Smartphone addiction increases loneliness, isolation; No different from substance abuse, experts say

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s well-known that smartphone, or more broadly, digital addiction can result in many negative mental effects on people over time. Recent research even found it creates a brain imbalance in teens. Now a new study finds that over-attachment to your phone can cause serious social problems — boosting feelings of loneliness and isolation — while worsening anxiety and depression symptoms.

Smartphones have become useful, everyday tools that essentially manage our daily lives. From calendars to calorie monitors to sleep aids, smartphone owners find themselves constantly glancing at their screens from the minute they wake up to the seconds before hitting the sack.  Whether it’s reading push notifications, responding to dings and vibrations, or constantly refreshing one’s Facebook newsfeed on the go, the need for phone time is becoming a more serious problem.

Women looking at smartphone
A new study finds that smartphone addiction can cause serious social problems — boosting feelings of loneliness and isolation — while worsening anxiety and depression symptoms.

Researchers behind the study, conducted at San Francisco State University, liken smartphone addiction to opioid dependency, arguing that overuse of a mobile device is no different from substance abuse.

“The behavioral addiction of smartphone use begins forming neurological connections in the brain in ways similar to how opioid addiction is experienced by people taking Oxycontin for pain relief — gradually,” explains Erik Peper, co-lead author of the study and professor of health education at the school, in a news release.
The ubiquity of smartphones today betrays their usefulness, but app developers and tech companies are highly incentivized to create features that draw your eyes, and your attention, as much as possible. “More eyeballs, more clicks, more money,” comments Peper.
Peper and co-author Richard Harvey surveyed 135 students at the university about their smartphone usage and general digital habits. The researchers found that the students that used their phones the most reported feeling more lonely and isolated than peers less dependent on their devices. The most frequent users also reported higher levels of depression and anxiety.
Peper and his team theorized that the loneliness increase is due to the replacement of face-to-face interaction with screen-based interaction, which often cuts off forms of simultaneous communication such as body language. The researchers also found that those who used their smartphones the most were constantly multitasking when doing things like studying, eating, or watching other media. The constant activity allows little time for the body and mind to relax and regenerate, and causes what the researchers called “semi-tasking,” in which the students performed several tasks at once, but did them all about half as well as if they did them one at a time.
Interestingly, he researchers are quick to take the blame away from the study participants. Apps are using the same neural pathways that humans have to warn them of danger. “But now we are hijacked by those same mechanisms that once protected us and allowed us to survive — for the most trivial pieces of information,” says Peper.

If you feel like your smartphone is taking over your life, Peper suggests turning off push notifications, limiting email and social media use to certain times of the day, and setting aside time to take on tasks without any use of your digital devices.

The full study was published in the journal NeuroRegulation.


  1. These machines depress me because I’m tired of people bugging me and asking me questions at all hours of the day and night, just because they can. It’s lazy. No one researches anything themselves any more. They just send emails and ask someone else! I HATE hearing that stupid buzz that indicates an email has come through. Addicted, my backside. I’d like nothing better than to throw my damn phone off the top of a building. I could care less about being connected. I only use technology because I have to for work. Put me in a time machine back to 1977 and I’d be happy as a clam.

  2. Maybe people are lonelier because they are older, and the phone has nothing to do with it. Since getting my smart phone, I’ve lost my parents and in laws. I’ve also lost 2 dogs. So I’d probably survey as being lonelier…but my smartphone has nothing to do with it…but a researcher might make the observation that I’m lonelier since getting my phone…

    On the flip side, is their proof that people who forgo phones are surrounded by more people because they have no phone? Seems to me that a communication device will help you make contact with others to arrange more get-togethers. My smartphone puts me in touch with others, and helps me get together with friends and family more often…but I’m I question the substance of this article…

    People seem quick to blame technology for society problems… but I remember my parents and in=-laws spending a good chunk of their day reading the newspaper – hours each evening…is that really any different from reading a smartphone for hours? I use my smartphone to read the news…I use it when i have idle time, such as waiting at a doctors office appointment or for my airplane to board, Mt smartphone turns idle time into more productive time.

    The only way this article would be valid is if they studied people who had not lost any family, friends or pets during the analysis period…only then could you blame more loneliness on technology (maybe).

    1. Here’s four paragraphs that scream “I’m addicted and don’t realize it”.

      Idle time, as you put it, was time to unwind, reset, relax … but you cannot relax, ever, can you? Each waking moment must be occupied by something, and your phone is there at your side like a technological prostitute to fluff you up whenever you feel socially uncomfortable, back to Ole’ Faithful you go.

      1. I enjoy reading Art…based on your attacking remark, it sounds to me that perhaps you’re the one that needs to unwind, reset and relax. It sounds to me that perhaps you have personal problems and you’d like nothing more than to place the blame for your woes at the feet of technology, rather than at your own feet. If your phone isn’t working out for you, then maybe it’s you.

