Why You Can't Put Your Phone Down

It’s meant to be addictive

  • The percentage of US adults who use their smartphones "too much" has jumped in recent years.
  • Experts say phone addictions happen because our brains are wired to like mobile devices.
  • Leaving your phone outside of your bedroom has been found to improve your sleep significantly.
Group of friends in the street with smartphone

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You aren't alone if you feel like you barely peel your eyes from your phone these days. 

The percentage of US adults who say they use their smartphones "too much" has increased in recent years, rising from 39 percent in 2015 to 58 percent today, according to a new Gallup study. Experts say it's because our brains are wired to like mobile devices. 

Smartphones "have the same chemical reaction in the brain as drugs and alcohol. Getting "likes" and notifications from your phone release dopamine, which makes us feel good, and in turn, we want to repeat these feel-good behaviors," Melissa Huey, a professor of behavioral sciences at New York Institute of Technology who studies the impact of smartphones on young adults, told Lifewire in an email interview.

"We create an addictive and endless cycle," Huey continued, "where we're constantly looking at our phone to feel better. However, when we don't get likes or notifications, we feel depressed and lonely, which creates an adverse effect."

More Screen Time

Americans might say they use their smartphone too much, but nearly two-thirds think their smartphone has improved their life, with 21 percent saying it has made their life "a lot" better and 44 percent saying it's "a little" better, according to the Gallup poll. This has declined slightly from the 72 percent perceiving a net benefit in 2015. Only 12 percent say smartphones have made their life worse to any degree.

The poll found that the most significant change in phone habits has been in using smartphones for online purchases, rising from 11 percent who said they spent more time on their smartphone than their computer in 2015 to 42 percent today, a 31-percentage-point increase.

Matt Wallaert, head of behavioral science at frog, a design company that has closely collaborated with Apple and many other tech giants, pointed out in an email interview that phones aren't simply addictive: they're useful. 

"A lot of what we mistake for phone addiction is just utility—activities we used to do elsewhere (read, play games, interact with others) are now mediated by our smartphones," Wallaert added. "So we need to be thoughtful about separating utility from addiction."

Taking Your Time Back

If you feel like your phone use is out of control, setting boundaries can help, Alexander Bentley, CEO of REMEDY Wellbeing, a mental health treatment center, told Lifewire via email. For example, Bentley said, try not allowing a phone in the bedroom, or leaving it in a different room at mealtimes. 

"Finding balance by not always using your phone can reduce reliance. When a phone can do anything, it becomes easy to become dependent," Bentley added. "But finding alternatives can be easy. Using a laptop, or even a tablet, for research, or reading a paper book, rather than on your phone, can make a huge difference."

Wallaert described human behavior as a competition between promoting pressures (which makes you more likely to do a behavior) and inhibiting pressures (which makes you less likely to do a behavior). 

"Find yourself using your phone a lot because you want to play a game? That's a promoting pressure, so counter it with some inhibiting pressures: use the in-built features to limit your time on the game, move it to the last screen, so you have to swipe over to get it, etc.," Wallaert added. "Using your phone instead of going for a run? The problem may not be the phone—maybe going for a run is easier to do by setting out your shoes and scheduling time on your calendar."

Mobile phone addiction - couple is texting and browsing in the bed

praetorianphoto / Getty Images

Just put your phone away, Huey advised. She said that leaving your phone outside of your bedroom can significantly improve your sleep. According to the Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans reporting they keep their smartphone near them at night while they sleep has increased slightly, from 63 percent to 72 percent. Additionally, a new question this year finds 64 percent saying they check their smartphone as soon as they wake up in the morning.

"Putting your phone away when out with family and friends can improve your overall experience and in turn, your relationships," Huey added. "Staying mindful in the moment is crucial. When you have your phone with you, turning notifications off or using apps that restrict your usage can also help to create limits."

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