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Individual differences that lead to smartphone addiction

Smartphones have brought us many things. But like everything else in life, they come at a price. Over the years, many individuals have become addicted to their smartphones. In this post, we discuss different pathways that can lead to smartphone addiction and implications for mental health.

Smartphone addiction

First we need to ask ourselves, what is a smartphone addiction? Individuals with a smartphone addiction feel as if they cannot live without their phone. Just like we see in other forms of addiction, individuals experience anxiety and withdrawal behaviours when they cannot engage in their addiction. Common is the experience of “phantom phone vibrations”. This is the sensation of your phone buzzing in your pocket when it is actually not. Similar to other forms of addiction, the consequences of smartphone addiction can be serious. A systematic review of studies examining the relation between smartphone addiction and psychopathology showed for instance links to depression, anxiety and stress.

How does smartphone addiction start?

How do individuals develop a smartphone addiction? One important theory is the incentive sensitization theory. This theory states that addiction develops because individuals initially enjoy the behaviour. After some time of enjoying their smartphone use, individuals begin to crave it. They start to check their notifications more often and start paying more and more attention to signals from their phone. Every time they check their phone and a notification is waiting triggers a positive sense of reward. “Liking” the smartphone slowly becomes “wanting” the smartphone. When “wanting” becomes compulsive, individuals may begin to feel bad without their smartphone. To compensate, they use their smartphone even more.

The role of reassurance and FOMO

A specific type of reward that individuals may seek is social reassurance. Every time individuals check their phone and see that they have received a notification from a friend or from their partner is a confirmation, a reassurance, of their relationship. Related to reassurance seeking is the fear of missing out (FOMO). Individuals with FOMO, have worries, fears and anxieties about being out of touch with events, experiences or information in their social circle because they were not using their smartphone. To prevent this, they make sure to be connected at all times. Research has shown that individuals who use their smartphone for reassurance purposes are more likely to already have low self-esteem, feelings of loneliness, depression or anxiety. Smartphone addiction might make these problems only worse.

The role of personality

Finally, there are individual differences in personality that can explain smartphone addiction development. For instance, associations have been found between problematic smartphone use and levels of extraversion. Individuals with higher levels of extraversion may feel more tempted to overuse their smartphones to find and maintain new relationships (but less to seek reassurance from already existing relationships). Other personality differences that are important are levels of impulsivity and self-control. As you can probably imagine, individuals with lower levels of impulsivity and higher levels of self-control are less likely to develop a smartphone addiction.


We have seen that there are different pathways leading to smartphone addiction. Some may be sensitive for positive rewards, others may seek social reassurance or are afraid to miss out on information. But there can also be personality traits that make you vulnerable. As smartphone addictions are becoming more prevalent, it is clear that extensive research is needed regarding the causes ánd consequences of smartphone addiction. In case you are interested in learning more about possible consequences of smartphone use for your mental health we recommend the following interview:

Not all possible pathways to smartphone addiction were discussed in this post. For instance, habits can play a large role in developing or maintaining a smartphone addiction as well. Question to you: where do you keep your smartphone? Is it always within reach? Proximity stimulates smartphone use. If you want to reduce your usage, consider keeping your smartphone further away!

Previously, we discussed what your social media use says about your personality. If you are interested in reading more about this, click here! If you are interested in reading the literature used for this post, references and links are provided here:

Billieux, J., Maurage, P., Lopez-Fernandez, O., Kuss, D. J., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Can disordered mobile phone use be considered a behavioral addiction? An update on current evidence and a comprehensive model for future research. Current Addiction Reports2(2), 156-162.

Elhai, J. D., Dvorak, R. D., Levine, J. C., & Hall, B. J. (2017). Problematic smartphone use: A conceptual overview and systematic review of relations with anxiety and depression psychopathology. Journal of affective disorders207, 251-259.

Elhai, J. D., Levine, J. C., Dvorak, R. D., & Hall, B. J. (2016). Fear of missing out, need for touch, anxiety and depression are related to problematic smartphone use. Computers in Human Behavior63, 509-516.

Oberst, U., Wegmann, E., Stodt, B., Brand, M., & Chamarro, A. (2017). Negative consequences from heavy social networking in adolescents: The mediating role of fear of missing out. Journal of adolescence55, 51-60.

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