, averaging a whopping 8.5 hours per day. [1] Clearly, we’re all using our cell phones more and more frequently – for some of us, cell phone use can become an addiction.

Cell phone addiction is a very real and common problem, and over 50% of U.S. adults say that they’re addicted to using their phones. Phone addiction can cause serious mental health effects when left unaddressed. But with the right support, you can overcome phone addiction and free yourself from its shackles.

What is phone addiction, and is phone addiction real?

Phone addiction is when you can’t stop looking at or using your cell phone, even when doing so causes significant harm to your life. Phone addiction is about more than just using your phone every day – it’s about feeling the irresistible urge to use your phone even when it’s damaging your relationships, finances, or mental health.

Reports show that phone addiction is a very real problem, but it’s something we’re still learning about. It’s not yet recognized as an official mental health diagnosis because we need more research on it.

What are the top 10 signs of phone addiction?

A great majority of us have smartphones that we use multiple times every day. So how can you tell if your mobile phone use is within the “normal” range or if you have a phone addiction?

Here are some warning signs of phone addiction to watch out for.

  1. You’re on your phone excessively; you spend many more hours on your phone than would be considered “normal” for your age and/or developmental level.
  2. When you’re not able to use your phone for even a short amount of time – for example, if you forget your phone at home – you become irritable or anxious.
  3. You’ve found yourself neglecting important tasks, like house chores or work, because you’re spending the time on your phone instead.
  4. You often prioritize using your mobile phone over in-person interactions and social activities.
  5. You’ve experienced physical discomfort, such as eye strain or headaches, from prolonged phone use.
  6. You have a hard time falling or staying asleep due to late-night phone use like scrolling social media.
  7. You have the constant urge to check your phone, even when you’re busy doing other things or are with other people in person. You don’t want to miss out on anything.
  8. You’ve noticed that you sometimes feel worse after you’ve been on your phone for too long. For example, you might have mood swings or feel more depressed or anxious. But despite this, you can’t stop.
  9. Your phone is the first place you turn to to escape from real-life problems or cope with stress.
  10. You’ve run into problems at work because you’re on your phone too much – for example, you miss deadlines because you’ve procrastinated by using your phone. 

Can you relate to many of these signs? Then you may be experiencing phone addiction – but treatment can help.

Phone addiction symptoms

Although phone addiction can have serious physical and mental health consequences, it isn’t included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the text that providers use to make mental health diagnoses. This means that it’s not yet officially recognized as a mental illness with a defined set of symptoms, despite experts and advocates pushing for its inclusion.

However, this doesn’t mean that phone addiction isn’t real or that it doesn’t need to be addressed. This affliction feels very real to people experiencing it, and it can cause significant problems in your life when left unaddressed.

Internet gaming disorder (IGD) is listed in the latest edition of the DSM as a condition being recommended for further research to be included in future editions. Phone addiction isn’t necessarily about gaming, but these two conditions do share many similarities. If and when phone addiction gets listed in the DSM, we could expect that it would share many symptoms with IGD.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the proposed diagnostic criteria (symptoms) of internet gaming disorder are: [2]

  • Spending a lot of your time gaming or thinking about gaming
  • Having feelings of sadness, anxiety, or irritability when gaming is taken away (withdrawal)
  • Needing to spend more and more time gaming to be satisfied
  • Being unable to stop gaming even after multiple attempts
  • Giving up other hobbies or interests in favor of gaming
  • Continuing to play games despite it causing significant problems in your life
  • Lying to others about how often you’re gaming or gaming in secret to hide it
  • Turning to gaming to relieve painful feelings like hopelessness
  • Risk, having jeopardized or lost a job or relationship due to gaming

Phone addiction withdrawal symptoms

One of the key components to any addiction, including substance use disorder and digital addictions, is experiencing withdrawal when you’re without the thing you’re addicted to. If you live with phone addiction, you likely experience withdrawal symptoms as well. Research shows that smartphone withdrawal can cause discomfort just like substance withdrawals. [3]

Phone addiction withdrawal can feel like:

  • Irritability
  • Dread, or feeling like something bad is going to happen if you don’t have your phone
  • Anxiety
  • Hopelessness
  • Strong urges to use your phone
  • Feeling on-edge and fidgety

Causes of phone addiction: Why am I addicted to my phone?

There are many reasons why you might be addicted to your phone, and at least some of them have to do with the way phones and phone apps affect your brain.

Phones and dopamine

Dopamine plays a huge role in any addictive behaviors, including phone addiction. [4] Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or brain chemical, that motivates behavior through pleasure and reward. When our brains release dopamine, we’re more motivated to repeat the behavior – for example, sex, exercising, and socializing are all things that give us a dopamine boost.

Addictions, including phone addiction, affect the way our brain pathways work. Research has shown that positive social interactions cause similar dopamine release in this pathway as certain drugs. Every time you get a dopamine hit through a successful social interaction, it reinforces this pathway.

