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Identifying and finding help for smartphone addiction
Posted in Addiction, Treatment

Smartphones have become an indispensible part of our lives, as they are now being used to boost organization, creativity and productivity in classrooms and workplaces. It may be difficult to imagine life without being glued to our smartphones — admittedly, we spend hours of each day repeatedly checking email and social media, playing online games and streaming online music and videos — but can we really become addicted to them?

A recent Nielson study found that, on average, American smartphone users accessed 26.7 mobile applications per month, and spent 37 hours and 28 minutes per month engaging on those apps — smartphone users in the U.S. spend 63 percent more time using apps than they did just two years ago. As the problematic use of our computers, the internet and other technology is currently being debated, the idea that we might be addicted to our smartphones is much more of a possibility than we think.

A survey of college students

Tanya M. Luhrmann, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology at Stanford University, conducted a 2010 survey, which included more than 175 undergraduate students, and found that many people saw their iPhone as part of their identity or an extension of themselves; some students said that without their phone they felt disconnected from the world around them, and many reported that they were worried about becoming obsessed.

Nearly 69 percent said that they were more likely to forget their wallet than their iPhone and 75 percent reported that they had fallen asleep with their phone in bed with them. In addition, Luhrmann also found that:

  • 42 percent of users said that their iPhone was addictive
  • 32 percent worried that they would become addicted to their iPhone
  • 71 percent said they had used their iPhone to avoid making contact with someone
  • 36 percent said that someone had complained that they used their iPhone too much

Defining internet addiction

In a 1996 seminal paper, Kimberly S. Young, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, compared the differences in internet usage among people classified as “dependent,” or those who had a dependence to online usage, and “non-dependents,” or those who were not dependent on the internet. She found that those classified as having dependence to online usage spent an average of 38.5 hours per week on the internet compared to the non-dependent group.

Young suggested using pathological gambling as a model for defining internet addiction as an impulse control disorder that does not involve a substance (e.g., alcohol, drugs), and proposed that problematic computer use met the criteria for addiction and should be included in the newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association).

A significant public health concern

Alexander Winkler, a professor from the department of clinical psychology and psychotherapy at the University of Marburg in Germany, and his colleagues from the reSTART Internet Addiction Recovery Program in Fall City, Washington, reviewed the research on internet addiction disorder (IAD) and suggested that the prevalence rates reported for IAD ranged between 0.3 to 38 percent.

While internet use disorder isn’t classified as a mental disorder yet, other countries such as China and South Korea have identified internet addiction as a significant public health concern, and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has recommended that researchers further investigate internet addiction for its possible inclusion as a mental disorder in the DSM.

Internet gaming disorder

Internet gaming disorder is the umbrella term for disorders related to internet usage that is listed in the DSM-5 to encourage further empirical investigation to determine whether it should be added to the manual as a disorder. People who have internet gaming disorder may spend eight to 10 hours or more per day sitting at a computer and engaging in gaming activities while neglecting other activities, including going for long periods without sleep. Growing evidence suggests that the compulsive use of mobile applications and the internet for gaming is associated with the activation of specific regions of the brain, including the brain’s reward system, which reinforces gaming behavior through the release of dopamine when users playing a mobile game win.

Treatment options for internet addiction

More research is necessary to clarify whether or not conditions such as internet addiction and internet gaming disorder should be classified as a mental disorder. Regardless of the fact that internet addiction disorder is not currently listed in the DSM-5, recent studies estimate that the pathological or problematic internet overuse among adolescents in the U.S. may be as high as 26.3 percent.

At present, there are not any evidence-based treatments established for the treatment of internet addiction; however, in 2013, Young opened an internet detoxification and stabilization program — a 10-day voluntary inpatient program to treat internet addiction — in the behavioral health division at Bradford Regional Medical Center.

Winkler and his colleagues suggested some non-psychological and psychological interventions to treat IAD, including:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for comorbid psychiatric symptoms
  • Physical exercise to compensate for decreases in dopamine levels
  • Motivation interviewing (MI) techniques to teach clients new behavioral skills
  • Community reinforcement and family training to help people with internet addiction become more motivated to cut back on their use
  • Reality therapy (RT) to encourage people to choose to improve their lives by committing to behavioral change
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for problematic internet pornography viewing
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) due to its effectiveness in treating other behavioral addictions and impulse control disorders, including pathological and compulsive shopping and eating disorders (e.g., bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder)

Susan Davis, in a WebMD feature that was reviewed by Laura J. Martin, M.D., offered other suggestions for managing smartphone usage, including the following:

  • Become more conscious of situations and emotions that make you want to check your phone (e.g., boredom, loneliness, anxiety, etc.)
  • Take regular time off from using your smartphone
  • Become more disciplined
  • Avoid temptation by turning off alerts

While researchers may still be far away from reaching a clear consensus on whether or not we can have a behavioral addiction to our smartphones, we may see more of these conditions in the future.

Sovereign Health of Texas provides comprehensive and individualized behavioral health treatment programs for patients who have addiction and co-occurring disorders. For more information on the benefits of exercise or how exercise is incorporated into treatment programs at Sovereign Health of Texas, please contact our 24/7 helpline to speak to a member of our team.

About the author

Amanda Habermann is a writer for the Sovereign Health Group. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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