Why We Love Our Smartphones So Much

Handy, but are they healthy?

Key Takeaways

  • A new survey finds that Americans think phones are the biggest necessity in their lives. 
  • Some experts say our love of phones is hurting us by affecting our sleep and mental health. 
  • Social media apps are feeding our phone addiction because they are designed to grab our attention.
A parent with four children, all of them except the youngest using smartphones.
Elva Etienne / Getty Images

Americans say phones are the No. 1 necessity in their lives, but some mental health experts advise us to put the screens away. 

According to new research from tech care company Asurion, phones are now more important to users than vehicles or refrigerators. The online poll of over 1,000 US adults reveals the need to stay connected during the pandemic. Some observers say it could be due to the dopamine released in our brains when we're using our phones. 

"Excessive screen time and doom-scrolling can adversely affect mood, sleep and overall mental wellness," Dr. Leela R. Magavi, the regional medical director for Community Psychiatry, an outpatient mental health organization, said in an email interview.

"Incessantly reviewing and scrolling through anxiety-inducing stories about things such as COVID-19 could exacerbate feelings of despair and helplessness."

All Phones, All the Time

Putting down our phones may be a tough challenge. The Asurion research found that at least half of Americans use their phones more during the pandemic for entertainment or to connect with the important people in their lives.

Additionally, three-quarters of Americans’ phones have irreplaceable information, including photos and videos (82%), their contact lists (60%), passwords or login credentials (52%), documents and essential notes (45%), and music (32%). 

Magavi knows firsthand the allure of the glowing screen. "I call my sister and parents on a daily basis, so the phone symbolizes an avenue to connect with the individuals I love the most," she said.

“Our phones are the first thing we look at in the morning, and the last thing we look at before falling asleep.”

"Since my sister is also a physician who works very long hours, I never want to miss her calls because that is our window of time to connect, destress, and process daily events."

She’s had to set strict limits on her phone use. Magavi puts her ringer on silent except for her favorites list, since she evaluates patients throughout the day. 

"Years ago, I would run around frantically if I could not find my phone, but now, I feel a sense of peace even when I am not by my phone for hours at a time," she said.

"I believe everyone can achieve this peace with time and practice."

Can You Be Addicted to a Phone?

Andrew Selepak, a social media professor at the University of Florida, said in an email interview that we are addicted to our phones. 

"Our phones are the first thing we look at in the morning and the last thing we look at before falling asleep," he added.

"We look at our phones throughout the day because our phones are constantly vibrating, beeping, and notifying us of something to look at whether it is a push notification from an app or a social media notification of a like, comment, retweet, share, or message."

Social media apps are feeding our phone addiction because they are designed to grab our attention, Selepak said. 

A group of young adults standing in a circle, all looking at their smartphones.
RyanJLane / Getty Images

"Our brains have not evolved far enough to handle the constant reward system that social media provides through our phones," he added.

"So we keep posting and commenting, waiting for that notification to go off to let us know someone, somewhere, saw what we did and rewarded our action with an action of their own of a like or comment."

Lynette Abrams-Silva, a clinical neuropsychologist at VIP Star Network, said in an email interview that people could be literally addicted to their phones. Using your phone gives you a rush of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that contributes heavily to feelings of reward.

"The dopamine reward system that is involved in our relationship with our phones is the same one that is involved in substance-related disorders," she said. 

But even though Abrams-Silva knows the addictive potential of her phone, she has a hard time putting it down. 

"When mine broke, and I had to wait three days for a replacement, my husband said that getting some distance from the depressing, distressing 24-hour news cycle would be good for me," she said.

"After feeling agitated, irritable, and distracted for three days, I happily sank back into my dopamine-fueled doom-scrolling."

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