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Phone addiction: definition, symptoms, risk factor, and treatment

Reading time: 23 mins

Phone addiction is a type of behavioral addiction indicated by the compulsive use of a smartphone despite the psychological and physical problems it may cause. A person may become anxious when they don’t use a phone or have no access to it. 

Symptoms of phone addiction include excessive use, compulsive checking, escapism, preoccupation, loss of control, neglecting real-life activities, withdrawal symptoms, relationship problems, interference with sleep, and neglected self-care.

Causes of phone addiction are environmental influences, fear of missing out, instant communication and gratification, and changes in the brain’s chemistry. 

Treatments for phone addiction include therapy such as CBT and motivational interviewing, but a phone addict may also need medications to manage underlying mental illnesses.

Risk factors for phone addiction include lack of awareness or education, personal predisposition, age, mental health conditions, perceived social pressure, lack of alternative coping mechanisms, boredom and escapism, availability and accessibility, and social influence.

What is phone addiction?

Phone addiction is the obsessive use of a smartphone i.e. the lack of control to use the smartphone despite the negative effects on the physical, psychological, financial, and social wellbeing of an individual. It is a type of behavioral addiction. Behavioral addictions are similar to substance use disorders, except that a person isn’t addicted to a drug, but to a behavior or the feeling they experience by acting out the behavior, according to a paper by S.S. Alavi et al. in the April 2012 issue of the International Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Even though phone addiction is recognized as a behavioral addiction, it is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) by the American Psychiatric Association. Phone addiction should not be mistaken for internet gaming disorder (IGD), which is included in DSM-5-TR in the section recommending conditions for further research. The proposed condition is limited to gaming and doesn’t include general usage of the internet or smartphone, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Phone addiction is not included in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases, 11th Revision (ICD-11), but a diagnosis of a gaming disorder has been included. Since phone addiction is not classified as a specific disorder in DSM-5 and ICD-11, information on this subject and its history is scarce. However, it is worth mentioning that forms of technology addiction have been considered diagnoses since the mid-90s. The first device considered a smartphone was invented in 1992 by IBM and it was called the Simon Personal Communicator or IBM Simon. The term smartphone, however, is mainly associated with the arrival of the first Apple iPhone in 2007. This specific device enabled a full internet experience similar to the one that people have on their desktop computers or laptop. After iPhone, other companies such as Samsung developed their smartphones.

What is the other term for phone addiction?

Other terms for phone addiction are smartphone addiction and nomophobia. Nomophobia is used as a combination of four words: NO MObile PHone PhoBIA and it is constructed on definitions from DSM-4, which includes it in the category of phobia for particular/specific things. The term nomophobia was coined by the United Kingdom Post Office in 2008 during a study that commissioned a UK-based research organization YouGov. The main goal of the study was to investigate the possibility of anxiety disorders resulting from excessive use of mobile phones. While the term is used to describe the fear of being without a phone, phone addiction is mainly discussed in terms of behavioral addiction.

How common is phone addiction?

Phone addiction is very common, but there are no official statistics regarding this disorder. According to the post about smartphone addiction statistics for 2023 on Exploding Topics, around 47% of Americans admit to being addicted to their phones. The average person in the U.S. checks their phone 352 times a day.

In a review that A.C. Leon-Mejia et al. published in the May 2021 issue of PLoS One, the prevalence of nomophobia ranged from 6% to 73%. Among people with nomophobia, between 25.7% and 73.3% of cases were moderate, and between 1% and 87% of cases were considered severe. The main reason for these significant disparities is differences in assessment criteria.

The prevalence of 15.2% to 99.7% was observed in the systematic literature review that V. Notara et al. published in the April 2021 issue of Addiction and Health. The paper also reported the prevalence of nomophobia was higher in women than in men.

A study by Kimberly G. Tuco et al. in the January 2023 issue of Healthcare Informatics Research, found that the overall prevalence of nomophobia among university students was near 100%. The prevalence of mild nomophobia was 24%, moderate nomophobia 56%, and severe nomophobia 17%.

