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May 30, 2017

How to know if you have a phone addiction—and 3 ways to make a change

Daily Briefing
Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on March 4, 2021.

We're ever more reliant on our smartphones to facilitate and enrich our communication with others, but when does that reliance become a dependency? There are five key questions you can ask yourself to determine whether your phone usage is a problem—and three simple steps you can take to change your behavior for the better, according to experts.

Upcoming meeting: Addressing digital inequities

According to recent data, we check our phones on average 47 times a day—82 times if you're between 18 and 24 years old. And while phones can provide a bevy of benefits—ranging from communication with our loved ones to music and weather information—they can also go too far, potentially interfering with our real-world relationships, Lesley Alderman writes for the New York Times' "Well."

In fact, some experts think that phone addiction should be added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the reference guide for mental disorders, according to Edwin Salsitz, an addiction medicine specialist at Mount Sinai Beth Israel.

When a problem becomes an addiction

Salsitz explains that addiction starts with the chemical rush of dopamine that we experience as pleasure. Phone popups like new texts or Facebook notifications can cause such a rush, he said. But the brain "likes a pretty steady, smooth level of dopamine," according to Salsitz—and the inherently intermittent notifications we get from our phones just leads to a spiral of spikes and plunges.

Nonetheless, frequent phone usage in and of itself isn't phone addiction, and there are certainly reasonable caveats to heavy phone use, Salsitz said. Someone who's physically isolated might benefit from using the phone for social interaction, for instance, and making sure you're getting email alerts can be a good career move.

As Salsitz put it, "There are no absolutes in the addiction field; everything has to be put into context."

Evaluate your phone use

According to Salsitz, to be considered an addiction, the behavior has to be harming someone—the user or others. He outlines key questions to determine whether your phone dependency might be a sign of something more:

  1. Are you preoccupied with the phone? One question you might ask, according to Salsitz, "Can I wake up in the morning and brush my teeth without checking my phone?"

  2. Can you put the phone down for a period of time? For instance, Salsitz asked, are you repeatedly checking your phone while eating with others?

  3. Do you experience withdrawals when you aren't using your phone? For instance, Salsitz asked, are you irritable when you don't have your phone?

  4. Do you hide your phone use from others? As Salsitz pointed out, "People who are addicted [to their phones] know it's a problem ... [and] they tend to hide it."

  5. Do you turn to your phone when you're bored or depressed? According to Salsitz, people smoke, drink, and eat for the same reasons. "If that's what's happening ... it's very dangerous," he explained. "You're thinking this is going to be the answer to your problem, which it will never be" and instead things will get worse, Salsitz said.

In addition to Salsitz's questions, you can also test whether your phone use is problematic by taking the Smartphone Compulsion Test, developed by David Greenfield, a University of Connecticut psychiatry professor and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction.

Making a change

If you do think you have a problem, Alderman writes, there are some simple steps you can take to change your behavior:

  1. Making parts of your house "no cell" zones and having you and your partner agree not to use the phone while in the car together so you talk to one another;

  2. Keeping phones out of the bedroom and off the kitchen table; and

  3. Adopting some etiquette, such as articulating that your phone use in a given moment is necessary and noting the reason why—this can also help you understand how often you use your phone when someone else is present (Hafner, USA Today, 5/25; Alderman, "Well," New York Times, 5/2).

Upcoming meeting: Addressing digital inequities

Join us on Thursday, April 15, at 2 p.m. ET as this session addresses:

  • How to better identify and respond to the digital challenges faced by their local communities
  • How to ensure investments in virtual care do not cause further digital inequities
  • How to advocate for and partner on larger initiatives designed to achieve digital equity
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