Cell Phone Addiction: What You Need to Know

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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The mental and physical problems arising from cell phone addiction are similar to any addiction. Find out if you are at risk and learn what to do about it.

Is cell phone addiction or overuse something you should be concerned about?

Worldwide, there are over 5 billion mobile phones in use and the number continues to grow. (1)

The average adult now spends 3 hours on his or her smartphone every day.

Teens and young adults spend much more time than that. (2, 3)

It’s easy to love your cell phone for all that it does, but it’s possible to love it a little too much.

Is Cell Phone Addiction a Real Disorder?

When you think of addictions, your first thoughts are probably substances like cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol.

But some addictions, including cell phone overuse, are behavioral addictions that interfere with daily life.

Cell phone addiction is integrally related to internet addiction.

Many potentially addictive activities performed on your phone are done via the internet such as email, web browsing, social media, porn, and compulsive shopping.

Cell phone addiction is not a recognized psychiatric disorder but almost certainly will be in the near future.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the American Psychiatric Association’s standard guide of mental disorders.

The latest version, the DSM-5, includes Internet Gaming Disorder in its “conditions for further study” section. (4)

Some experts urge that internet addiction be included in the manual’s next update and cell phone addiction is sure to follow. (5)

The definition and status of cell phone addiction is still evolving.

You’ll find it referred to by a slew of other names — smartphone, cell phone, and/or mobile phone overuse, dependence, compulsion, obsession, or problem use.

The experts are still undecided as to whether cell phone and internet addictions are unique disorders or merely the instruments for engaging in other addictions like gaming, gambling, and porn.

Cell phone overuse seems to meet most of the criteria of an addiction:

If you are addicted, you become dependent on your phone and experience withdrawal when separated from it.

You can’t quit when you try even though you know your phone use negatively impacts your life.

Alarming Cell Phone Addiction Statistics

Some researchers are convinced that cell phone overuse looms as an addiction epidemic that will be unlike any other. (6)

This is because exposure starts so young and there are so many hooks — social media, email, texting, porn, shopping, gambling, gaming, binge viewing, apps, news feeds, and more.

The jaw-dropping statistics on cell phone usage speak volumes on how ubiquitous this problem has become: (7, 8, 9, 10)

  • 72% keep their smartphone within a five-foot reach at all times.
  • 70% of women and 61% of men experience phone separation anxiety.
  • 37% say that they “couldn’t live without it.”
  • 1 in 3 people would rather give up sex than their phone.
  • 10% have texted during sex.
  • 12% have used their phone in the shower.
  • 67% find themselves checking their phones even when it has not rung or vibrated.
  • 61% regularly sleep with their phone turned on under their pillow or next to their bed.
  • 90% of young adults sleep with their phone.
  • 95% check the phone last thing before going to bed.
  • 50% check their phones immediately upon waking, even in the middle of the night.

Symptoms of Cell Phone Addiction

Here are some of the signs that your phone use has become excessive:

  • You check your phone constantly and can’t use it in moderation.
  • You feel compelled to answer texts and messages immediately.
  • You often spend more time on it than planned.
  • You vow to quit using it so much but just can’t.
  • You feel irritable when you don’t have mobile phone access.
  • You feel anxiety or panic if you leave your phone at home or the battery runs down.
  • Your excessive phone use is jeopardizing your relationships with friends and family.
  • You have trouble giving people in your presence full attention because you are distracted by your phone.
  • You would rather connect via your phone than see others face-to-face.
  • You feel guilty or defensive about the amount of time you spend on your phone.
  • You lie about or hide how much you use your phone from others.
  • You are ignoring other important areas of your life — relationships, career, hobbies, or taking care of yourself.

Physical signs you are spending too much time on your phone include eye strain, wrist pain, and numbness, headaches, back pain, changes in weight, or insomnia.

Excessive cell phone use exhibits all the hallmarks of an addiction.

But does experiencing one or more of these symptoms mean that you are truly addicted?

Dr. David Greenfield is one of the world’s leading authorities on issues of technology dependency and addiction.

He is the author of the groundbreaking book Virtual Addiction: Help for Netheads, Cyber Freaks and Those Who Love Them and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction.

He believes that 90% of cell phone owners overuse their phones, but that only 10 to 12% are truly addicted.