The August 2022 issue of BMC Psychiatry published a paper by H. Alwafi et al. who found that 51.2% of the general population in two Middle Eastern countries (Saudi Arabia and Jordan) had a dependence syndrome and their daily time spent using a mobile phone was 210 minutes on average.

Studies on the prevalence of nomophobia focus on university students primarily, but a paper by B. Joe and C.C. Linson in the November 2021 issue of the Journal of Pharmaceutical Research International found that 14.40% of school-going children had severe levels of nomophobia. The same paper also found that 52.58% of children had moderate nomophobia, 32.58% had mild nomophobia, and 0.44% had no signs of nomophobia.

What are the causes of phone addiction?

The causes of phone addiction are listed below:

  • Environment: a child grows up looking up to their parents and other adults in the family may learn to implement similar behaviors. That means a child who was exposed to high screen time and is used to seeing people on their phones may also develop phone addiction.
  • Fear of missing out: a person’s general anxiety about missing out on other people’s experiences. It is a major factor in problematic mobile phone use, according to a paper by C. Sun et al. in the January 2022 issue of Psychology Research and Behavior Management.
  • Instant communication and gratification: smartphones and easy access to the internet make it easy to communicate with friends, family, or random internet users. They also fulfill a person’s immediate desire to feel satisfaction, which can contribute to the development of phone addiction.
  • Changes in brain chemistry – phone use acts on dopaminergic pathways and reward systems, which are also activated by substance abuse, Harvard University reported.

What are the medical conditions that can cause phone addiction?

Medical conditions that can cause phone addiction are listed below:

  • Depression: people with depressive symptoms may increase phone use. At the same time, heavy phone use worsens their condition. This may contribute to the development of phone addiction.
  • Anxiety disorder: an existing anxiety disorder or phobia can contribute to the development of phone addiction. This is particularly the case if a person experiences obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors related to their smartphone.
  • Chronic illness: people with chronic illnesses may increase their phone use. For example, they may look up health-related information online and increase their screen time.
How does phone addiction impact mental health?
girls hands holding a smartphone

Phone addiction affects mental health by contributing to or worsening depression and anxiety. Overuse of smartphones can induce reassurance seeking, which involves symptoms of both depression and anxiety, according to a paper that Z.A. Ratan et al. published in the November 2021 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

Excessive use of phones can worsen mental health by contributing to mood swings, obsessive thoughts, withdrawal, and breakdown of social relationships, as reported by a paper that S. Hashemi et al. published in the December 2022 issue of BMC Psychiatry. Phone addiction increases loneliness, which can be detrimental to a person’s health and well-being. Moreover, heavy phone use can impair a person’s self-esteem and confidence, which can pave the way to the previously mentioned mental illnesses such as depression.

What are the symptoms of phone addiction?

Symptoms of phone addiction are listed below:

  • Excessive use
  • Compulsive checking
  • Escapism
  • Preoccupation
  • Loss of control
  • Neglecting real-life activities
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Relationship problems
  • Interference with sleep
  • Neglected self-care

The effects of phone addiction are largely behavioral and psychological. The latter are low self-esteem, impaired confidence, and worsening mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Behavioral effects of phone addiction include being constantly on the phone to the point of neglecting everything else ranging from household chores to work or school assignments.  People may also argue a lot with loved ones who express concerns over their phone use.

1. Excessive use

Excessive use is indicated by a loss of sense of time while a person is on their phone. At this point, there is no specific time limit that marks when phone use becomes excessive.

Excessive use becomes a symptom of phone addiction because it covers both passive use (content scrolling) and active use (interacting with others), according to a paper by H. Larsen et al. in the October 2022 issue of Addiction. As a person spends an increasing amount of time on the phone, the reward system produces a sense of pleasure and they want to keep doing the same thing – using their phone. The more severe the addiction is, the more time a person spends on their smartphone.

2. Compulsive checking

Compulsive phone checking is the need to constantly check the phone, often out of boredom. A person with phone addiction may check their phone, read notifications, put the phone away, and take it again a minute later to do the same thing.

