1.6 General Smartphone Usage Effects

by Ric Epley

According to Time Magazine, of the 7 billion people on the planet, 6 billion own a cell phone. That’s more people than those that have access to working toilets at about 4.5 billion(Wang, 2013). That is incredible. How do cell phones impact us in our daily lives? Widespread use of cell phones is a very short timeframe in human history. What physiological and psychological effects are they having on us that we can discern now? The trend for cell phones being replaced by smartphones is ever increasing. The iPhone is the standard for smartphones (1 billion owners per the PEW Foundation, 2015), but it is actually the android phone that has caused the availability to the masses because of the low price point. Some would argue that an inferior device in itself would cause more stress.

Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone in 2007.

The launch of the iPhone in 2007 transformed the humble mobile phone from a one-trick tool for communication into a catch-all platform whose functionality is constantly evolving. When the editors of Popular Mechanics drafted a list of “101 Gadgets That Changed the World” in 2012, the smartphone topped the heap, trumping technological milestones such as the TV (No. 3), the personal computer (No. 5), the telephone (No. 7) and the light bulb (No. 10).

“The smartphone … is now a pocket-size PC,” the editors of Popular Mechanics wrote. “It facilitates instantaneous personal connections that make phone conversations seem like cave paintings. … The device seems to have limitless potential” (Main, 2012)

Last year, researchers at the Nielsen group reported that smartphones accounted for four out of every five phones purchased in the U.S. They estimated that a smartphone now sits in about two-thirds of American adults’ pockets.

What’s most astounding is the rate that the smartphone has saturated the marketplace.  In just 2.5  years after being introduced, 40% of all Americans owned a smartphone (Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review, 2010).  That rate is now 77% according to a poll conducted by the PEW Foundation in January of 2017 (Smith, 2017).

Researchers at Analysys Mason reported that average smartphone use per day doubled between 2011 and 2013, from 1 hour 38 minutes to 3 hours 15 minutes. That’s 1 hour 15 minutes shy of a full day every week, during which time researchers at marketing agency TecMark say most users will look at their phones 1,500 times.

Globally, with over 1 billion users and nearly 3 million apps available to download,  smartphones are impacting day-to-day life in some expected and unexpected ways.

Here are some, both positively and negatively:


According to a recent report by researcher ComScore, the majority of Internet traffic (60 %) now comes from mobile devices rather than desktops, which long served as the dominant online portal. With search engines and digitally managed contact lists just a touch away, analysts say smartphones are affecting how the brain processes information.

The authors of a study published in the August 2011 issue of “Science” conclude that persistent access to information via search engines — Google, in particular, which fields more than 1 billion search queries per day — is changing how the brain catalogs knowledge. In a sense, the study authors conclude, Internet-connected devices such as smartphones have become a kind of “external memory source.”

“These results suggest that processes of human memory are adapting to the advent of new computing and communication technology,” the authors write. “We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found” (Perez, 2014).

San Diego-based author of “My Baby Can Read” Dr. Robert Titzer says, “Smartphones allow for instantaneous research of any topic anywhere! There has never been another time in history like this” (May, 2016).

In a 2012 survey by Elon University and the Pew Research Center, technology experts debated the merits and pitfalls of the hyper-connectivity and instantaneous access to information afforded by smartphones. If adoption rates and the always-on lifestyle continue unabated through 2020, respondents suggest future generations will have different priorities about what they choose to remember (Smith, 2015).

“The human brain is wired to adapt to what the environment around it requires for survival,” writes Amber Case, a cyber-anthropologist, and CEO of mobile platform Geoloqi, said in her response to the Elon/PEW survey. “Today and in the future, it will not be as important to internalize information but to elastically be able to take multiple sources of information in, synthesize them and make rapid decisions(Smith, 2017).

Will we then begin “knowing” less, but have access to more?


Since users spend up to 4.7 hours per day looking down at their phone coupled with a computer, they are certain to have issues. In a survey completed in March of 2017, researchers found that reporting any frequency of neck pain within the last six months is significantly associated with owning a smartphone (OR = 8.3 [1.42, 48.81]. Among the exposed, smartphone use is responsible for 87.9% of neck pain. Smartphone use is responsible for 70.3% of neck pain in the total population (Crosbie & Epley, 2017).