It is Greenfield’s opinion that, to be classified as an addict, you need to experience “some deleterious impact on a major life sphere, whether it’s an impact on your work, your academic performance, your home life, primary relationship, parenting, legal status.” (11)

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Cell Phone Addiction Test

If you have any doubt as to whether you are addicted to your cell phone, you can take Dr. Greenfield’s online Smartphone Compulsion Test.

There are 15 easy “yes” or “no” questions.

Your score will automatically be tallied for you and you’ll be able to see which of these four categories you fall into:

  • Your cell phone use is normal.
  • Your behavior is leaning toward problematic or compulsive use.
  • It is likely that you have a problematic or compulsive cell phone use pattern.
  • It may be time to seek help from a health care professional who specializes in behavioral addictions.

Who Is at Risk for Cell Phone Addiction

Not everyone who has a cell phone gets hooked on it.

You are more prone to cell phone addiction if you also struggle with stress, depression, anxiety, ADHD, social anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Those with a lack of social support are more susceptible.

Unsurprisingly, anyone with other addictions will be at higher risk for cell phone addiction as well.

Dr. Kimberly Young is a world-renowned addiction specialist who coined the phrase “internet addiction.”

She is the founder of the Center for Internet Addiction, the country’s first hospital-based treatment center for internet addiction.

In her book Caught in the Net, she mentions that her research shows that 52% of internet addicts had other addictions including alcohol, drugs, food, or gambling.

But of all the risk factors, simply being a teenager puts you at the highest risk for addiction.

And while drug and alcohol use among teens is going down, this may be because they have traded these addictive substances for cell phones instead.

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The Use of Cell Phones Is Addictive by Design

It’s no accident that cell phone use is addictive.

It was designed that way.

The creators of social media platforms, games, and apps run thousands of tests on millions of viewers to learn what keeps people hooked.

Why? Because the more time you spend on your phone, the more money these companies make off you.

Former Google product manager Tristan Harris sees the reward process of using a smartphone as similar to playing a slot machine. (12)

In an interview with the television show 60 Minutes he stated, “… every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, “What did I get?” This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit …” (13)

Addictive substances and behaviors of all kinds — sugar, caffeine, alcohol, drugs, gambling, and porn — cause a spike in dopamine, the neurotransmitter in charge of the brain’s pleasure-reward system. (141516, 17)

And so does using your phone.

Every time you get a new text, email, or Facebook “like,” you get a small surge of dopamine.

This little reward not only feels good but makes you want more.

Dr. Greenfield calls your cell phone a “portable dopamine pump!”

And for those with an addiction, having on-demand dopamine is as dangerous as it sounds.

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How to Stop a Cell Phone Addiction

If you believe it would be in your best interest to cut back on your cell phone use, don’t try to quit cold turkey.

That may work with some addictions where total abstinence is the goal, but it is not feasible to live without a mobile phone or internet and still participate in modern society.

Cutting back your use a step at a time gives your brain a chance to form new neural pathways so that your new habits stick.

Try one of the following stepwise changes at a time:

  • Do not text while driving. You should not be doing this anyway, it’s potentially lethal.
  • Ditto on talking on your phone when driving. Cell phone users get into more accidents than drunk drivers. (18)
  • Get the phone out of your bedroom or keep it turned off at night.
  • Delete the apps you find most addictive.
  • Stop using your phone while waiting in checkout lines.
  • Put away your phone when you’re with friends, family, or on a date.
  • Quit using your phone while eating.

When you feel comfortable with one change, move on to the next.

Once you’ve made even a few of these changes, you’ll find the time spent on your mobile phone dramatically reduced.

1. Use Cell Phone Monitoring Apps

Technology got you into this mess, but when used right, it can help you get out of it.

Checky

Checky lets you know how many times you check your phone.

It’s available for both iPhone and Android and is free.

Moment

Moment tracks how much you use your phone each day and which apps you’re using most.

This free app available for both iPhone and Android.

SelfControl

SelfControl is a free Mac app that lets you block access to distracting websites, your mail servers, or anything else on the internet.

Freedom

Freedom manages distractions by letting you block certain sites or the whole internet.

It works on all Mac, Windows, iPhone, iPad and Android devices.

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2. Engage in Tech-Free Activities

One of the best ways to kick your cell phone habit is to replace the time spent on your phone with technology-free activities.

