Since the iPhone debuted in 2007, ushering in the age of the phone-as-computer, smartphone use has exploded worldwide, with an estimated 2.3 billion users last year. According to a 2016 Pew Research survey, 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone, and other recent stats have found that users are on their phones an average of more than five hours per day—almost double the rate in 2013. More people now use a mobile device to get online than they do a computer. This is especially true in regions where people may not be able to afford a personal computer but can buy a smartphone.
We love our smartphones perhaps a little too much, and the desire to unplug is growing among people who see 24/7 connectedness as damaging to their mental health. This week, Apple announced new iPhone features meant to curb our dependence on our devices, including a weekly "Report" app that shows your phone and app usage, as well as how many times you physically pick up your phone. (One small study by the consumer research firm Dscout found that we touch our phones more than 2600 times a day.) You can also set customized limits for overall phone usage with the "Screen Time" app.
Many of us feel anxiety at the very thought of being without their phone and the access it offers to the internet. Researchers have a term for it: nomophobia ("no mobile phone phobia"). So how much smartphone use is too much?
That turns out to be a surprisingly difficult question to answer. "Smartphone addiction" isn't an official medical diagnosis. Even the experts haven't decided how much is too much—or even whether smartphone addiction is real.
To understand what's going on, we have to first step back and define what addiction is. It's different from habits, which are subconsciously performed routines, and dependence, when repeated use of something causes withdrawals when you stop. You can be dependent on something without it ruining your life. Addiction is a mental disorder characterized by compulsive consumption despite serious adverse consequences.
Yet, our understanding of behavioral addictions—especially ones that don't involve ingesting mind-altering chemicals—is still evolving. Actions that result in psychological rewards, such as a crushing a castle in Clash Royale or getting a new ping from Instagram, can turn compulsive as our brains rewire to seek that payoff (just like our smartphones, our brains use electricity to operate, and circuits of neurons can restructure to skew toward rewards). For a minority of people, it seems those compulsions can turn to addictions.
Psychologists have been treating internet addiction for almost as long as the internet has been around: Kimberly Young, a clinical psychologist and program director at St. Bonaventure University, founded the Center for Internet Addiction back in 1995. By 2013, addictive behavior connected to personal technology was common enough that in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the bible for mental disorder diagnoses, the American Psychiatric Association included "internet gaming disorder" as a condition "warranting further study." These days, thanks to an abundance of horror stories involving people who were glued to the internet until they died—and living gamers who are so engrossed in their games that they ignore paramedics removing dead gamers—internet rehabs are popping up all over the world.
But in virtually all of the medical literature published so far about internet addiction—including the WHO's forthcoming 11th edition of International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), whose "excessive use of the internet" is built around how much gaming interferes with daily life—there's no mention of smartphones.
According to Marc Potenza, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine, there's a reason for these omissions: Despite the official definitions included in the DSM-V and ICD-11, "there's debate regarding the use of those terms [internet addiction]. Both the ICD-11 group and the DSM-V group chose to focus on the behavior rather than the delivery device."
So while you may feel nomophobia when you can't find your internet "delivery device," the global psychiatric community thinks it's the internet itself that's the problem—not the phone in your hand.
THE REWARDS THAT COME FROM OUR PHONES
We are getting something from our phones, though, and it's not just access to the internet. Receiving a notification gives us a small dopamine burst, and we learn to associate that dose of pleasure with the smartphone. You may pull your phone from your pocket a dozen times an hour to check for notifications—even if you know they're not there because your phone would have, well, notified you.
It's not unusual for people to become attached to an action (checking the phone) rather than its reward (getting a notification). Sometimes smokers trying to quit feel the urge to chew or bite and need to replace cigarettes with gum or sunflower seeds. According to Stephanie Borgland, a neuroscientist and associate professor at University of Calgary, this is called a Pavlovian-instrumental transfer—a reference to Ivan Pavlov's experiments, in which he reinforced behavior in dogs through signals and rewards. Borgland tells Mental Floss that we can become compulsively attached to the cues of phone use. We cling to the physical stimuli our brains have linked to the reward.
There may be an evolutionary basis to this behavior. Like other primates, humans are social mammals, but we have dramatically higher levels of dopamine than our cousins. This neurotransmitter is associated with reward-motivated behavior. So when we get a notification on an app that tells us someone has engaged us in social interaction—which we naturally crave—it triggers our natural inclinations.
HOW TO CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (FOR YOUR PHONE)
The global psychiatric community may not be convinced our smartphones are a problem, and no one has died from checking Snapchat too often—or at least it hasn't been reported. But most of us would say that spending five hours a day on our smartphones is too much. So are there any guidelines?
At this stage of research into smartphone use, there are no specific time-limit recommendations, though some researchers are working on a smartphone addiction scale; one was proposed in a 2013 study in the journal PLOS One. Based on what's said to be coming out in the ICD-11, here's one simple guideline: Problematic smartphone use negatively interferes with your life. Some research suggests Facebook, Instagram, and even online gaming make us feel more isolated and less connected. The more we try to fill that hole by tapping away at our phones, the more we crave social interaction. "There are a number of factors that have been associated with these behaviors or conditions," says Potenza, who is developing tools to screen for and assess problematic internet use and has consulted with the WHO on these issues. "And arguably one of the most consistent ones is depression."
One way to assess whether your smartphone is a problem is noting how you react when you're cut off from it, according to the PLOS One study. The study proposed a "smartphone addiction scale" based on negative responses to being without a smartphone, among other criteria. What happens on a day when you accidentally leave it at home? Are you irritable or anxious? Do you feel isolated from friends or unsafe? Do you have trouble concentrating on work, school, or other important responsibilities, whether or not you have your phone?
While smartphones may not be truly addictive in a medical sense, learning how to use them in a more mindful, healthy manner couldn't hurt. Test yourself for nomophobia [PDF]—knowing how much time you spend online is the first step to identifying how that can be problematic. Block distracting sites or track usage via a timer or an app (beware third-party apps' privacy settings, however). Delete the apps that keep the phone in your hand even when you're not online, like games. If you're still struggling, you could ditch smartphones altogether and downgrade to a "dumb" phone or get a Light Phone, a cellular device "designed to be used as little as possible."
A recent WIRED feature argued that using the internet five hours per day isn't a personal failing so much as a reflection of the way many apps are purposely designed to keep you salivating for more. So perhaps the best measure is to leave your phone behind once in a while. Schedule a screen-free Sunday. Go for a walk in the woods. Meditate. Socialize instead of binging The Office again. Don’t worry—you’ll be fine.