This practice of angling down while looking at a digital screen has also affected vision. Forty years ago, only 25% of the country had myopia (near-sightedness). Today nearly 50% are reported to have myopia. In a Chinese study done on high school students in 2015 called “Prevalence and associated factors of myopia in high-school students in Beijing”, 80% had myopia and 10% had high myopia (Wu et al, 2015). Clearly, something is making humans more nearsighted in the last several years.

As you play a game on your smartphone, small releases of the neurotransmitter dopamine are secreted making you feel good. These are not the large doses that your body produces during exercise or sex, but rather just “a little taste”, as drug addicts are known to say. This creates a loop which you naturally want to create again, most likely, unconsciously as well. (Langlois, 2013). This pattern continues and is the reason that all your devices have what gamers call “stickiness”, the difficulty in breaking the loop.

The Compulsion Loop is core to many game designs. It explains an in-game virtuous circle that keeps players engaged. The loop comprises three stages each enhancing the next stage like Escher’s never ending staircase, players keep on improving. Human brains are hardwired to respond to novelty seeking. There are sequential releases of small amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine which causes a feeling of well-being. This same concept is often described as the same effect as the use of nicotine and cocaine. Games are purposely designed to make them hard to stop playing. This is the same “loop” associated with nicotine and cocaine addiction. (“The Compulsion Loop Explained”, n.d.).

As a result, 93% of smartphone users 18-29 report using their device as a way to avoid boredom (Smith, 2015). They engage with others through the device instead of directly with people in the same room. This has led to a term called NoMophobia. Nomophobia is a term describing a growing fear in today’s world — the fear of being without a mobile device, or beyond mobile phone contact (Elmore, 2014).

Brain waves are shown to be altered when using a smartphone.  Alpha waves are one set of brain waves defined as being more present during relaxation and absent minding thinking. Another form of brain wave activity is called Gamma waves and they are usually more present in activities that require conscious attentiveness. In studies done in regard to this area of brain activity and smartphones, there is a significant correlation between smartphone use and the increase in Alpha brain waves (Fannin, n.d.).

Countless studies have been done to show the effect of light on sleep patterns. We are hardwired to release melatonin at night from thousands of years of being vulnerable at night to predators and being unable to see well anyway. The artificial light emitted from digital screens, mostly, smartphones are causing Sleep Disruption Circadian Rhythm Disorder by delaying the natural nighttime onset release of melatonin. The body is “tricked” into thinking that there is still light out and therefore it’s not bedtime (Fannin, n.d.).

The ripple effect is in play here as lack of sleep becomes lack of a certain kind of sleep. Deep sleep or Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, the last and most agree is the most important stage of sleep. There are many theories as to why this is important to humans. There is a correlation between lack of REM sleep and illness, among which are diabetes, obesity and cancer effects (Salisbury, 1970).


Case argues that smartphones, coupled with the connection they represent to a global social network, have become more than just a device in our pockets but something closer to a digital extension of ourselves. “This is the first time in the entire history of humanity that we’ve connected in this way,” she says in a transcript from a TED Talk video. “And it’s not that machines are taking over. It’s that they’re helping us to be more human, helping us to connect with each other.We’re just increasing our humanness and our ability to connect with each other, regardless of geography” (Case,n.d.).

The possible negative result could look like something from a science fiction movie. The Borg are a fictional alien race that appears as recurring antagonists in the Star Trek franchise. The Borg are a collection of species that have been turned into cybernetic organisms functioning as drones in a hive mind called “the Collective” or “the Hive”. They use a process called assimilation to force other species into the Collective. The Borg are driven by a need for ‘perfection’, and assimilate other races to further that goal (Bretts & Roush, 2013). Could this over dependence on smartphone ultimately be the beginning of the next evolution in humans?

Researchers at Brigham Young University concluded that “technoference” can be damaging not just to a relationship but to your psychological health as well. In the past before smartphones, couples tend to universally argue about sex, money and/or children. Per this study, smartphones are closing in on these “big 3”. The study went on to report a general dissatisfaction in their overall life due to too much digital interruption. The reason seems to point to when your partner attends to a phone instead of to you, it feels like rejection—it hurts. Feeling ignored when your partner is on their phone can feel as bad as being shunned (Winch, 2015).

