Smartphone addiction has such a hold on our society that—hey! We see you eyeing that back button. Your attention span may be as short as a golden retriever’s, but you’ll want to stick around, because today we explore the psychology of smartphone addiction.  

We’ll also provide some tips and resources to help you break away from your phone—at least, long enough to accomplish the goals most important to you. 

The Call Is Coming From Inside the House 

Your smartphone is often the first thing you see after lifting your head from your pillow and the last thing you see before drifting off to sleep. It’s your constant companion, a magical gateway granting access to near-infinite distractions, opportunities for engagement, and stores of information.  

Yet when you’re out to dinner, you haven’t checked your notifications in ages, and the compulsion builds until you just have to peek, your phone can be your greatest adversary.   

If you can’t put down your phone even when it has a severe negative impact on your life, you may be addicted to your phone—and you aren’t alone. 

Smartphone Use in the U.S. 

Virtually every American owns a cellphone, and the vast majority (90%) own a smartphone. There’s no escape from their familiar glow. Google Trends reveals that searches for “phone addiction” and “social media addiction” have been on the rise for years.  

“[Technology] interrupts our own story, interrupts our ability to have a thought or a daydream, to imagine something wonderful because we’re too busy bridging the walk from the cafeteria back to the office on the cell
phone.” —Steven Spielberg 

Teens, whose brains have yet to fully develop, are especially susceptible to the algorithms tech companies use to keep them clicking and scrolling. According to a 2022 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, about 35% of teens say they are on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook “almost constantly,” with about half of teens saying it would be hard to give up social media.  

Diminishing Returns 

The problem is dopamine. Commonly referred to as the “feel-good” hormone, dopamine is the brain’s major reward and pleasure neurotransmitter. Anything that causes pleasure triggers a dopamine release. While it’s a common misconception that dopamine makes you happy, the hormone actually reinforces behaviors that make you happy.  

Smartphones are so addictive because every time we use them—to like an Instagram post, watch a YouTube video, or play Wordle—it triggers a surge of dopamine. After an initial rush of dopamine, there’s a dip like a craving: What goes up must come down. If a person isn’t addicted, the craving passes, but if they continue binging, the brain compensates with lower and lower dips.   

“Mommy let you use your iPad; you were barely two. And it did all the
things we designed it to do.” —Bo Burnham in “Welcome to the Internet” 

By then, the brain is hooked. It needs more dopamine; it needs to feel like it felt the first time it engaged with the stimulus. The brain is now dependent on diminishing dopamine returns, and like any addict, the smartphone user is chasing a high they’ll never reach.  

To better understand the relationship between dopamine and addiction, watch this heartbreaking (and we mean heartbreaking) cartoon kiwi’s desperate search for golden nuggets.  

Setting Some Healthy Boundaries 

If you think you’re addicted to your smartphone, don’t be too hard on yourself. Smartphones and apps are designed to be as addictive as possible. There are scientists at billion-dollar companies who are toiling away to make these devices even more addictive.  

As with any addiction, there’s no shame in reaching out. Doctors and therapists can help address the underlying causes of smartphone addiction. However, making a few changes in your routine can make a world of difference in how you interact with your devices. 

Here are some steps you can take to develop a healthier relationship with your smartphone: 

  • Keep your phone in another room when you need to focus. 
  • Change your settings to turn off push notifications. 
  • Delete mobile games and apps that consume too much time. (You know the ones.) 
  • Take a break from social media. Better yet, get off it completely.  
  • Download a focus app and improve your productivity while you’re at it. 

Smartphones are addictive precisely because they are incredible tools, but that’s all they are: tools. At the end of the day, you’re the one in control.  

Learn More About the Psychology of Addiction 

We hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the psychology of smartphone addiction. If you’re fascinated by all things psychology, your journey doesn’t have to end here. 

In The University of Texas Permian Basin’s online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology program, you can dive deep into the world of psychology and learn about not only addiction but also the intricacies of human behavior. 

Whether you’re fascinated by the inner workings of the human mind or driven to make a positive impact on individuals and communities, our online BA in psychology program can be your gateway to a fulfilling and impactful career. Courses like Cognitive Psychology, Positive Psychology, and Drugs and Behavior provide a comprehensive education while being flexible enough to fit around your schedule.  

Apply to UT Permian Basin and its online BA in psychology program and take the next step toward understanding what exactly makes us tick.