Compulsive checking becomes a symptom of phone addiction due to a fear of missing out (FOMO). Due to FOMO, a person is convinced they’re going to miss something. They may feel left out. To avoid feeling that way, a person with phone addiction may constantly check their phone. Besides FOMO, people with phone addiction may compulsively check their phone during unoccupied moments, before or during tedious and repetitive tasks, socially awkward situations, or when anticipating a specific notification, as per Healthline. More precisely, a person may use any moment they have to check their phone. This compulsive need is difficult to control. They truly believe they’re going to miss something online.

3. Escapism

Escapism is the tendency to escape from the real world to the comfort and safety of a made-up, fantasy world. It is the opposite of mindfulness or living in the moment. For a person who turns to escapism, facing reality is too terrifying. People experience escapism for many reasons ranging from trauma to relationship problems, boredom, and lack of motivation. It can also be a symptom of phone addiction.

Escapism becomes a symptom of phone addiction because the heavy use of smartphones could be a coping mechanism to deal with stressful situations. People with intense levels of nomophobia tend to perceive smartphones as a source of feelings of relief and comfort, according to a paper by L. Santl et al. in the July 2022 issue of the European Journal of Investigation in Health, Psychology, and Education. When an individual is under stress, they tend to reach for their smartphone to cope with their difficulties, but these perceived benefits contribute to and worsen problematic behavior. A person with phone addiction will use their device to avoid dealing with problems in “real life”. For that reason, they also spend more and more time on their phones and compulsively check notifications.

4. Preoccupation

Preoccupation is defined as having attention so consumed by specific thoughts to the point everything else is neglected. Preoccupied people have a strong need to belong, fit in, or feel accepted. Reasons behind preoccupation are numerous and they may also include attempting to deal with pain or problems in life.

Preoccupation becomes a symptom of phone addiction due to a fear of missing out. The stress and anxiety associated with not knowing what’s happening online causes the excessive use of smartphones. An individual with phone addiction becomes preoccupied with their phone to the point it becomes the main aspect of their life. They focus on spending time on the internet using social media, posting, monitoring likes and comments, and checking other people’s posts, and everything else in their life is neglected.

5. Loss of control

Loss of control is the lack of the ability to consciously limit impulses and behavior due to overwhelming emotion. People experience loss of control for many reasons including addictions. Whether a person has a behavioral addiction or substance use disorder, they are likely to experience a loss of control.

Loss of control becomes a symptom of phone addiction due to the condition’s effects on the brain. Excessive phone use is linked to difficulties in cognitive-emotion regulation, impulsivity, and addiction to social networking, according to a paper that Y. Wacks and A.M. Weinstein published in the May 2021 issue of Frontiers in Psychiatry. Moreover, problematic smartphone users experience reduced dorsolateral prefrontal activation, as per a study by M.Q. Xiang et al. in the January 2023 issue of Frontiers in Psychiatry. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is the brain region that regulates self-control. That means people who are addicted to their phones experience deficits in their inhibitory control processes. For that reason, a person with phone addiction is unable to control the use of their device. The attempts to stop or reduce phone time are unsuccessful.

6. Neglecting real-life activities

Neglecting real-life activities refers to failure to perform specific tasks or duties required at work/school or home. People neglect their responsibilities due to many reasons including mental illness or addiction.

Neglecting real-life activities becomes a symptom of phone addiction because preoccupation (which is also a symptom of this condition) and excessive use of a smartphone take the person’s attention away from their responsibilities. A person with phone addiction is too focused on their online presence or keeping up with other users that they disregard their work projects, homework, household chores, and commitments they made. Neglecting real-life activities may go hand in hand with escapism, especially if the specific activities cause stress and anxiety.

7. Withdrawal symptoms

hands holding smartphone and texting

Withdrawal symptoms are physical, psychological, or behavioral reactions to sudden cessation of substance use or stopping a specific behavior. In fact, the presence of withdrawal symptoms is one of the hallmarks of addiction as it shows the specific behavior has become problematic.

Withdrawal symptoms become a symptom of phone addiction because they show how the brain and body react when a person stops using their phone suddenly. Common withdrawal symptoms include restlessness, anger or irritability, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems, and cravings to access a smartphone. As mentioned previously in this post, phone addiction acts on the brain’s reward system and dopamine levels. When a person stops using their phone, the balance of brain chemicals becomes impaired, which is why withdrawal symptoms may occur.

