Addiction Psychology smartphones and tablets Technology

Addictive Behavior to Smart Phones

smartphones| addiction| behavior 

person holding phone and texting oudoors
Are you addicted to the way you interact with your smart phone or device? Find out more about why this matters to you, your health, and your relationships.

After reading Mel Robbin’s book, “The Five Second Rule”, I decided to check out her free 31 day online mentoring program offered to anyone who purchased her book. For me, the online mass coaching program, though generalized, is a great way for a new author to display the depth of her knowledge and the power of her research. I signed up, hit, “Submit,” and then I admit, I didn’t expect to be challenged.

Yet within the first seven days, Mel’s program had me at, “Put your cellphone away from your nightstand.” In essence, she had pointed out a significant flaw in my own behavioral routines and subroutines. Within a few hours, I was aware that I was more addicted to the way I had coded my own behavior around these fascinating devices. And that addicted behavior was controlling me more than I was controlling them.

Now, before you close this page because something in your brain is telling you that you don’t need to hear a message that may ask you to change something you don’t want to change, please do yourself a favor. Take a deep breath, call bullocks on your own Resistance, and keep reading to the very end.

Are You Addicted to the Behaviors You Apply to Your SmartPhone? 

First, let me clarify two things. I am asking if you are addicted to behaviors, not to the device itself. Technically, you can’t get addicted to an inanimate object that isn’t releasing something into your physical body, such as alcohol, drugs, sex, or gambling. However, you can become addicted to behaviors, and you can show dysfunction, loss of control, and mood disturbances when you change your relationship to your smartphone by altering your behaviors. 

Second, addiction to those behaviors  are not limited to smartphones. Tablets, computers,  cable television, online games, and offline video games are also included when talking about the potential for  addictive behavior.

How would you be able to determine if you have developed addictive behaviors around any of these devices? Since the DSM-V does not have a category for addictive behavior around devices, therapists have been using guidelines around other established addictions, such as gambling. By adapting the signs and symptoms of gambling addiction to an addiction involving technology use, you can see more clearly if you experience these:

At least 4 of the following signs and symptoms are thought to comprise criteria for cell phone addiction, and the problematic cell phone overuse must cause significant harm in the individual’s life:

  • A need to use the cell phone more and more often in order to achieve the same desired effect.
  • Persistent failed attempts to use cell phone less often.
  • Preoccupation with smartphone use.
  • Turns to cell phone when experiencing unwanted feelings such as anxiety or depression.
  • Excessive use characterized by loss of sense of time.
  • Has put a relationship or job at risk due to excessive cell phone use.
  • Tolerance.
    • Need for newest cell phone, more applications, or increased use.
  • Withdrawal, when cell phone or network is unreachable.
    • Anger.
    • Tension.
    • Depression.
    • Irritability.
    • Restlessness.

(Taken from


Why Would You Get Addicted to Using These Devices?

With over 90% of Americans saying they own a smart phone (and some people own more than one smart device), why should you be concerned about addiction?

Think about this for a moment. In your hand is a tremendously powerful tool that not only makes phone calls, but it has apps that can help get you from one place to another  (maps), help you manage your money (banking apps), purchase items  in a store or online and have them shipped to your front door, and send you pictures of cute cats. What’s not to like, right?

Yet, what happens if you find yourself checking your phone more than 20 times a day? How about 50 times a day? A hundred times? Two hundred times? And why would any of us do this?

There is a part of us that enjoys the thrill of random chance luck. We believe that by checking our devices, we might experience one of more of a dozen pleasant rewards, everything from receiving a “like” on Social Media, to getting a notification about an interesting story, to getting the inside scoop on a sale. Along with receiving that phone call you’ve been waiting for — from a potential employer, your real estate agent telling you about the status of a house, your doctor’s office — we go beyond using the ringer on the phone to tell us when something important is ready for attention, and we check the phone, again and again and again.

Any of this ringing a bell?

Yes, That’s Me, Now What?

So, you read this far, and maybe you just admitted that you have been showing signs of addictive behavior around your smart devices. Now what?

You probably want to know how deeply engrained those behavior are. You can set up an experiment, and it’s similar to what I discovered in Mel Robbin’s online mentoring program challenge. Put your devices away from your nightstand. Make it difficult to reach for your phone or tablet at night before bed, during the night if you wake up to use the bathroom, and first thing when you wake up. Use another means to set up a wake up alarm. Don’t check Social Media and emails until you have had breakfast, and put a limit on how much time you can use in the morning to take care of work and  business-related activities.

