A person examining a brain that is addicted to smartphones

The tell-tale signs of smartphone ‘addiction’

The photographer of the "Humans of New York" project

Is this you?

It’d be wrong to try to equate most smartphone overuse with, say, gambling addiction.  But there’s no doubt that both can have real health effects and – at least as far as the tell-tale signs that you’re losing control of your ‘habit’ are concerned – there are parallels.

James A. Roberts, a Baylor University professor, has argued that the six core components of addiction – salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, and relapse – also apply to cellphone use. 

So on Roberts’ scale, how does your smartphone use measure up?  Let’s take a look.


Salience is about how important, how ingrained, something is in your life. If your phone’s at your side 24/7, or it’s your default ‘go-to’ whenever you’re unsure what to do, that feels pretty embedded.  Is reaching for your phone the first thing you do when you wake up?

Mood Modification

Key to why certain things are ‘addictive’ is because of the high – the dopamine hit – they give us. Whether it’s your post getting ‘Liked’ or scrolling through funny memes, it’s about getting that little pleasure hit.  And the more we link that to our phone, the more we keep going back to it.  Do you grab your phone if you’re feeling low or bored?


Over time, though, the high decreases, and you find yourself having to go back more and more to get the same overall buzz.  That’s our tolerance increasing, and it means our use goes up and up, especially as phone and app makers add fresh new functions.  Do you use your phone more now than a year ago?


It might sound odd to talk about withdrawal symptoms from a phone.  But think about it: the anxious feeling when you’re away from your phone; getting twitchy fingers when it’s out of reach, feeling ‘phantom’ message alert vibrations – they’re really just withdrawal symptoms.  Do you panic if your phone battery dies?


Conflict and addiction often go hand-in-hand. It’s true with phones too.  Overusing a smartphone can leave loved ones feeling ignored, or they might call out negative changes in your behavior you haven’t noticed.  Would your friends or family say you use your phone too much?


Habits are hard to break. And a recent Deloitte survey showed that’s certainly true for phones. Around two-thirds of American phone users said they were trying to cut back their use.  Yet only half of those were successful.  Have you tried and failed to change certain phone habits?

Did you answer yes to most of the questions above?

It’s in your hands.