There is no doubt that cell phones have made many aspects of our life much easier. Those of us who have been around for a while can recall the days of needing to make sure to pocket a quarter before leaving the house, just in case we needed to make a call from the nearest payphone. Many of us remember the blue phone boxes that once lined the highways, hoping we were near one of our cars breaking down. Parents who once had to rely on streetlights to direct their children home from neighborhood play are now only a text reminder away.
With every positive advancement in society, there is also an inevitable downside. In our enthusiasm to embrace the convenience of mobile phones, we risk falling into the trap of having access to the world at our fingertips. Mental health experts are increasingly concerned about the evolution of society regarding dependence on our phones. Mobile phone addiction has entered public discourse. Apart from some of the more far-fetched dangers purported to arise from constant contact with our phones – such as radiation and cancer claims – some practical concerns can be noted by the average smartphone user.
In bygone times, a person had to put some effort into knowing what was happening in the world. We had to find time to go to the library, purchase a newspaper at the corner store, or consult with neighbors. With the introduction of smartphones, all manner of information is available to us at all times. With the swipe of a finger, we can gain access to local happenings, world events, personal interests, celebrity activities, and anything else that crosses our fancy. The human brain is not yet evolved to keep up with this constant influx of new information. Being overwhelmed by information can lead to mental health difficulties, such as confusion, indecision, feelings of being overwhelmed, and experiences of anxiety.
Lack of Physical Interaction
When the internet became widespread, programmers realized the importance of human contact. In an attempt to mimic the reassurance gained from actually seeing another person’s face, emojis were born. As we increasingly depend on using our smartphones to access media in place of in-person interactions, more emojis are being frantically produced. The fact is that no amount of customized emoticons can take the place of the human need for physical contact.
With the anonymity of the internet, anyone can pretend to be anything. One can not be sure that a contact maintained on the other end of the cell phone is genuinely who they appear to be. There is a multitude of horror stories associated with an over-dependence on the types of virtual connections made exclusively through smartphone apps.
Companies are increasingly finding themselves in the hot seat for harvesting and selling our data for marketing purposes. This gathered data comes from tracking our behaviors during cell phone interactions. If you have ever noticed that an ad for something specific starts popping up regularly after you used your phone to search for the product once, you have observed this aggressive marketing tactic. Having a constant feed of advertisements infiltrating your smartphone activity is prime conditioning for encouraging you to spend money you hadn’t intended when you opened your email.
Many of us have a friend, or two, who brag about their ability to multitask. While our society is increasingly geared toward multitasking as a necessary skill, it has drawbacks. When we are attending to multiple tasks at once, no single task is receiving our full concentration. Having our cell phones on constant standby means we are continually pulled away from our tasks and tempted to read posts and respond to texts. The temptation to be distracted by our phones is so prevalent, that laws had to be passed to keep people from checking their phones while driving on the road.
This phenomenon has become so common that it has derived its own term. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) describes the urgency that is felt due to knowing that the internet world is trucking onward, even when you have put your phone down. Checking your phone to catch the latest social media updates and news briefs can become a compulsion, as anyone who has repeatedly swiped to refresh a screen can attest.
Separation anxiety has typically applied to the negative feelings experienced when a small child cannot be in the presence of a parent. Now, full-grown adults are experiencing this type of anxiety when finding themselves without immediate access to their cell phones. While some of the reasons for feeling anxious may be valid – such as needing to be contacted by family members or needing to make an important call – the anxiety can be due to not having a continual feed of access to whatever it is that your smartphone has dutifully been providing you with. You cannot rest until your digital buddy is back in your purse or pocket.
The effects of lack of sleep on the human psyche have been well documented. Mental health effects are so drastic in the absence of sound sleep that brutal regimes have used sleep deprivation as torture. When we allow our combined FOMO and separation anxiety to take the reigns, we will likely leave our cell phones close at hand and turned up while we sleep. This means that every ding and notification bell brings out of our deep sleep and tempts us to reset the process by deciding to go ahead and check out the message. Some will justify the need to have their cell phones on during sleep to have an alarm or be alerted to family emergencies, but our real reasons are more likely to stem from our growing addiction to constant phone access.
- National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety Disorders. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Published April 2022. Accessed October 10, 2022. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders
Last medically reviewed October 10, 2022