8. Relationship problems

Relationship problems are a disagreement or conflicts with a partner, family, or friends. People can experience problems in any kind of relationship in their life whether it’s romantic or friendship. In the context of phone addiction, relationship problems are discussed in terms of disagreements with a significant other. These problems occur due to a number of reasons including financial difficulties, sexual and emotional problems, or bringing up children. Addictions such as phone addiction can also cause relationship problems.

Relationship problems become a symptom of phone addiction because this condition acts as a barrier to quality communication. As a result, the other person feels less important, ignored, or invisible to their partner. The constant need to spend more time on the phone, possibly communicating with other users online, lessens the connection between two people in the real world. Excessive phone use becomes a subject of arguments as a partner or family and friends keep expressing concerns, but the affected individual refuses to admit they have a problem. This can further alienate them from loved ones and cause more strain on their relationships.

9. Interference with sleep

Interference with sleep, or sleep disturbance, involves problems with timing, quality, and the amount of sleep. Sleep disturbance disorders include insomnia, excessive somnolence, and disorders of the sleep-wake cycle. Causes of sleep disturbance include stress, travel or work schedule, unhealthy diet, medical conditions, and even phone addiction.

Interference with sleep becomes a symptom of phone addiction because excessive smartphone use makes it difficult to fall asleep, decreases sleep duration, and increases daytime tiredness. That happens because phone use delays the circadian rhythm, the body’s sleep-and-wake clock. Any LED spectrum light source may suppress melatonin levels, CNN reported. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep. A study by S.Y. Sohn et al. in the March 2021 issue of Frontiers in Psychiatry confirms the deleterious impact of phone addiction on the quality of sleep. It also showed the duration of exposure is not the only factor in this relationship, but further studies are necessary to elucidate all mechanisms involved. Additionally, in their study from the February 2021 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, H. Jahrami et al. confirmed that nomophobia in young adults is associated with insomnia due to the effects of blue light on melatonin and because phone addiction involves symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety also contributes to insomnia.

10. Neglected self-care

Neglected self-care is self-neglect i.e. lack of self-care to an extent it may harm a person’s health and safety. More precisely, a person neglects their hygiene, health, and their surroundings or home. People neglect self-care for many reasons including mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, and addictions.

Neglected self-care becomes a symptom of phone addiction because spending too much time with a phone in the hands takes away the focus from regular hygiene and overall well-being. A person spends more time on the phone and less time taking care of their appearance or physical and emotional health. They also prioritize phone time over tidying up their home or the environment where they live. The fear of missing out is the likely reason behind the relationship between phone addiction and neglected self-care.

When do phone addiction symptoms usually occur?

Phone addiction symptoms occur when a person starts spending more than two hours on their phone a day because limiting phone use to under two hours is recommended, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute reports. There is no specific timeframe regarding the development of symptoms of this behavioral addiction. The timeline varies from person to person because their mental health, personality, and self-esteem may play a role in the development of problematic phone use. For that reason, it may take anywhere from a few days up to several weeks to develop symptoms of addiction to a phone or other forms of behavior such as shopping or gambling.

What are the risk factors for phone addiction?

woman holding phone and texting

Risk factors for phone addiction are listed below:

  • Lack of awareness or education
  • Personal predisposition
  • Age
  • Mental health conditions
  • Perceived social pressure
  • Lack of alternative coping mechanisms
  • Boredom and escapism
  • Availability and accessibility
  • Social influence

1. Lack of awareness or education

Lack of awareness or education is the absence of understanding of a given subject, in this case, phone addiction. Awareness and education about physical and mental illnesses shed more light on their dangers and help people understand their true impact or what can be done to prevent or manage those problems.

Lack of awareness or education becomes a risk factor for phone addiction because people, especially high-risk individuals, fail to understand all dangers of excessive phone use. Due to a lack of awareness or education, a person may believe their phone use-related habits are not dangerous or harmful in any way. As a result, they are more likely to keep using their phone which may pave the way to dependence.

