Smartphones & Mental Health

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“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works” ~ Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook

Many of us open our eyes in the morning and immediately reach for our smartphone on our bedside table or under our pillow. Its alarm has likely woken us up and we hold onto it long after we have swiped to cancel the alarm. Perhaps we are looking at the news, the weather, social media, emails, or messages from friends.

It does not stop there, as a recent study found that Americans touch their smartphones more than 2,600 times a day on average with a daily screen time of 2.42 hours over 76 separate sessions. For the top 10% of users, interactions doubled to 5,427 touches a day with a screen time of 3.75 hours and 132 sessions.[1]

Problematic smartphone use is a major topic in recent months, especially with screen time vastly increasing over lockdown in both adults and children. We have become so intertwined with our digital lives that around 73% of people report experiencing mild to moderate panic if they are without their phone, and 83.5% of people in a recent study reported experiencing Phantom Phone Sensations (PSS), or the false perception that one’s cell phone is ringing, vibrating, or blinking,[2] when without their device.

Many of us wish we spent less time on our smartphones but find it incredibly difficult to disconnect from them. Why are our smartphones so hard to ignore?

Smart Phone Addiction

A smartphone itself is not inherently addictive, and there is no doubt that smartphones are vastly beneficial.  However, like substance use, smart phone use sets off a pleasure/reward cycle that can have a negative impact on many areas of your life and is associated with increased levels of anxiety, depression, self-harming behaviors, and poor sleep quality.[3]

Our attachment to these devices is driven by the social environment they provide. Humans are social creatures and require community in order to thrive and survive as a species. Connection, and a drive towards sociability and acceptance by the group, is a core aspect of our hard-wired survival response system. Smartphones and social media create hypersocial environments which we can carry with us at all times of the day.

Screen use releases dopamine in the brain, which has a pleasurable effect on the body, a calming effect on the mind, and leaves us wanting more. Dopamine can also negatively affect impulse control, which can create a cycle of dependency.

Dopamine is a chemical released by the brain that influences mood and feelings of reward and is largely responsible for our motivating behavior. Dopamine serves to reinforce certain behaviors and encourages us to repeat them.  We experience dopamine as a result of sensual pleasure, delicious food, the endorphins released during exercise, and through successful social interactions.[4]

Research undertaken by cognitive neuroscientists demonstrated that positive social stimuli activate strong dopaminergic reward pathways.[5]  These stimuli include speaking to loved ones, receiving cards and messages, seeing laughing faces, and experiencing positive recognition. Smartphones provide an almost unending stream of social stimuli which, due to the dopamine reward system, is extremely difficult to retreat from.

It is commonly accepted that social media platforms have been designed to promote behavioral reinforcement and behavioral addiction.[6] Becoming locked in this reward cycle has far reaching negative consequences, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Smartphone-related compulsive behavior
  • Functional impairment
  • Withdrawal
  • Impaired ability to read emotions
  • Impaired empathy
  • Delayed speech
  • Memory impairment
  • Weakened social skills
  • Lack of confidence and self-esteem
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Difficulty with problem-solving and creative thinking
  • Cyber bullying and exposure to predators
  • Body weight issues

The following are some of the warning signs to look out for if you are concerned that you or someone you love has problematic smartphone use:[7]

  • Losing interest in other activities
  • Using screens as a “mood booster”
  • Being deceitful regarding usage
  • Usage interfering with relationships
  • Experiencing withdrawal or panic

In his research paper published in the Journal of the International Child Neurology Association, [8] psychologist Dr. Aric Sigman’s writes, “‘[a]ddiction’ is a term increasingly used to describe the growing number of children engaging in a variety of different screen activities in a dependent, problematic manner.”

