I’ll admit it: I check my smartphone compulsively. And the more I use it, the more often the urge to look at it hits me.

In the orthodontist’s office. Walking to school. In meetings. Even while making breakfast. Sometimes, it’s in my hand before I even know what I’m searching for. Sometimes, I tap the screen absent-mindedly at the apps — checking my email, Snapchats, Whatsapp, my calendar, Facebook, and Twitter.

I’m not the only one struggling with this very modern compulsion. According to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center, 46% of adults now own a smartphone — up a whopping 25% from 2011 [1].

And smartphone use can get very heavy. In a study of 1,600 managers and professionals, Leslie Perlow, the Konosuke Matsushita professor of leadership at the Harvard Business School, found that:

– 70% said they check their smartphone within an hour of getting up.

– 6% check their phone within an hour of going to sleep.

– 48% check over the weekend, including on Friday and Saturday nights.

– 51% check continuously during vacation.

– 44% said they would experience “a great deal of anxiety” if they lost their phone and couldn’t replace it for a week [2].

The amount of time that people are spending with the new technology, the apparent preoccupation, raises the question why? What is so compelling about this new medium?

Whether smartphones really “hook” users into dependency remains unclear.

But “we already know that the Internet and certain forms of computer use are addictive,” says David Greenfield, a clinical psychologist and author of “Virtual Addiction: Help for Netheads, Cyber Freaks and Those Who Love Them [3].”

A true addiction entails a growing tolerance to a substance (e.g., drugs or alcohol). This means that you need more to get “high”, that you experience uncomfortable symptoms during withdrawal, and a harmful impact (i.e., impairments to one’s social, academic, occupational functioning) on your life.

Computer technologies can be addictive because they’re “psychoactive.” For example, like alcohol or marijuana, these technologies alter mood and often trigger enjoyable feelings.

Email, in particular, gives us satisfaction due to what psychologists call “variable ratio reinforcement.” That is, we never know when we’ll get a satisfying email, so we keep checking, over and over again. “It’s like slot machines,” Greenfield says. “We’re seeking that pleasurable hit [3].”

Smartphones and their respective apps, of course, allow us to seek rewards (including videos, Twitter feeds, and news updates, in addition to email) anytime and anywhere. Is such behaviour unhealthy?

That really depends on whether it’s disrupting your work or family life, Greenfield says.

Such a disruption could be small — like ignoring your friend over lunch to post a Facebook status about how much you’re enjoying lunch with your friend.

Or it could be big — like tuning out a distressed spouse or colleagues in a meeting to check email, or feeling increasingly stressed by the fact that everyone else seems to be on call 24/7, and so perhaps we should be, too.

Other researchers are seeing clear signs of dysfunction, if not an “addiction.”

According to a 2011 study published in the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, people aren’t addicted to smartphones themselves as much as they are addicted to “checking habits” that develop with phone use — including repeatedly (and very quickly) checking for news updates, emails, or social media connections [4].

That study found that certain environmental triggers — like being bored or listening to a lecture — trigger the habits.

Can’t give up your phone altogether? That does seem like a daunting task to most.

However, experts do suggest these steps to control your smartphone usage:

  1. Be conscious of the situations and emotions that make you want to check your phone. Is it boredom? Loneliness? Anxiety? Maybe something else would soothe you.
  2. Be strong when your phone beeps or rings. You don’t always have to answer it. In fact, you can avoid temptation by turning off the alert signals.
  3. Be disciplined about not using your device in certain situations, such as when you’re with family and friends, driving, in a meeting, or at certain hours (e.g., between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.).

You’ll be surprised and pleased to rediscover the pleasures of being in control of your attention and overcoming the hook or habit of Smartphone Apps.

By: Veerpal Bambrah
Edited by: Alisia Bonnick
Image by:
Adley Lobo



[1] Perlow, L. A. (2012). Sleeping with your smartphone: How to break the 24/7 habit and change the way you work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

[2] CMO Council: The Peer Powered Network. (2015). Mobile marketing. Retrieved from https://www.cmocouncil.org/facts-stats-categories.php?view=all&category=mobile-marketing

[3] Greenfield, D. (1999). Virtual addiction: Help for netheads, cyber freaks and those who love them. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

[4] Oulasvirta, A., Rattenbury, T., Ma, L., & Raita, E. (2011). Habits make smartphone use more pervasive. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 16(1), 105-114.