2. Personal predisposition

Personal predisposition is a susceptibility to developing a specific disorder or disease. For instance, a person may be predisposed to develop anxiety disorder or depression. That usually happens when diseases run in families. 

Personal predisposition becomes a risk factor for phone addiction because behavioral addictions may have a hereditary component. While further research on this subject is necessary, a paper that R.F. Leeman and M.N. Potenza published in the May 2013 issue of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry confirmed behavioral addictions may have similarities with substance use disorders and they could have a genetic component. Compulsive internet use, although not the same as phone addiction, features increased regional homogeneity in frontal areas of the brain such as the superior frontal gyrus, and other regions such as the parahippocampus. Enhanced regional homogeneity reflects higher synchronization among these areas, which are also implicated in the reward system. That means a person may have an increased sensitivity to reward.

3. Age

Age is defined as the number of years a person has lived. A person’s age plays a major role in the development of physical and psychological illnesses alike. Phone addiction is not the exception.

Age becomes a risk factor for phone addiction because specific groups are more familiar with technologies and how they work. Younger age is a risk factor for phone addiction. That means adolescents and young adults are more susceptible to this type of addiction than other age groups. Age is a risk factor here because young people have a strong need to be accepted by their peers and they find it easy to keep up with the latest tech developments, new phones, and other changes their devices may have. A previously mentioned study by A.C. Leon-Mejia et al. in the May 2021 issue of PLoS One confirmed that females and young people are most likely to have phone addiction. 

4. Mental health conditions

Mental health conditions are illnesses that involve changes in a person’s emotions, thinking, or behavior. These conditions cause significant distress and negatively affect a person’s quality of life. The presence of a mental health condition can lead to other problems such as addictions. 

Mental health conditions become a risk factor for phone addiction due to a person’s inability to process emotions. A person with depression may start using their phone more than usual because it helps them regulate the symptoms they’re experiencing. To people with mental health conditions, smartphones offer the opportunity to “step out” of their reality and distance themselves from the emotions they’re experiencing. More precisely, mental health conditions could increase the risk of phone addiction because smartphones serve as a form of escape. At the same time, increased phone use worsens their condition thus creating a vicious circle. In their paper from the March 2021 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, A.M. Annoni et al. confirmed social anxiety was strongly associated with problematic smartphone use. Socially anxious individuals are more likely to become addicted to their phones due to easy access to online social gratifying content and their preference for online interactions. When it comes to mental illness and its impact on phone addiction; it’s also useful to mention that one of the hallmark signs of conditions such as depression is social isolation or withdrawal. In these situations, a person may prefer the online world their phones provide.

5. Perceived social pressure

Perceived social pressure is the influence exerted by society or a group of people on a person to comply with specific norms or behaviors. Peer pressure is one form of social pressure because peers are more likely to influence a person’s beliefs and behaviors. 

Perceived social pressure becomes a risk factor for phone addiction because peer pressure can lead to a loss of individuality. Social pressure may lead to a person following what society thinks is right. In this case, social media platforms are popular and millions of people (especially adolescents and young adults) use them. A person may feel pressure to do the same in order to keep up with their peers, which increases the risk of phone addiction. Social pressure may also come from a person’s social circle. For instance, a person who socializes with people who are constantly on their phones may start doing the same. Fear of missing out also plays a role here because a person may be convinced they’re going to miss something important when not on their phone.

Peer pressure was strongly associated with phone addiction due to a strong need to belong, as per a study that P. Wang et al. published in the December 2017 issue of the Journal of Behavioral Addictions. Low self-esteem partially mediated the relationship between peer pressure and phone addiction. The role of self-esteem and self-concept clarity in the influence of peer pressure on the development of phone addiction was also confirmed in a study that X. Xu et al. published in the April 2023 issue of Frontiers in Public Health.

6. Lack of alternative coping mechanisms

Lack of alternative coping mechanisms refers to the absence of strategies that people use to cope with or manage their emotions when dealing with major stress or trauma. Coping mechanisms help tackle both internal and external stressful situations. However, it’s possible that a person doesn’t have coping mechanisms which often leads to engaging in behaviors that don’t resolve the problem, instead they worsen the issues.