        When I travel for business, I use my “Friends Nearby app” to locate friends nearby and invite them for a face to face drink (and by drink, I mean lunch). I recently caught up with old friends I had not seen in 30 years in Lansing, MI, and again in Tampa, FL. Technology made that happen. I’ve also reconnected with my old elementary school friend in New Mexico, and he stays with me when he comes to town. Another old friend from Fort Myers I knew 40 years ago came to my party in Georgia thanks to a social media invite. I also had a dinner party in San Francisco and invited my social media friends to join me…while none confirmed, 19 actually showed up and we had a blast. Last month a friend from San Diego happened to be skiing nearby and he came to Vail to ski with me and my family. A few moments ago I posted a tailgate at my colleges spring game tomorrow – and thanks to technology, I will rub shoulders tomorrow with old friends I’ve not seen in years. None of these meetings would have happened without my smartphone.

        If you are using your smartphone to play Farmville or Candy Crush or Angry Birds, then that’s sad for you. (You sound like you might have high scores). I use my smartphone to communicate with family and friends, and that keeps us connected while we are apart, and helps us find more face-to-face time. I use my smartphone to read the news and to research topics that interest me. I spend a great deal of quiet time to myself too. Earlier today I laid in the field along by the river with my dog and watched the blue sky for almost 20 minutes. I did that before seeing your comment by the way.

        Maybe the problem is not the smartphone – maybe it’s the person using the smartphone who has trouble reaching out to others. Maybe that’s a personality problem, not a technology problem. Here’s my challenge to you Art, get on social media and find an old friend from the past and arrange to meet them. I’ll close by telling you a story that happened to me nine years ago, While using my smartphone to put together a high school reunion, I came across a high school classmate who had disappeared for 30 years. She told me “she prayed to God that she would die”. I was in Fargo speaking at a conference and could not assist her at the time, but I called a friend and he drove food out to her location within an hour. She had been living without electricity or running water for more than a year, stealing food to eat, and needed medical attention from a series of micro strokes that messed her up. Within days an army of my friends were helping her get back on her feet. It took me 10 days to finally see her in person, and by then she was already on a much better track. Her name is Diane and she is an amazing person today. My smartphone helped me save her life. She’d tell you that.

        Everything in life has drawbacks Art. The Polio vaccine killed 56,000 people, but saved millions. The benefits far outweighed the detriments.
        Nearly 1.3 million people die in road crashes each year. (Now there is a piece of technology you should be angry with.) But evidently the benefits of automobiles out-weigh these deaths. Yesterday, sadly a lady got halfway sucked out of an airplane and died, but we all continue to fly airplanes. Everything has benefits and drawbacks. Religion hurts plenty but helps millions, peanuts kill some but nourish millions, exercise kills people daily, but helps millions. Root canals can fix your teeth but eventually lead to poorer health. Everything has drawbacks.

        I see smartphone technology the same way, but I believe the benefits out weigh the detriments. You can spend your time bitching about the bad and ignoring the good if you want to…but my life is enriched due to my technologies, not diminished. I have a positive outlook about myself, my life, my friends, my family, my opportunities and the resources around me. I don’t throw my hammer away just because I beat my thumb with it every once in a while, I continue to see the hammer as a useful tool.

        Stop blaming inanimate objects for the world’s problems or your own problems. Learn to use technology to better yourself. That’s my 2 cents.

    2. Problem with your comment. People no longer talk face to face. A couple of months ago, we had our adult children and 3 grandchildren over, While waiting for dinner to cook I looked around the room and every one was on their damn smartphone.

  3. I can believe it. Long hours on your smartphone and you lose true contact with the outside world, you start investing yourself into the lives of others instead of trying to improve yourself.

  4. I believe the phrase “No S%#T!” is applicable here!

    I suggest those who think they aren’t “addicted” to smartphones, etc. need to carefully and THOUGHTFULLY watch the Original Star Trek Pilot “The Cage”. If those who watch it are honest with themselves, they’ll see that Roddenberry was 60 years Ahead Of The Curve with that storyline.

    In the meantime, there are a bunch of recent (within the past year) on-line articles from people who’ve “unplugged themselves” from smartphones and reaped a beneficial change in their lives by doing so.

      1. Political correctness is just organized anti white hatred.

        If diversity is such a strength, why is this “gift” given to White populations only, when there are so many non white places that “need” it much more?

        Diversity means taking things that are white and making them non white

        It means finding the last white person and Chasing Them Down

        Its Geno Cide

    1. Mine can’t understand how I can even live without one.
      My reply is I can, you are the one who can’t.
      It was however delightfully morbid fun ta watch them when the last hurricane took out tha power.

  5. Been saying this for decades. We also don’t know the long term effects these devices have on our bodies. Am I the only one here who read “The Hidden Messages in Water.” Of course they won’t research this because Smart Phones are big business. Very. I have a dumb phone and like it just fine. There are many of us who refuse to be “wedded” to the phone.

  6. At almost 70 years old I have yet to make up my mind which phone should be my first smart phone. Maybe next year sometime I will know. If not then, maybe the following year. In any case, e-mail is fine for now.

  7. I recently got my first “Smart Phone”, An iPhone sx. Traded in my old flip phone. I hate that damn smart phone. It’s awkward to use and not very intuitive. Worse $200 I’ve ever spent. Most of the “aps” are useless crap.

  8. They could have just asked and I’d have told them what the “study’s” findings would be (& charged them far less for the effort).

  9. All because the apps, ads, social media, etc., caters to the narcissist in people….look at me, look at me…..

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