There are a vast number of other specific areas where social patterns are changed due to the advent of the smartphone. Other studies are clearly needed to gain new information.


(n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2017, from http://www.circadiansleepdisorders.org/defs.php

Brain Hacking. (2017, April 09). Retrieved April 30, 2017, from http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/brain-hacking/

Bretts, Bruce; Roush, Matt; (March 25, 2013). “Baddies to the Bone: The 60 nastiest villains of all time”. TV Guide. pp. 14 – 15.

Case, A. (n.d.). We are all cyborgs now. Retrieved May 01, 2017, from https://www.ted.com/talks/amber_case_we_are_all_cyborgs_now

Crosbie, R., Epley, R. (2017, April 27). Neck pain and smartphone usage survey[Scholarly project]. Retrieved April 29, 2017.

Do Cell Phones and Laptops Cause Nearsightedness? (n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2017, from http://www.berkeleywellness.com/self-care/preventive-care/article/are-mobile-devices-ruining-our-eyes

Elmore, T. (2014, September 18). Nomophobia: A Rising Trend in Students. Retrieved April 29, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/artificial-maturity/201409/nomophobia-rising-trend-in-students

Fannin, J. L., Ph.D. (n.d.).Understanding your brainwaves. Benefits of increasing delta brainwaves[Scholarly project]. Retrieved March 5, 2017, from http://drjoedispenza.com/files/understanding-brainwaves_white_paper.pdf

Ferris, A. L. (n.d.). An unconventional use of the mobile phone: Motivations for college students’ drunk dialing behavior. Retrieved April 30, 2017, from http://www.academia.edu/1091023/An_unconventional_use_of_the_mobile_phone_Motivations_for_college_students_drunk_dialing_behavior

Langlois, M. (2013, August 25). Dopey About Dopamine: Video Games, Drugs, & Addiction. Retrieved May 01, 2017, from http://www.gamertherapist.com/2013/08/25/dopey-about-dopamine-video-games-drugs-addiction-2/

Main, D. (2012, June 15). 101 Gadgets That Changed The World. Retrieved April 29, 2017, from http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/gadgets/reviews/g165/101-gadgets-that-changed-the-world/

Natural Patterns of Sleep. (n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2017, from http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/science/what/sleep-patterns-rem-nrem

Perez, S. (2014, September 05). Millennials Are The Largest Group Of Smartphone Owners, And Adoption Is Still Growing. Retrieved April 29, 2017.

Salisbury, D. (1970, February 21). Circadian clock linked to obesity, diabetes and heart attacks. Retrieved April 30, 2017, from https://news.vanderbilt.edu/2013/02/21/circadian-clock-obesity/

Smith, A. (2015, April 01). U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015. Retrieved April 30, 2017, from http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/01/us-smartphone-use-in-2015/

Smith, A. (2017, January 12). Record shares of Americans now own smartphones, have home broadband. Retrieved April 30, 2017, from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/12/evolution-of-technology/

The Compulsion Loop Explained. (n.d.). Retrieved April 29, 2017, from http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JosephKim/20140323/213728/The_Compulsion_Loop_Explained.php

Titzer, Robert, PhD., (2016). Personal communication.

Videos featuring Dr. David Greenfield. (n.d.). Retrieved May 01, 2017, from http://virtual-addiction.com/videos-featuring-dr-david-greenfield/

Wang, Y. (2013, March 25). More People Have Cell Phones Than Toilets, U.N. Study Shows. Retrieved April 30, 2017, from http://newsfeed.time.com/2013/03/25/more-people-have-cell-phones-than-toilets-u-n-study-shows/

Winch, G. (2015, January 13). How Cellphone Use Can Disconnect Your Relationship. Retrieved May 01, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201501/how-cellphone-use-can-disconnect-your-relationship

Wu, L. J., You, Q. S., Duan, J. L., Luo, Y. X., Liu, L. J., Li, X., . . . Guo, X. H. (2015, March 24). Prevalence and associated factors of myopia in high-school students in Beijing. Retrieved April 29, 2017, from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0120764