Smartphone Use and the Brain

It is evidenced that extended periods of screen time affect the brain’s function and development. A recent study has demonstrated that children’s brains are more susceptible to significant changes in structure and connectivity, which can stunt neural development and lead to a screen dependency disorder.[9]

The National Institute of Health has launched an ambitious $300 million study[10] on how screen time impacts the physical structure of children’s brains and mental health. Dr.Gaya Dowling, of the National Institutes of Health, states that MRI scans of over 4,500 participants found significant differences in the brains of children with heavy smartphone use.  The scans show a premature thinning of the frontal cortex, which is associated with disrupted attention and arousal processes as well as visual memory for social stimuli. These children also scored lower on cognitive function, problem solving, and language tests.

Finding a Balance

Smartphones are truly beneficial devices, with endless time saving, sometimes even lifesaving, apps available. The social connection and entertainment and information services they provide are also a positive contribution to our lives, especially during this last year of lockdown. However, balance is key.

Understanding your relationship with your smartphone is the first step. By bringing awareness to your usage, your reliance on cell phone, your attachment to it, and how you feel without it, you will start to discover what your relationship to your smartphone really entails. If you are concerned that you are too attached, are spending too much time on it, or are finding it difficult to reduce your usage, then try these tips:

  1. Turn off all notifications, except those from select contacts – Removing all notifications except for calls and text messages from people you wish to hear from will result in your having fewer distractions from buzzes and blinking lights.
  2. Go grayscale – The colorful apps are designed to draw your attention and invoke use. By removing the color, these apps will become less appealing.
  3. Limit what’s on your home screen – Removing all but necessary apps means that you have to search for them. That one small step between you and the app might be all it takes to put your phone back down.
  4. Take social media off your phone – By removing social media, you are limiting the time spent endlessly scrolling or checking Likes and Comments for dopamine hits.
  5. Charge your phone outside of your bedroom – This will improve your sleep and limit your usage before sleep and when you wake.

If you are concerned about any issues discussed in this blog, please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates.  Call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com today.


[1] Winnick, Michael. “Putting A Finger on Our Phone Obsession”. Blog.Dscout.Com, 2020, https://blog.dscout.com/mobile-touches.

[2] Sauer, Vera J. et al. “The Phantom in My Pocket: Determinants of Phantom Phone Sensations”. Mobile Media & Communication, vol 3, no. 3, 2015, pp. 293-316. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1177/2050157914562656. Accessed 19 May 2021.

[3] Lemola, Sakari et al. “Adolescents’ Electronic Media Use at Night, Sleep Disturbance, and Depressive Symptoms in the Smartphone Age”. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, vol 44, no. 2, 2014, pp. 405-418. Springer Science and Business Media LLC, doi:10.1007/s10964-014-0176-x. Accessed 19 May 2021.

[4] Krach, Sören. “The Rewarding Nature of Social Interactions”. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 2010. Frontiers Media SA, doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2010.00022. Accessed 19 May 2021.

[5] Krach, Sören. “The Rewarding Nature of Social Interactions”. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 2010. Frontiers Media SA, doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2010.00022. Accessed 19 May 2021.

[6] “You Can’t Stop Checking Your Phone Because Silicon Valley Designed it that Way | CBC Radio”. CBC, 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/sunday/the-sunday-edition-september-16-2018-1.4822353/you-can-t-stop-checking-your-phone-because-silicon-valley-designed-it-that-way-1.4822360?x-eu-country=true.

[7] “5 Warning Signs Your Child May Have a Screen Addiction and How to Deal with It”. Familyeducation, 2021, https://www.familyeducation.com/kids/5-warning-signs-of-screen-addiction.

[8] Sigman, Aric. “Screen dependency disorders: a new challenge for child neurology.” Journal of the International Child Neurology Association (2017).

[9] “Screen Dependency Disorder: Effects of Screen Addiction”. Neurohealth Associates, 2021, https://nhahealth.com/screen-dependency-disorder-the-effects-of-screen-time-addiction/.

[10] “Too Much Screen Time Can Change the Structure of Kids’ Brains – Health News, Medibulletin”. Health News, Medibulletin, 2019, https://medibulletin.com/too-much-screen-time-can-change-the-structure-of-kids-brains/.

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