Lack of alternative coping mechanisms becomes a risk factor for phone addiction because a person who doesn’t handle their emotions properly may turn to their phone instead. Here a phone takes the place of a strategy that helps manage the emotions a person feels. However, increased phone use isn’t a good coping strategy. The opposite may happen; a person is more susceptible to developing phone addiction. While phone use may lead to instant gratification, it can also cause self-esteem problems, both of which can lead to addictive behavior.

A cross-sectional study by N.L. Bragazzi et al. in the April 2019 issue of JMIR Mental Health confirmed that people with nomophobia tend to adopt maladaptive coping strategies when confronted with stress. An increased number of hours spent on the phone was strongly associated with a higher prevalence of denial, self-distraction, self-blame, and venting. The usage of phone-related communication during stress is a form of self-distraction or substitute gratification; which is a kind of addiction, the scientists explained.

In the absence of healthy coping mechanisms, a person opts to increase phone use when dealing with stress, anxiety, or depression because it’s easy and accessible.

7. Boredom and escapism

Boredom and escapism refer to the state of being weary and restless due to a lack of interest or seeking distraction from real-life troubles in the safety of a fantasy world or imagination. It’s not uncommon for people to feel bored to choose imagination to escape from their worries. One way to beat boredom or to escape reality is phone use.

Boredom and escapism become risk factors for phone addiction because it’s fast and easy to find entertainment or escape on a smartphone. With a few taps on the screen, a person becomes instantly entertained due to social media, or they can watch their favorite shows and movies on their phone. Stepping into the online world also serves as a simple way to escape from the negative emotions a person is experiencing. 

CNN reports that 42% of mobile phone users confess they expressly use their phones for entertainment when they are bored. Non-entertainment uses of phones would make this percentage even higher. Moreover, escapism is one of the most significant factors associated with problematic phone use and internet addiction. That happens because phones serve as an escape from stress or to help a person avoid confronting stressful situations, according to a paper that N.A. Akyol et al. published in the December 2021 issue of Addictive Behaviors Reports.

8. Availability and accessibility

Availability and accessibility refer to products or services that are easily obtainable and ready for use. At the same time, those products or services are easy to use and navigate. Phones are considered both available and accessible. 

Availability and accessibility become risk factors for phone addiction because they make it easy for a user to gain access to desired content, without any hassle. In stressful situations, a phone is readily available and accessible for a person to use. This may pave the way to problematic use and development of dependence. This risk factor goes hand in hand with a lack of coping mechanisms, boredom, and escapism. It also shows why younger generations are at a higher risk of phone addiction; it’s easier for them to use phones and gain quick access to the entertainment they need in order to escape stress or cope with the emotions they’re experiencing.

9. Social influence

couple sitting on a couch waving to phone.

Social influence is defined as a way in which a person modifies their behavior to meet the demands of a social environment. There are many forms of social influence including the previously mentioned peer pressure, but also socialization and conformity.

Social influence becomes a risk factor for phone addiction because people may increase phone use to keep up with standards set by society or to fit in and reduce loneliness. A paper by H. Jafari et al. in the October 2019 issue of BMC Research Notes confirmed that there is a link between phone addiction and a sense of loneliness. People with higher levels of addiction had a lower sense of loneliness. In an attempt to beat loneliness, a person may increase phone use to communicate with their friends and other social media users. Additionally, a paper titled “Smartphone Use Can Be Addictive? A Case Report” from the September 2016 issue of the Journal of Behavioral Addictions reported about an 18-year-old girl with smartphone addiction. Her feelings depended on the availability of social sites, which are provided by smartphones.

When it comes to social influence, it’s also useful to mention the era of social media platforms where people follow influencers who regularly post about their life. In order to keep up with posts of their favorite influencers and to keep up with trends, a person may spend an increasing amount of time online. As a result, they become more susceptible to developing phone addiction. Phone and social media presence have become status symbols and completely normalized in society today, which can encourage heavy smartphone use and contribute to addiction.

Is depression a risk factor for phone addiction?