Physical exercise will keep you away from the phone, reduce the stress of quitting, and help alleviate withdrawal symptoms. (19)

Think about what you used to do for fun before you were addicted to your phone.

Did you like to run, swim, rock climb, bike, hike, ski, lift weights, dance, practice martial arts, or do yoga?

This would be good time to take up these activities again.

Learn a new hobby or pick up an abandoned one.

Music, art and craft-like hobbies reduce stress, focus your mind as effectively as meditation, and keep your hands busy and off the keyboard. (2021)

Not sure what to try?

Here are some popular hobbies to get the ideas flowing: painting, playing music, photography, genealogy, geocaching, cooking, gardening, home repair, woodworking, knitting, collecting, or volunteering.

And if you’re still stumped, check out this list of over 300 hobby ideas or look for activities in your town at Meetup.com.

3. Seek Outside Help

If you believe you are addicted and plan to try quitting on your own, I recommend reading Cyber Junkie: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap by recovering video game addict Kevin Roberts.

This book offers a highly rated step-by-step recovery plan that is similar to those used for other addictions.

If you feel you are in need of professional help, you can seek the services of a behavioral addiction specialist.

You can learn more about the different kinds of addiction specialists, including how to find one, on the American Society of Addiction Medicine website.

If you prefer the convenience, affordability, and privacy of online counseling, you can try BetterHelp instead of traditional counseling.

Cell Phone Addiction Withdrawal Symptoms

Unfortunately, when you reduce your cell phone use you can expect to experience withdrawal symptoms similar to those when quitting caffeine, sugar, nicotine, alcohol, or drugs. (22)

Besides the overwhelming urge to use your phone, other symptoms of cell phone withdrawal include: (2324, 25)

  • anger
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • feeling disconnected from reality
  • feeling isolated
  • inability to feel pleasure
  • increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • insomnia
  • irritability
  • mental confusion
  • restlessness
  • trouble concentrating

Mental Health Reasons to Quit Your Cell Phone Addiction

Just as drugs or alcohol changes an addict’s brain, so does excessive cell phone use.

A lot of the changes are very similar to those experienced by hardcore drug addicts.

In both cases, the same areas of the brain show similar changes in connectivity, amounts of grey and white matter, and even gene expression. (26)

Regular cell phone use leads to more stress, depression, and sleep disturbances. (27)

Excessive mobile phone use encourages low self-esteem, loneliness, social anxiety, impulsiveness, self-absorption, neuroticism, and a predilection for other addictions. (28)

It makes it harder to focus, solve problems, and think creatively.

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The Hazards of Cell Phone Radiation

In case you need any more reasons to quit your cell phone addiction, here’s a look at some of the health implications of cell phone use.

You may have noticed that your cell phone came with a specific absorption rate (SAR) value.

The United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines SAR as a measure of the amount of radio frequency (RF) energy absorbed by the body when using a cell phone. (29)

It is measured as watts per kilogram with the upper legal limit being 1.6 W/kg.

And since no cell phone yet created has a SAR rating of zero, this means that some radiation from your phone is penetrating your skull and brain.

Many scientists believe that the public is not being adequately protected from the hazards of cell phone radiation.

Over 250 scientists from over 40 countries have published a letter asking the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and governments to develop stricter controls on cell phones and other electronic devices.

Collectively, these scientists have published thousands of peer-reviewed papers on the hazards of cell phone radiation.

This letter, which can be found on EMFScientist.org, accuses these organizations of failing to impose sufficient guidelines to protect the general public, particularly children who are at greater risk.

Here are some of the known ways cell phone radiation damages the brain.

1. Cell Phone Radiation Increases Risk of Brain Cancer

The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies cell phone radiation as a Group 2B carginogen and recommends that consumers should consider ways of reducing their exposure. (30)

By definition, a Group 2B carcinogen is suspected of causing cancer.

This category includes things you know you should avoid like lead, engine exhaust, DDT, and chloroform.

In one major review of existing studies, researchers found significant links between long-term mobile phone use and brain tumor risk. (31)

2. Cell Phone Use Causes Free Radical Damage

Electromagnetic field (EMF) exposure creates free radicals — unattached oxygen molecules that attack your cells in much the same way that oxygen causes metal to rust. (32)

Since your brain uses 20% of the body’s total oxygen intake, it is highly susceptible to free radical damage.