This isn’t negative in and of itself, but social media – which a vast majority of us access through our smartphones – provides a never-ending source of this dopamine. Every time we get a “like,” a message, or a notification, we get a hit of dopamine, which reinforces the behavior (checking our phones to look for more notifications).

You may start to become dependent on your phone for delivering this dopamine, which is how you can develop an addiction. Even if you know that your phone makes you feel terrible most of the time, you continually seek out the dopamine hit. This is exactly what happens in other addictions, including drug and alcohol addiction and behavioral addictions like gambling.

Phones and your social life

One of the benefits of new technology is that it provides a way to expand social networks. Even if you live in a remote area or feel disconnected from people in your local vicinity, you can build relationships with like-minded people through social media and other phone apps.

But smartphones, and the relentless notifications that come with them, can also make us feel like we need to always be connected to other people. You start to feel FOMO, or the fear of missing out – you feel like you need to check your phone constantly to make sure you haven’t missed any messages. The thought of missing out can even cause very real symptoms of anxiety, as some studies have found.

Phone addiction and other mental health conditions

Lastly, other mental health problems can also raise your risk of becoming addicted to your phone, creating a vicious cycle.

  • People with ADHD can get stuck in paralysis while using their phones. ADHD also causes a lack of dopamine, which can make people with this condition more vulnerable to depending on their phones for the dopamine boost. Studies have found a significant link between ADHD and phone addiction. [5]
  • People with depression may use their phones to combat feelings of loneliness and hopelessness. 
  • People with anxiety may overuse their phones to avoid rumination and worrying. They might feel like they need to distract their minds so they don’t become overwhelmed with anxious thoughts.

How does cell phone addiction affect mental health?

Just like any other addiction, phone addiction can have very real consequences for your mental health.

Sleep problems

Studies have found that smartphone addiction is directly linked to poor sleep quality. [6] Using your phone right before bed, especially, can lead to insomnia and other sleep disorders. Not only does using your phone keep your mind alert, but the blue light emitted from these devices can interrupt circadian rhythm and cause poor sleep quality. [7] Restful sleep is one of the most important factors for overall well-being, so this is a serious problem – especially considering that over 75% of young people take their phones to bed.

Social isolation

Although phone addiction may make you feel like you need to check your phone constantly to stay socially connected, research shows that the opposite is true. Excessive smartphone use, particularly scrolling social media apps, is actually linked with higher levels of loneliness. [8] Additionally, social isolation and phone addiction can get locked in a vicious cycle; the more you use your phone, the lonelier you feel – but the lonelier you feel, the more you may want to check your phone for connection.

Increased depression and anxiety

In clinical research, excessive phone usage has been found to worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety and increase overall emotional distress. [9] The impact is especially significant for adolescents and young adults, who are already more vulnerable to developing depression. These mental health conditions can also get locked in a cycle with phone addiction – you might feel like using your phone is the only way to cope with your symptoms, but it actually makes symptoms worse.

More stress

Phone addiction can also lead to higher levels of stress, which is one of the worst things for overall mental health. If you have a phone addiction, you may be more likely to check your phone even when it’s time to relax. For example, you might see a work-related email on your phone even when you’ve already clocked out. The urge to check your phone constantly can lead to stress as well. This can lead to burnout and poor work-life balance.

Diminished concentration


Being addicted to your phone significantly impacts concentration and other cognitive functions. In one study, participants who had their phones in the room with them, even when they were turned off, significantly underperformed on cognitive tasks compared with other participants who left their phones in another room. People who were more dependent on their phones did even worse on the tests. [10] This tells us that having a phone addiction can significantly reduce your brain’s capacity for concentration, reasoning, decision-making, and more.

Phone addiction help

If you’re struggling with phone addiction, there is help available for you. It’s possible to overcome phone addiction, but it may be difficult to manage on your own.

Here are some tips that can help you break your phone addiction.

  • Be honest with yourself about addiction. Just like with drug and alcohol addiction, the first step is to admit there is a problem. Take an honest look at your phone use, and recognize if it has become an addiction.
  • Learn, and limit, your triggers. What causes you to have urges to check your phone? Is it when you get notifications? When you are feeling bored or lonely? Know what your triggers are, then take steps to limit your exposure to them. For example, you can turn notifications off or have an alternate plan for what to do when you’re unoccupied.
  • Practice mindfulness. Every time you pick up your phone, use it as an opportunity to be aware of the present moment. Take 2 or 3 mindful breaths in and out. Do you really need to check your phone right now?
  • Some people opt for the “cold turkey” approach to breaking addictions. If you think this will work best for you for phone addiction, try locking your phone away for a few days. Expect to feel the discomfort of withdrawal. 
  • Phone addiction is a very real problem, just like any other behavioral addiction like gambling. You may benefit from professional support to break this addiction. A therapist can help you get to the root cause of your phone addiction and make a realistic plan to walk away.

To better understand your phone usage and determine if it might be problematic, consider taking this Smartphone Compulsion Test.



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