Signs & Symptoms of Having Cell Phone Addiction

We’re frequently plugged into our smartphones, but are we too in touch for our own good? Here are some signs you may be addicted to your digital devices.

Is cell phone addiction really a thing? Pose that question on Google and you’ll find loads of quizzes and articles on the topic.It’s easy to get sucked into the allure of the smartphone, with all those appealing apps waiting there, like candy for the plucking.

But like with anything that’s tempting, how much is too much? When does use turn into abuse?

Mostly when we think of addiction we tend to focus on substance use disorder (alcohol, illicit drugs, and over-the-counter medications), food, sex, shopping, or gambling.When our poison of choice comes with a charger and keeps us connected to work, friends, and family in addition to entertaining us, it becomes tricky.If you’re the consumer, using the device to keep connected, saving you time and providing convenience, those are good things. If using the device is consuming your life, however, you might have a problem.

How to Tell If You’re Addicted to Your Phone

It’s been said that the average American checks their phone 47 times a day. For young adults, that number is nearly double, at 82. More than 80% say they keep their phones near them every waking  minute. Nearly 10% admit to checking their phone while having sex. Nearly all Americans — 95% — have a cell phone, and 77% have a smartphone. It’s estimated that in 2020, 2.87 billion people worldwide will have a mobile device.

Most people readily admit that unplugging would be a good thing to do. But do they? For many, the answer is no. Let’s return to substance use disorder for a moment, since addiction to drugs and alcohol is considered a genuine mental illness. There are diagnostic criteria for them as well. When it comes to determining if someone has an addiction to drugs or alcohol, a checklist is a good place to start. Ask yourself the following:

  • Are you using more than intended, or for longer than planned?
  • Do you want to stop or cut back, but can’t?
  • Is use interfering with your life? Is it interfering with work or with relationships?
  • Are you avoiding activities and responsibilities so you can use substances?
  • Are you using drugs or alcohol even if your use puts you in danger?
  • Is your tolerance increasing, or do you suffer uncomfortable withdrawal when going without drugs or alcohol?

Not all of the above are all of the signs and symptoms of cell phone addiction. (You’re not likely to be vomiting or experiencing chills and sweats if your phone battery dwindles to zero, after all, but you might experience anxiety, which is a red flag.)

If you intend to spend 10 minutes checking to see if your boss sent that email or to skim the latest headlines, and instead you find you’ve been on the device for two hours, there could be a problem. If you’re not getting work or homework completed, or if your boss has reprimanded you for not finishing projects when you were distracted on the phone, that’s a red flag.

Are you texting or fiddling with your phone when you should have your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road? Then, yes, there most definitely is a problem.

Dr. David Greenfield, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, says that there’s a fine line between addiction and phone overuse. If you’re on the device even when you should not be, that’s a sign of a problem. His center’s website has a list of questions to ask to answer the query, “Am I addicted to my smartphone?”

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Effects of Phone Addiction/The Dopamine Connection

Greenfield has referred to the Internet as “the world’s largest slot machine.” We don’t know exactly what we’ll find when we check our emails, texts, or visit a favorite social site, it creates a surge of excitement, triggering the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine in our brains. The result: we want more of that, so we keep checking. Those are some of the psychological effects of cell phone addiction.

As for the physical effects of cell phone addiction, those are real. Terms such as texting thumb, text neck, and Nintendonitis are terms entering the lexicon. Doctors hear patients complaining of neck, elbow, wrist, hand, and thumb pain in addition to tingling and numbness in the arms, hands, forearms, and fingers. In the case of texting thumb, the tendon sheath becomes inflamed. Sometimes it leads to long-term pain, but it can also become permanently damaged.

The best fix is to ice the injury if it’s flaring up. To prevent such strains, taking breaks and stretching are good options. If you’re a right-handed user, consider using your left hand now and then. It’ll give the dominant hand a break and work the non-dominant part of the brain as well.

Other research shows that regular use affects posture and respiratory function. The study in question was small, so the findings are far from a sure thing, but they are worth considering. (At least, maybe stand or sit up straight when watching videos on TikTok?)

Whether or not constant contact with devices can cause tumors or certain cancers remains unclear. Excess cell phone use, however, can lead to other problems, including anxiety and depression.

Staying constantly online, even to check updates or text friends at all hours of the day and night can interfere with sleep as well as academic or work performance. Also, depression and anxiety appear to be good predictors of smartphone addiction, and sometimes vice versa. For the person who thinks, “I used to have better focus before I had a phone,” it’s not paranoia.

There is definitely some evidence mounting — albeit it’s more in small studies, and more data is needed — that digital devices change how we remember things as well as how we navigate. Of course, just about anything can change the brain. A night of sleep does that, too, but there is concern when we rely on phones to carry so much of what we previously relied on our memories to store. Telephone numbers and addresses come to mind.

Anxiety isn’t experienced merely by the nonstop-plugged-in types. It also affects the people surrounding the tech users. Ever been around an individual who ignores you to constantly check their texts? That’s called “phubbing” — or phone snubbing. Common side effects include wanting to snatch the phone away and pitch it into the road.

If your smartphone use is bothering you — as in, feeling like you need to unplug more often, or people are commenting you need to come back to the here and now — there are ways to dial back. An app (Yes! An app!) can help track usage, just to show how much time and energy is being expended where. Turning off notifications, especially non-essential ones, is a good tactic. Even trying to institute a phone-free zone, or a phone-free block of time are worth considering.


  • – Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health
  • – How to Break Up With Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Back Your Life
  • – Cell Phone Addiction and Psychological and Physiological Health in Adolescents
  • – Substance Use and Mental Health
  • – Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders
  • – You Asked: Am I Addicted to My Phone?
  • – From Selfie Elbow to Texting Thumb: How to Avoid Smartphone Injuries
  • – The Effect of Smartphone Usage Time on Posture and Respiratory Function
  • – Smartphones May Be Changing the Way We Think
  • – 7 Scary Things You Never Knew About Cell Phone Addiction

Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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