Long-term EMF exposure leads to chronically increased levels of free radicals which can cause brain cell damage and aging down to the level of your DNA. (33, 34, 35)

3. Cell Phone Radiation Causes Leaky Brain Cells

Your brain is protected by a blood-brain barrier, a group of specialized cells that acts as filter to keep toxins, pathogens, and other foreign substances out of your brain.

Cell phone radiation ruptures delicate brain cell membranes, increasing the blood-brain barrier’s permeability. (36)

This allows toxins, chemicals, viruses and neurotoxic metals like mercury, lead, and aluminum to enter the brain and negatively impact brain health and function.

It also causes brain cells to leak calcium ions which are needed for communication between brain cells.

4. Cell Phones Disrupt Neurotransmitter Formation

Proteins are integral to brain cell structure and the formation of neurotransmitters.

Over 140 proteins in the brain are negatively impacted by EMF exposure. (37)

This, in turn, causes significant disruption in levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. (38)

5. Cell Phone Radiation Linked to Alzheimer’s

A Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study found that holding an activated cell phone next to your head for less than an hour changes brain glucose metabolism. (39)

And this matters because glucose is your brain’s main energy source.

Some experts now believe that Alzheimer’s disease is a third form of diabetes — a diabetes of the brain where brain cells can no longer utilize glucose and subsequently die. (40)

Another way cell phone radiation may contribute to Alzheimer’s is by increasing levels of protein fragments known as beta-amyloid. (41)

Beta-amyloid plaques are a leading risk factor for Alzheimer’s. (42)

6. Cell Phones Disrupt Sleep

Dozens of studies have found that even low levels of cell phone radiation disrupt your natural production of melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone that regulates your sleep cycle.

The use of electronic devices at night, including cell phones, is a major reason we are experiencing an epidemic of insomnia and sleep disorders. (43)

7. Cell Phones Contribute to Thyroid Disorders

Cell phone radiation affects the structure and function of the thyroid. (44)

Cell phone use elevates levels of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) which is directly linked to hypothyroidism, a low thyroid condition.

Common brain-related symptoms of hypothyroidism include memory loss, depression, brain fog, poor focus and concentration, fatigue, and difficulty making decisions. (45)

Protecting Your Brain From Your Cell Phone

I don’t expect you to give up your cell phone.

But here are some simple precautions you can take to minimize exposure to radiation when you do use your phone.

1. Keep Your Cell Phone Away From Your Head

According to the World Health Organization, the strength of radio frequency transmissions falls off rapidly with increasing distance from the handset. (46)

So texting or using a speaker when you talk can reduce your brain’s exposure significantly. (47)

When you must keep your phone near you and turned on, keep it as far away as is reasonable.

And never sleep with your phone on next to your head.

2. Get a Cell Phone With a Low SAR Level

Mobile phone manufacturers will tell you that their products are safe and, in fact, they must meet government guidelines set by the FCC in the US.

But not all phones emit the same amount of radiation.

The SAR (specific absorption rate) for cell phones sold in the US range from a low of 0.18 to a high that bumps up to the legal upper limit of 1.6.

If you don’t know your phone’s SAR value, you can usually find it on the manufacturer’s website.

Or you can check it using these instructions provided by the FCC.

If it’s high, consider getting a phone with a more favorable SAR value.

3. Use Your Cell Phone Only When Your Signal Is Strong

It might seem counterintuitive, but cell phone radiation exposure increases dramatically when signals are weak.

While using a strong signal is not always possible, you can control when you make outgoing calls.

Make them from a spot with a good signal, especially if you think you’ll be on the phone for a while.

Cell Phone Addiction: Take the Next Step

Cell phone addiction is a behavioral addiction that interferes with daily life.

It is not a recognized psychiatric disorder yet, but it is still a serious and widespread problem.

Having other addictions, a mood disorder, or being socially isolated puts you at greater risk.

Cell phone use, like other addictions, leads to a surge in the brain chemical dopamine, temporarily making you feel good, but leaving you wanting more.

Cell phone addiction can negatively impact your physical and mental well-being.

Like hardcore addictions, it actually changes your brain function and structure.

Fortunately, there is plenty of help available, everything from apps to treatment centers.