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What is phone addiction and how to tell if you have it

Could you be using your phone in an unhealthy way?

Two men lay in bed on their phones
Two men lay in bed on their phones

If you’re one of the 98% of Australians who use a smartphone, you may have wondered if you, or perhaps one of your friends or family members, was at risk of developing a smartphone addiction.

On average, Australians spend up to three hours a day on a smartphone — and this screen time increases to more than six hours when you add in tablets and computers.

But before further considering if you have a smartphone addiction, the question must be asked: Is this condition even real?

Technically, no. That’s according to psychologist and cyberpsychology researcher Jocelyn Brewer.

“We do not recognise ‘addiction’ to smartphones or particular devices, apps or games,” she says.

'Smartphone addiction' is not officially recognised as an addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

“That is not to say that using them may not become problematic for a small proportion of people who are unable to control their habits," Jocelyn clarifies. "And for those people whose technology use has negative impacts across several domains of their life.”

What is the effect of using a mobile phone too much?

From a physical perspective, excessive phone use can see people become less physically active and more likely to experience eye strain, ‘tech-neck’ and postural issues, Jocelyn says. It can also result in unsafe behaviours, such as getting distracted by phones while driving.

In addition, mobile phone use can lead to anxiety and negatively impact our general wellbeing.

“The sheer volume of information we consume daily can be a source of mental fog because our brains are not used to processing high levels of visual and text stimulus daily,” Jocelyn adds.

However, she notes that these physical and mental impacts are not always linked to how much time you spend on your phone but rather how you use it.

Talking to a friend, using a meditation app or listening to a podcast while out walking don’t fall into the same harmful usage category as disengaging from friends, engaging in online abuse and regularly absorbing hours of endless videos in one sitting, she explains.

Related: How social media can harm your mental health

A young couple's faces are illuminated by their phone as they lay in bed in the dark

How do you know if you’re 'addicted' to your phone?

While professionals may not yet formally diagnose someone as having a mobile phone addiction, Jocelyn says there are clear signs that you’re not using your phone in a healthy way.

You experience poor sleep.

Looking at devices, including smartphones, before bedtime can impact your sleep quality. A lack of sleep has a domino effect on mood, metabolism and memory – all of which impact your wellbeing.

You feel lost without your phone.

Most of us have likely experienced nomophobia, characterised by the fear or anxiety of being separated from our mobile phones or unable to use them. Our reliance on technology for just about everything - communication, entertainment, information, checking the time, reminding us to wake-up makes this a normalised part of our lives and hard to shift.

You reduce your human interactions.

Your mobile phone usage could impact your social life. Warning signs include when you start to prioritise online activities over being with people, lose enjoyment doing activities that are not online or feel anxious without your phone.

You use your phone as a distraction.

If you always reach for your phone when you have a short break in activity or nothing to do, you might be using your phone as a coping mechanism to avoid being alone with your thoughts or noticing your feelings.

Related: Lacking in energy? Your night-time routine could be to blame

Tips to promote a healthy relationship with your phone

If your mobile use feels compulsive and unhealthy, here are some immediate things you can do:

  • Have phone-free time before bed, or better yet, set yourself screen time limits or turn off notifications for a set period of time

  • Sit upright when you're digitally engaged to avoid slouching and neck strain

  • Follow groups that align with your interests or professional aspirations

  • Unfollow people or brands that spam or post poor-quality content

  • Call people and have a conversation while you go on a walk

  • Resist the urge to jump on your phone while waiting in lines – look around and notice others and your own feelings instead

  • Don’t text while walking or crossing roads, and pull over to talk while driving

  • Do a digital declutter and remove apps you don’t use

  • Choose apps that support your wellbeing like meditation apps.

Jocelyn encourages people to consider their technology use, like their relationship with food.

“We need to think about not just the time spent on our devices, but also the ‘virtual’ vitamins and nutrients we get from the online activities we engage with.”

She advises phone users to create habits that give them the healthy bits of technology – such as connection, communication and quality information. And on the flip side, avoid the unhealthy bits – compulsive and mindless scrolling, viewing poor quality content or “snacking” too much on social media.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach,” Jocelyn says. “It’s about being intentional with your time and being aligned to the stuff that matters.”

If you’re worried about your phone use, have a chat with your GP or psychologist.

Knowing where to start when breaking a bad habit – like cutting back on your phone usage – can be a little confusing, so we’ve compiled a few tips and tricks to help. Check out our article How to break bad habits for more.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

About Jocelyn Brewer

Jocelyn Brewer is a Sydney-based psychologist and cyberpsychology researcher. She applies psychological principles and evidence-based strategies to help positively shape behaviour in the digital age. In 2013 she founded Digital Nutrition, a positive tech-use philosophy. Her expertise means she’s in demand with both clients and the media – Jocelyn is regularly interviewed on everything from managing screen time to improving digital literacy, even appearing on The Project and Q&A. The first time she appeared on TV was Romper Room in 1982!