Here’s some questions for you to ponder in a self-reflection exercise (Emanuel, Bell, Cotton, et al., 2015)
Score your answers on a scale of 1(strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree):

1. I feel safer when I have my phone with me
2. I sleep with my phone within arm’s reach
3. I would panic if I lost my phone
4. I would be upset if I left my phone at home
5. I find I use my phone longer than I intended
6. I never turn off my phone
7. I need my phone at all times
8. I feel disconnected when I don’t have my phone
9. Because I don’t want to miss something, I regularly check my phone
10. I use my phone when I’m bored, or upset, or in a bad mood (Emanuel et al., 2015, p. 294-295).

Image result for compulsive texter

These questions are from an interesting article: The Truth about Smartphone Addiction. The reference is:

Emanuel, R., Bell, R., Cotton, C., Craig, J., Drummond, D. et al. (2015). The truth about smartphone addiction. College Student Journal, 49, 291-299.

Is chronic use of your smartphone or laptop to the point of misuse in class or while studying simply a habit? A bad habit? Has it become a “dependence”? Or an actual behavioural addiction?

While the authors cite on-line and magazine sources, which aren’t great sources, they also conducted their own survey of 404 undergrads from a university in Southeast US, in part with the scale questions listed above. They found that 75% of their respondents rated themselves as dependent on their phone, and 20% as totally dependent. 57% check their phone about once every 5 minutes (even without notifications). 52% agreed or strongly agreed that they are overly dependent on their phone.

So here’s the elephant in the room that I haven’t yet mentioned in previous blogs. When does use become dependence? When does dependence become behavioural addiction?

Emanuel et al. (2015) cite the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.) for the definition of behavioural addictions. Smartphone addiction is not specifically mentioned, while internet addiction is, called problematic or compulsive internet use. Apart from developing a physical tolerance, more typical of drug or alcohol addiction, characteristics of dependency or addiction include (among others):

  • frequency of use;
  • when it negatively impacts one’s social or work life and diminishes your social or physical well-being;
  • when you regularly use the substance or behaviour to alter your mood;
  • when being deprived of the substance or behaviour causes distress.

Of course, people aren’t addicted to the actual object, the phone. They are dependent or “addicted” to what the phone enables them to do – to access information or social media, to text and connect with others (albeit superficially), to game, to uTube, etc. Dependence is certainly indicated in Emanuel et al.’s study, which found that 60% of first year students self-report that they use their phone to escape from problems or to change a bad mood. (Fewer fourth year students did  – 42%). 87% of first year students sleep with their phone in arm’s reach (while 77% of fourth year students do).

This study relied on self-report. With any kind of socially de-valued behaviour, self-report is very likely to under-report dependence. Likely the true effect is stronger than reported.

Much research (see my other blog posts) has established that texting or face-booking in class or while studying does affect learning and is related to lower GPAs. Clearly, it does affect students’ lives and subverts their goals.

The aspect of connection, even of attachment, is most highlighted for female respondents. Emanuel et al. (2015) found that female students “seem more connected to their phone psychologically and emotionally than do males” (p. 295), although males check their phone more often.

This instant ability to connect has been associated with “self-alienation”. Emanuel et al. (2015) noted that “Students are increasingly connected to the world, but alarmingly disconnected from themselves” (p. 297). Another effect Emanuel et al. cite is impatience – shortened attention spans detract from the “Deep thinking, contemplation and reflection” needed to tackle the hard problems, leading to an inability to delay gratification and “quick, shallow choices” (p. 297).

While drugs or alcohol physically affect the brain, causing a physiological dependence, behavioural addictions such as internet addictions can also affect the brain, with the associated positive reinforcement at a variable ratio schedule potentially affecting the pleasure centres in the brain, and also with effects on the prefrontal cortex. Add to that the distraction from the mental effort of studying or concentration in class, and the positive emotions of even momentary social connection, or enjoyment of gaming or social media that relieve distress, anxiety or depression, it is evident that the reinforcement can quickly become a dependence.

The American Psychological Association [APA] summarized some of these effects:  “…chronic use/exposure leading to brain changes. These brain changes include alterations in cortical (pre-frontal cortex) and sub-cortical (limbic system) regions involving the neuro-circuitry of reward, motivation, memory, impulse control and judgment. This can lead to dramatic increases in cravings for a drug or activity, as well as impairments in the ability to successfully regulate this impulse, despite the knowledge and experience of many consequences related to the addictive behavior.”

Check out these articles on the American Psychological Association website:

and APA’s webpage on addictions, at


Emanuel, R., Bell, R., Cotton, C., Craig, J., Drummond, D. et al. (2015). The truth about smartphone addiction. College Student Journal, 49, 291-299.