Yes, depression is a risk factor for phone addiction. A person with depression may increase phone use in order to cope with the symptoms they’re experiencing. The phone may serve as a coping mechanism that allows an individual to escape from their reality into the realm of the virtual world indicated by self-gratification. However, heavy smartphone use can also contribute to or worsen depression thereby creating a vicious circle. In the previously mentioned paper by L. Santl et al. in the July 2022 issue of the European Journal of Investigation in Health Psychology and Education, nomophobia was found to be strongly associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Characteristics of a depressed individual such as low self-esteem, need for approval, and lack of motivation may contribute to more frequent online communication and excessive use of the internet. Depressed individuals may use phones to reduce loneliness and improve self-esteem, which leads to problematic use of a phone and increases the risk of addiction.

Is anxiety a risk factor for phone addiction?

Yes, anxiety is a risk factor for phone addiction. Similar to depression, phone use serves as a coping mechanism to deal with intense symptoms of anxiety. According to a study by A.L. Spear King et al. in the February 2014 issue of Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health people with panic disorder and agoraphobia experience more intense symptoms when in situations without access to a smartphone. It appears that the use of phones exhibits a positive effect on people with panic disorder and may reduce panic attacks. The relationship between anxiety and phone addiction is quite complicated. People with symptoms of anxiety are more susceptible to developing phone addiction, but the use of a phone may temporarily help reduce the symptoms they’re experiencing. This further confirms the complexity of both disorders and how excessive phone use can lead to major problems such as addiction.

How is phone addiction diagnosed?

Phone addiction is diagnosed after a thorough evaluation of a patient during which a psychologist or psychiatrist asks questions about their symptoms and feelings or emotions. A patient may need to complete a questionnaire as well. Since phone addiction is not in DSM-5, there are no standardized diagnostic criteria a person should meet in order to be diagnosed with this type of behavioral addiction. Healthcare professionals carefully evaluate a person’s behavior before diagnosing phone addiction.

However, Y.H. Lin et al. proposed a set of diagnostic criteria for phone addiction in their paper from the November 2016 issue of PLoS One. They outlined two criteria (criteria A and B) that indicate a person may have a phone addiction. 

Criteria A refers to a maladaptive pattern of phone use causing clinically significant impairment or distress at any time during the three-month period. A patient should meet at least three out of six criteria that include recurrent failure to resist the urge to use a phone, withdrawal without smartphone use indicated by dysphoria/anxiety/irritability, phone use for longer than intended, persistent desire or unsuccessful attempts to quit or reduce phone use, excessive time spent on using or quitting phone use, and continuing using phone despite physical or psychological problems caused by overuse.

Criteria B refers to functional impairment and a person should have at least two out of four symptoms. These include excessive phone use resulting in physical or psychological problems, using phones in hazardous situations e.g. while driving or crossing the street, excessive phone use resulting in impairment of social relationships/job performance/school achievement, and excessive phone use becoming time-consuming and causing major subjective distress.

The abovementioned symptoms shouldn’t be associated with other mental illnesses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or bipolar I disorder.

Where can you seek a phone addiction diagnosis?

You can seek a phone addiction diagnosis in the:

  • Addiction treatment facilities (rehabs) specializing in behavioral addictions 
  • Clinics
  • Hospitals
  • Addiction treatment centers and organizations focused on spreading awareness of phone addiction

What are the treatments available for phone addiction?

The treatments available for phone addiction are different forms of psychotherapy including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational interviewing. Medications are not the first-line treatment for phone addiction and there is no specific FDA-approved drug for this type of behavioral addiction. A doctor may prescribe medications to manage underlying mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. This section is going to focus on therapy primarily. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that helps patients change behaviors by identifying and correcting faulty thinking patterns. CBT helps to treat phone addiction by helping patients identify negative or irrational thoughts that lead to negative emotions and behaviors. Once a patient identifies irrational thoughts, they learn skills to adopt more rational or positive alternatives. This type of therapy is based on the premise that a person’s thoughts influence their feelings and behaviors. 

With a therapist’s help, a patient learns more about themselves and is empowered to start making necessary changes to adopt healthier behaviors and overcome phone addiction. The goal isn’t to avoid phones entirely, which would be impossible in the modern age. Instead, CBT can help teach a patient to reduce phone use so that it’s not problematic or compulsive.