Next, try keeping your phone either face down if you must have it at your desk during your work day, and stop checking your phone unless you have a true reason to use it. No, scrolling through Pinterest while looking for the latest picture of beaches and ocean views does not qualify.

Do this for at least one week, and at the end of the week, ask yourself if anything has changed and how you feel. Were you bored? Disorganized? Refreshed? Relieved? Was this difficult?  What happened when you didn’t scroll mindlessly through Social Media, or push notifications, or phone calls that never came?

If it wasn’t so bad, and you’d like to continue this practice of using your smartphone less (except for real phone calls, of course) beyond a week, I’d hazard a guess that you aren’t experiencing a deeply addictive behavioral process that cannot be reversed by applying this kind of self-moderated reduction in smartphone use. Keep going. It’s working for you!

If you went into withdrawal, found excuses to end the experiment, and returned back to mindless scrolling of your device, I’d strongly recommend that you delve deeper into the probability that your devices has more control over you than you have over them.

You Know What? It’s Not All Your Fault

Before you cave into thinking that you have a serious addictive behavior that points to a flaw in your character or personal strength, I want to remind you that all addictions share something in common. With enough time and repetition of the use of the addictive substance or behavior, addiction happens. It has little to do with moral turpitude

If someone were to inject me with heroin, I would quickly become addicted. It is a fact; the human body reacts to substances such as cocaine and heroin by becoming dependent. The more addictive the substance, the less exposure required to cause addiction. You and I aren’t immune to those addictive processes, and some people are more vulnerable to the process. Still, the mechanism of addiction is standard and predictable. If I put you on a diet made of pure sugar, it would not take long before your body felt it couldn’t live without it.

That doesn’t make you a bad person; it does make you human.

What makes addiction to behaviors around smartphones and similar devices is that they are designed to get your brain to like them and want more of feelings associated with use. In order words, designers use everything from color, movement, sound, and placement to get your brain to encourage you to come back again and again for random hits of pleasure.  They are designed to be addictive. 

Let me say this more clearly. You need to have a deliberate plan about how you use your smartphone in order to not fall into those same addictive behaviors that the designers of the phones and apps intend. 

Is that so bad? Yes, it can be harmful, especially as the addictive behaviors push you to put those behaviors in primacy above other activities and relationships, such as eating nutritious food, exercise, going to work and taking financial responsibility for your life,  getting adequate rest, and spending time with people you care about.

Take a look at this article about phone and app design.  BTW, it has some good suggestions to try, such as reducing the number of apps on your home screen to the most functional ones you use for getting from here to there, which all work to reduce the amount of time you spend on your smart devices. Setting your phone on gray  scale also takes away the excitement of primary colors that stimulate the brain to want to return for more eye candy.

You see, it’s not just sex that we want. We also want validation, to be liked, to be heard, to be noticed. The thing is, you don’t have to get these things from your phone; you simply learned to check your phone over and over for a search for these things and many more. And you can unlearn this habit as well.


Your Call To Action

If you are struggling with addictive behaviors around your smart devices, television, or gaming, you owe it to yourself to take an action. Some things you can do right now before you try to talk yourself out of it:

  1. Tell a trusted friend that you are struggling, and ask for help to break free.
  2. Contact a center that treats people for technology-related disorders.
  3. Book an appointment with a counselor and/or coach who can help you design a tech-free/tech reduced time to help you change your behavior

As always, I am here to listen and help you work through your challenges, exploring the source of these addictive behaviors, and identifying your choices in creating behaviors that change how you act, feel, and relate to others.


By Imei Hsu

Imei Hsu is a mental health counselor, active retired RN, AIP Coach and PN1-NC, writer, triathlete and arts promoter in the Seattle area and through online services. With 30+ years in healthcare (22+ years in mental health), Imei has a commitment to helping people discover insight into their health, relationships, and connecting. She is the owner of Seattle Direct Counseling and the blog, a presenter and speaker on a variety of psychological topics, and a positive force on the Internet. She launched her personal project, My Allergy Advocate, in 2018. Imei is a two-time Ironman Finisher (Mont-Tremblant 2016, Ironman Canada 2018); she also finished her first ultramarathon in 2017 and has gone on to race the 100K distance while preparing for 100 Mile trail races and a backyard ultra. You can find her running everywhere and eating all the thingz, watching movies, camping under the stars, and cooking real food.

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