Smart Phone Addiction (SPA) – A Recognized Behavioral Addiction

Phone addiction has become an often-discussed common mental health issue expressed by the obsessive use of a smartphone. It’s an emotional condition related to impulse-control problems that are also known as “nomophobia,” or the fear of being without a smartphone device.

Smart phone addiction (or SPA) is part of a new set of behavior addictions that have been created by modern technology and also include Problematic Internet Use (PIU) and Social Media Addiction (SMA), and the well-studied Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD). Internet Gaming Disorder has already been suggested by the American Psychiatric Association as a mental health disorder that requires further study.

The very nature of the smart phone and its evolution since introduction makes it no surprise that the devices have spawned new forms of behavioral addiction. Access to smart phones creates one huge benefit to society – almost all forms of information that you need on a personal and business level become conveniently available in the palm of your hand, or piped directly into a set of earbuds. This convenience comes at an increasingly high price due to the after-effects of the popularity of these devices.

Smart Phones – Engineered to be Addictive

There’s several major underlying issues with this technology that fosters new forms of addiction. While smart phone technology does definitely make information more accessible, you have to look further behind the scenes and pull aside the veil. This is technology developed by consumer corporations to make their core product — phone hardware and monthly services — more attractive and more competitive to other smart phone manufacturers. A huge amount of research and resources by entities with access to huge amounts of usage data goes into making a device designed 100% to be hard to put down through its use of colors, sounds, vibrations and other feedback.

When you look at statements made by ex-Google (Android) designers, phone features like “pull to refresh” were inspired by slot machines and other successful casino technologies. Phone designers and engineers have carefully and continuously developed every aspect of smart phones to create fanatical users – some models and lines of models even have attained a cult-like following.

What you end up with is a never-ending stream of smart phones that offer a more and more intense user experience as a means to get you to choose one manufacturer’s device over the one released a month ago by someone else. This immersive experience has gotten so extreme that people — children, teens and adults alike, can’t keep away from their screens.

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Phones Are Getting Smarter…And Heavy Users Aren’t

Thank goodness so much effort is going into making phones smarter. The irony is that excessive smart phone use or addictive phone use actually decreases brain strength in the heavy smart phone users. Studies as recently as 2022 based on functional MRI scans uncovered links between excessive smart phone use and altered brain activity. The study, published in Brain and Behavior, found that individuals using their phone excessively displayed different strengths in their prefrontal and parietal neural networks.

These are similar patterns to what is seen in Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD), making some researchers question if smart phone addiction is an aspect of internet gaming disorder, or a wholly different form of addictive behavior.

No matter how Smart Phone Addiction ends up being formally defined by medical professionals, here’s the tangible symptoms it creates. The effects are most prevalent in children and teens, but also extend to young adults, mature professionals and senior citizens.

  • Sleep deficits
  • Stress
  • Lower concentration
  • Loneliness
  • Creativity blocks
  • Insecurity
  • Aggravated ADD
  • Impaired relationships
  • Anxiety
  • Poor grades or work performance
  • Reduced cognition
  • Psychological disorders
  • Detachment from the real world

Reversing The Trend

If you have young children, now is your chance to limit their exposure to your smart phone, or to others phones in the household. Laying the right foundation regarding use (or non-use hopefully) of these devices in children will make it easier to for you to continue good habits as they reach their teen years and young adult years.

Modeling appropriate smart phone usage by parents, however, is an important aspect of this that cannot be ignored. Making change here can be as simple as taking your phone out of your hand and putting it away. It all starts with a conscious decision to put the device away when it is not needed and to enjoy the world around you.

With older children and teens, particularly when they have to have a phone so you can reach them, is tougher to manage and monitor.

Chronic Phone Use Changes the Brain

Excessive phone usage or addictive use of smart phones is already proven by research to change the way rewards work in the brain on a chemical basis. At the chemical level in your (and your children’s) brain, there is a neurotransmitter called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) that the brain uses to control fear and anxiety and produce calming or euphoric effects. Production of this chemical is influenced by all kinds of things including substance abuse, as production of the brain chemical rewards substance use and reinforces addictive behavior.

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Chronic phone use also increases and decreases GABA in abnormal ways, and creates an upset or disruptions of the levels of the chemical in the brain. People, especially young children and teens, are not well-equipped to handle constant disruption of this type of brain chemistry without ill results. The good news is that after teen test subjects received cognitive behavioral therapy, their brain chemistry reverted to normal levels of GABA.

Besides brain chemistry, excessive phone usage literally reduces the levels of physical grey matter in your brain. Recent studies that scanned heavy phone users’ brains showed that their brains had changes in the physical size and shape of their brains similar to that of heavy illegal drug users.

Changes in brain chemistry and brain shape and size are just two of the tangible results of smart phone addiction in younger people. There have also been increases in the rates of depression and suicide among teenagers, particularly adolescent girls, that are being investigated for correlation to excessive smart phone usage and social media usage.

What to Do

It starts with you, and your partner if you’re in a relationship. We are here to help you and your partner begin to set healthy limits for yourselves in the use of your smart phone, and to put in place replacement behaviors. If you have children in the household, the same process of change can be carefully introduced once you and your partner make progress.

Integrative Health Services, LLC is dedicated to providing expert counseling services in the Birmingham area. With a collective experience of over 60 years, our team of licensed counselors and clinical social worker brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to every client we serve. Our reputation as trusted professionals extends far and wide, as we come highly recommended by respected clinicians, lawyers, and physicians within our community. We are available via telehealth virtual appointments and are a very convenient drive from Southside as well as Homewood, Vestavia Hills, Hoover, Mountain Brook, Alabaster and more.