Young man texting on the tablet
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Smartphone Addiction

July 2020

Research shows that people touch their phones 2,617 times per day, iPhone users unlock their phones 80 times per day, Americans spend 5 hours per day browsing and phone usage causes 26% of motor vehicle accidents.1

Would you consider this addictive behavior? Many do. In fact, there is even a phobia named after it! “Nomophobia” which stands for no-mobile-phone-phobia was coined in the late 2000s. It refers to the irrational fear of being without your mobile device.2 This fear causes genuine feelings of anxiety.

The creators of cell phones have long been aware of the dangers of tech overuse. In fact, even pioneers in the field, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, admitted to severely limiting their own children’s use of the very same technology that they themselves helped develop.3

In this article, we explore the meaning behind it, its physical and psychological implications, and how it could impact applications to life and disability insurance.

Smartphone addiction: Is this a legitimate disorder or just a trendy catch phrase? Some are calling it the new addiction of the 21st Century.

Why is it addictive?

Psychologists liken cell phones to slot machines. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that induces happiness. It is released every time we receive a message, alert, notification, etc., on our phones. Like playing the slots, the reward pattern is intermittent. What will be next? A text, email, Facebook “like”, Snapchat message? These “rewards” to our brains occur unpredictably yet frequently enough to entice us to check our phones over and over again, thus repeating the cycle many times throughout the day.4

Although similar to gambling addiction, smartphone addiction is technically not a recognized disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). To qualify for smartphone addiction, experts suggest that an individual must meet four or more of the following criteria:

  • Preoccupation with smartphone
  • Usage when feeling anxious or depressed
  • Wasting time with excessive use
  • Causing relationship or job criticisms
  • Tolerance
  • Failed attempts to curb usage
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Feeling required to use it more and more to achieve the same desired effect.5

Physical and psychological effects of smartphone addiction

Cell phone addiction is literally altering our brain’s functionality. Brain imaging results done for preliminary studies reveal stark differences between addicted teens and those who are not. The scan results on those teens considered to be addicted showed significantly higher levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter in the cortex that inhibits neurons. GABA slows the neurons resulting in poorer attention spans and ability to focus. In follow up, when the same teens went through cognitive behavioral therapy for their addiction, their brain chemistry changed and started to look more like the non-addicted control group.6,7

Smartphone addiction produces other real physical as well as psychological effects. Physical effects include the following:

  • Digital eye strain
  • “Text neck” pain
  • Headaches
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Obesity
  • Male infertility from radiation
  • Rise in illness from germs (i.e., E. coli and MRSA)
  • Injuries sustained from increased motor vehicle accidents.5

In fact, information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that on average, nine people are killed each day and over 1000 more are injured due to distracted driving from cell phone use. A Pew Research Center study also showed that almost 50% of American adults and 33% of teens admitted to texting while driving.6

Psychological effects include:

  • Sleep disturbance
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Depression
  • Relationship problems.5

Many researchers in recent years find a strong correlation between cell phone usage and rising depression and suicide rates. The CDC found that suicide rates for girls rose 65% between 2010 to 2015. At the same time, the number of girls diagnosed with severe depression rose by 58%. A different study revealed that 48% of people who spent five or more hours per day on their phones experienced suicidal thoughts or even made plans for it.6

Insurance Implications

How does this apply to the insurance industry? On a surface level, it may appear to be just an innocuous bad habit. However, as outlined above, smartphone addiction carries very real physical and psychological effects for both adults and youth.

Underwriters may see a rise in morbidity and/or mortality risk from:

  • Psychological disorders including attention deficit disorder (ADD), anxiety, OCD, depression
  • Addictive risk-taking behaviors or substance abuse concerns
  • Increase in accidental death and accidental injury from smartphone use causing inattentive behavior
  • Physical co-morbidities such as obesity, other effects from sedentary lifestyle, disability claims related to neck pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and/or eye strain
  • Increased motor vehicle accident risk from distracted driving.5

Many young people who use smartphones also participate in computer gaming activity. In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) made gaming disorder an official disorder in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). Will smartphone addiction be added in the not-too-distant future? 8

Insurance companies are encouraging smartphone use, but could this affect insureds? Some insurers are now incorporating wearable data into their underwriting protocols. Could smartphone data reflect an underlying smartphone addiction? Or could the encouragement of using smartphone applications and wearable devices lead to an even greater degree of smartphone addiction? Time will tell.


Smartphones are generally recognized as a beneficial tool, a necessity even, in today’s society. However, too much of a good thing may cause unintended consequences. Excessive smartphone usage can lead to addictive behaviors that closely mimic other know disorders like gambling and gaming. This addiction produces real physical and psychological outcomes which may ultimately be reflected in risk assessment for life and living benefits coverage.

Contact the author:
Betty Hovorka
Betty Hovorka
Risk Management Consultant
Research, Analytics, and Underwriting

This article was originally featured in the June 2020 Issue of OTR and is re-printed with permission of ON THE RISK, Journal of the Academy of Life Underwriting (

1 Brustolin, S., Giugliani, R., & Felix, T. M. (2010, January). Genetics of homocysteine metabolism and associated disorders. Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, 43(1):1-7. Retrieved from 2National Institutes of Health. MTHFR Gene. (2020, June 9). Retrieved from 3Conrad Stöppler, M. (n.d.). Medical Definition of MTHFR mutation. MedicineNet. Retrieved from 4MTHFR Mutation. (2018, September 19). Retrieved from    5Marcin, A. (2019, September 6). What You Need to Know About the MTHFR Gene. Healthline. Retrieved from 6Smith, T. C. (2019, March 18). Why You Don't Actually Need to Test for MTHFR Gene Variants. Self. Retrieved from

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