A therapist may employ several CBT techniques to help a patient with a behavioral addiction. These techniques are journaling, relaxation techniques, thought challenges, cognitive restructuring, and guided discovery.

The duration of the process depends on the severity of the addiction, but it may take anywhere from six to 20 sessions lasting 30 to 60 minutes. Therapy sessions are a part of a residential treatment program or outpatient program and are held as individual or group therapy sessions.

CBT is an effective treatment approach for people with phone addiction, but more research on this subject is necessary. A study by S.H. Bong et al. in the February 2021 issue of Psychiatry Investigation confirmed that a combination of CBT and music therapy can help manage smartphone addiction, anxiety, and impulsivity.

Motivational interviewing is a type of therapy that helps people find motivation to make a positive behavior change. It helps to treat phone addiction because it is patient-centric and works to help a patient identify the difference between the current state and desired state. With a therapist’s help, a patient learns to verbalize the changes they believe are necessary. At the same time, a patient needs to explain the reason they want those changes. This is necessary because motivational interviewing empowers a patient to acknowledge they have a problem and understand why it is necessary to resolve it. A therapist may employ several techniques such as open-ended questions, affirmations, summaries, and reflective listening.

The duration of the motivational interviewing approach is one to four sessions that last up to 45 minutes. It can be included as an intervention with other, long-term therapies.

Motivational interviewing is an effective strategy to encourage and empower a patient to make a positive behavior change. This type of therapy is a well-documented and effective treatment for behavioral addictions, according to a paper that Cecilie Schou Andreassen from the University of Bergen in Bergen, Norway published in the June 2015 issue of Current Addiction Reports. The same paper explains that motivational interviewing helps patients discover the negative sides of their behaviors so they become more motivated to change.

When should we seek treatment for phone addiction?

We should seek treatment for phone addiction when smartphone use becomes so excessive it interferes with a person’s quality of life. For example, due to phone use, a person neglects their responsibilities and family, friends, or significant other. Unsuccessful attempts to curb phone use are also a good sign it’s time to seek professional help. Being compelled to constantly check the phone is also a major indicator of a bigger problem and a sign to seek treatment. Worsening mental health alongside the presence of excessive phone use, failed attempts to quit, or neglect is also a sign to seek help from a professional.

How is phone addiction prevented?

a boy lying, holding phone and reading

Phone addiction is prevented by increasing awareness of the dangers of excessive phone use. Reducing phone use is a useful prevention strategy and one way to make it happen is to wean off the phone by setting up an alarm that specifies when it’s okay to check it. For example, set up an alarm to check your phone every 15 minutes then gradually increase to 20, 30, 45, or 60 minutes. 

Other prevention strategies include turning off as many push notifications as possible, taking distracting apps off the home screen, avoiding using the phone in bed or when eating dinner, and spending time with friends, family, or a loved one. To prevent phone addiction it’s necessary to manage underlying problems such as depression, anxiety, and loneliness in a healthy manner so that phone use doesn’t serve as a coping mechanism. A healthy lifestyle indicated by regular exercise, a well-balanced diet, and getting enough sleep can also help prevent phone addiction by improving mental health.\

Can setting limits on screen time help prevent phone addiction?

Yes, setting limits on screen time can help prevent phone addiction. In a paper published in the February 2023 issue of the Journal of the Association for Information Systems, S. Fu et al. revealed that subjects who spent less time on their phones were also less likely to report nomophobia. By reducing screen time, the brain gets to slow down and focus on tasks without distraction, which helps regulate emotions properly.

Can engaging in regular physical exercise help prevent phone addiction?

Yes, regular physical exercise helps prevent phone addiction. A study by M.S. Torlak et al. in the February 2022 issue of The Turkish Journal on Addictions showed that subjects with low levels of physical activity had higher levels of nomophobia. For that reason, exercising regularly could lower the risk or aid the management of phone addiction. Exercise could work because it is beneficial to mental health and increases a person’s self-esteem and confidence. Physical activity and smartphone use activate similar pathways in the brain, as reported by S. Liu et al. in their study from the October 2019 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.