Addiction to Mobile Phones

Frequent reading of e-mails, automatic logging on to applications like WhatsApp,  Facebook, and others; looking for the phone even when it isn't clear what we need it for; using the phone while driving although we know this endangers our own life and that of others on the road; preferring the phone over social activities or sleep - the reality around us is much less interesting; the thought of losing the phone has become unbearable – does all this sound familiar?  Forty-four percent of Americans reported experiencing anxiety states after losing a phone and not being able to replace it immediately. 

The term 'addiction' is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as: 'a strong and harmful need to regularly have something (such as a drug) or do something (such as gamble)'.  This definition seems to fit mobile phone 'addicts'.


According to a survey by the PEW Research Institute, 90% of adults in the USA possessed a mobile phone in 2014, and 64% owned smartphones at the beginning of 2015, an increase of 35% since 2011; 85% of young adults owned a smartphone. Various studies have shown that the most intensive use of mobile phones is among young adults, such as students.  In a study conducted as early as the 1980s, students at an American college declared that they considered the phone to be an integral part of who they were – a sort of extension of themselves. The smartphones constitute an important level in maintaining social relations and in conducting urgent daily tasks.  Smartphones are rapidly replacing laptop computers for surfing the web; as of 2015, 15% of young Americans aged 18-29 used them for Internet access.


A study conducted in 2014 among 164 students at an American college found that female students used the mobile phones significantly more frequently than males.  For example, it was found that average daily talk-time was 37.1 minutes as opposed to 29.3 minutes, and average texting duration was 105.4 minutes as opposed to 84.4 minutes, respectively.  Also, 60% of the students admitted they might be addicted to their mobile phones, and that they felt uncomfortable when the phone was outside their range of vision.


Why does the mobile phone engender a feeling of addiction that reaches a state where we require its presence in our lives at all times?

In the 1950s the American psychologist, Burrhus Frederic Skinner investigated the theory of variable rewards.  He studied the effects on behavior of a positive reward, such as a treat, on mice.  Mice that pressed a lever and randomly obtained a variable reward (sometimes a small treat, sometimes a large one and sometimes none) reached a state of heightened awareness and pressed the lever compulsively, compared with mice that received the same reward at each attempt.  The mice's behavior when confronted with variable rewards may be compared to human behavior when receiving text messages on the mobile phone.  We look at the phone immediately when we hear any sound from it, without knowing what kind of reward awaits us.  It may be a small reward in the form of daily messages providing information, notices of bargains in various stores, etc.,  or the sound may herald a bigger reward, such as a gladdening message from a friend, mail from a loved one, or a funny video clip which is a 'must see'.  It is the big rewards that create the addiction, and because we don't know when they will arrive, we press the lever compulsively in the hope of receiving them.


The variable rewards pattern of behavior is connected to the dopamine system in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that links between desire and habit.  The dopamine system encourages us to repeat the behavior that has earned us a reward; the unexpected rewards give rise to secretion of higher levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, thus reinforcing this behavior, i.e. there exists a mechanism which reinforces its repetitiveness.  Theories linking the variable rewards theory to the use of mobile phones have not yet been backed up by reliable scientific studies.  It may be expected that the impressive presence of mobile phones in our lives will give rise to additional publications reporting the various behavioral effects related to their use.


To avoid addiction to the mobile phone we, the users, should try to understand our precise needs for the device.  It is important to distinguish between a 'real' need that exploits the advantages of the device, and a need promoted by the mobile phone companies and applications developers, that is self-perpetuating through addiction to the device. 



  • PEW Mobile Technology Fact Sheet, 2014. Available at: Last accessed 10 May 2015
  • Pew Research Center, April, 2015, “The Smartphone Difference”  Available at: Last accessed 10 May 2015
  • Belk RW.. Possessions and the extended self. Journal of Consumer Research 1988; 15:139–168.
  • Roberts JA, Petnji Yaya LH, Manolis C. The invisible addiction: Cell-phone activities and addiction among male and female college students. J Behav Addict. 2014; 3:254-265.
  • Ferster CB. and Skinner BF. Schedules of reinforcement. 1957; New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.