In 2007, a new device debuted and altered our universe as we know it. It took its time; in 2010 sales were 300 million, but by 2016 it had reached 1.46 billion. At last count, there are more than 3 billion smartphones in use. The reasons for this are clear. Smartphones double up as a music player, camera, TV, health gadget, personal assistant, gateway to unlimited porn, gaming console, computer, web messenger, and more. It changed everything and has been largely considered as one of the most important inventions of the 21st century.

The most common addictions have remained unchanged for nearly a century. Marijuana, heroin, alcohol, tobacco, and gambling have consistently topped this list. But the addiction that has the most users hooked for more than a decade is the smartphone. Estimates vary, but at least half of all smartphone users or 1.5 billion people may be addicted to their devices. And it wasn’t until a few years ago that its highly addictive persona emerged. Fuelled by apps, social media, and high-speed internet, smartphones have gradually taken over our lives. While we think we use it, chances are that it is using us, and we are not even aware of the negative implications.

For most of us, it is the first thing you see when you wake up, the last thing you check before you go to sleep, and 150 times in between.

Why do we get digitally addicted?

In an increasingly stressful world, the smartphone allows for some semblance of control. Nobody to love? Swipe on Tinder and get a match. Nobody to talk to? Fire up WhatsApp. Having a bad hair day? Open your photo gallery and browse through your old Instagram-filtered photos. No food at home? Swiggy it. Whenever you need a dopamine hit, the smartphone delivers, every single time. Food porn, travel porn, porn porn. But this comes at a price.

It appeals to our reward system. Every like hits us with a dopamine surge, sending waves of pleasure that need to be replenished with more hits. The smartphone complies. Notifications are designed as push, and not pull, and once you open the phone to fire up an app, there is infinite scrolling. The digital pit is bottomless, and we haven’t even scratched the surface as to how this is affecting us.

We check our phones constantly because of this 24x7, always on, FoMo (fear of missing out) pervasive culture. Not being part of the ‘happenings’ leaves one feeling anxious, a form of social anxiety that brings about a desire to be constantly connected with what others are doing. Throw in loneliness and social isolation and the artificial connectedness that smartphones offer by offering us temporary solace, and you have a potent powerful addiction.

How does this affect us?

A meta-analysis of 206 published reports suggested that 50% teens and 27% parents feel addicted to mobiles. Mobile phone addiction or nomophobia (NO MObile PHOne phoBIA) can cause severe emotional, social, psychological, mental, familial and professional disturbances, putting pressure on our relationships, mental health, finances, and general well-being. The list of symptoms is long: dry eyes, computer vision syndrome, weakness of thumb and wrist, neck pain, tactile hallucinations, insecurity, delusions, auditory sleep disturbances, insomnia, hallucinations, lower self-confidence. As a recent Black Mirror episode demonstrated, nomophobia might literally be killing people, because both adults and teens check for texts and send messages while driving.

Our constant usage might also be rewiring our brains, leading to shorter attention spans, impairing our ability to focus and pay attention. Teens addicted to smartphones also have elevated stress, anxiety and depression levels.

While as humans, we are wired with a need to belong and be a part of the community, with belongingness being a psychological and existential survival need. Our digital interactions may stoke these reward centres in our brains and provide us with much-needed connectedness while being physically isolated, but they cannot replace our relational needs. The problem of loneliness is not solved here but only exacerbated further as the user arrests themselves in the digital world to seek out and satiate the need for connection.

How do we know we are addicted? Currently, there are two scales in use: the 20-item self-reported Problematic Use of Mobile Phones (PUMP) scale, and the Mobile Phone Problem Use Scale (MPPUS). They have been used both with adult and adolescent populations. One way to find out is to do this simple test. Questions include “If I could not use my smartphone, I would be afraid of getting stranded somewhere,” and “I would feel uncomfortable without constant access to information through my smartphone.”

Boon or bane or both?

Many technologies have the power to hook us and make us addicts. Gaming and binge-watching TV series comes to mind. We can’t do away with smartphones and stop using them. The alternative lies in balanced usage and is never easy because while smartphones are not addictive by themselves, what we consume through them is. The answer lies in balanced usage.

While going cold turkey and doing a digital detox might be a good start, it is not possible for everyone to do this, and might only wean you off temporarily. Monitoring your usage and figuring out which apps, social media, and websites take up most of your time will help in making the required changes. And also having some hard rules like: no phone at meal times, and not checking the phone first thing in the morning or before going to sleep. Getting out and spending more time in nature and meeting friends and family in the flesh might also be helpful. Playing games, reading, or just unplugging and doing nothing might be helpful for both teens and adults.

Software intervention can be useful as well. The OnePlus phone has an inbuilt feature called Zen Mode that helps with this. It allows for a 20-minute digital detox from your phone where you’re only able to answer calls and take photos and nothing else.

Self-awareness leads to self-correction. Sometimes addictions are actually symptoms of bigger issues that might have its genesis in undiagnosed anxiety or depression. If there are severe withdrawals, it might help to meet with a psychiatrist for diagnosis and evaluation. There are several clinics that specialise in tech addictions that include nomophobia.

This quote by Johann Hari sums up why we get addicted and how we might wean ourselves away. “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”

The author is a counsellor and chairperson of The Live Love Laugh Foundation. Views are personal.

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