Smartphone addiction: An emerging global digital epidemic

This is the second in a series of blogs from the finalists of this year’s Policy Idol competition. These blogs were originally presented as policy pitches at the live final of the competition earlier this year. Policy Idol is an annual competition open to all staff and students at King’s.

By Meena Nayar and Gemma Scott

Smartphone use has increased exponentially in the last decade, with more than 2.3 billion users worldwide in 2017. Smartphones have made staying in touch easier and given us constant access to the internet and social media, with many of us now seemingly unable to function without one. However, emerging scientific research suggests that many of us are becoming addicted to our smartphones, leading to a host of negative health and social consequences.

Smartphones are now in the pockets of two thirds of UK adults, an increase of a quarter since 2012. Specifically, 90 per cent of 16–24-year-olds now own a smartphone, and this has doubled since 2012. Users spend an average of two hours per day online and check their phones, on average, 200 times per day.

Gemma Scott (l) and Meena Nayar (r), winners of the Policy Idol substance prize

Gemma Scott (l) and Meena Nayar (r), winners of the Policy Idol substance prize

The rapid expansion in smartphone ownership is due to a variety of factors. Smartphone technology is becoming more advanced every year and there has been a huge increase in the availability of 4G internet. It is cheaper and easier than ever to own a smartphone and be connected to the internet on the go. These advances make it increasingly difficult to live without a smartphone in today’s society with many of us now shopping and banking on our smartphones, as well as keeping in touch with each other wherever we are in the world.

However, there is an increasing body of research to suggest that heavy smartphone use has many detrimental health and social consequences and can lead to addiction. Smartphone addiction is now being talked about among researchers and the media, and many people now admit to being addicted to their phones. Research shows that when smartphone users send and receive messages and complete tasks on their smartphones, dopamine is released in the brain. This is the brain’s pleasure chemical and is directly linked to addictive behaviours, such as smoking and gambling. Dopamine itself doesn’t last long in the brain, explaining why addicts repeatedly go back for more. This may explain the constant checking seen in those who use smartphones and the ‘withdrawal’ that people feel when they are without them.

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Heavy smartphone users have higher levels of anxiety and depression than non-smartphone users. Smartphone use at night has been linked to insomnia and sleep disorders, especially in children and teenagers. There is a strong association between bedtime media device use and inadequate sleep quantity in children. Nearly 70 per cent of people admit sleeping next to their phone, with many admitting to checking their phones as soon as they wake up.

Our policy to overcome smartphone addiction is to start by setting up a Digital Impact Research Institute (DIRI), in partnership with Ofcom, the communications and telecoms regulator. The Institute would have both research and regulatory powers and would provide information to the public and industry, as well as lobbying the government to influence public health initiatives.

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The DIRI would analyse data on this issue and would have the power to conduct its own well-designed research into smartphone addiction. Using this research, awareness of smartphone addiction would be raised through the DIRI website, as well as work with Public Health England to set up campaigns in schools and public places. DIRI would also have the power to lobby schools and education leaders to ban smartphone use in the classroom and set up ‘smartphone free areas’ in cafes, bars and restaurants. The DIRI would also work with the highways agency and local councils to erect warning signs on pavements for pedestrians who use smartphones while crossing the road, a behaviour which increases the risk of being involved in an accident, according to the Automobile Association.

In partnership with Ofcom, the DIRI would have the power to lobby mobile phone manufacturers to make handsets which have in-built settings to prevent addiction, such as warnings on daily usage, and to make screens which have a ‘night mode’ that can prevent insomnia and sleep problems. Warnings could also be placed on smartphone packaging.

We believe that everyone can have healthier relationships with their smartphones, but we need to empower users to make healthy choices, such as those we make about our diet, alcohol and other life choices. We believe our policy will go a long way in addressing the issue of smartphone addiction, so that we can have healthier relationships with our smartphones and with each other.


Meena Nayar is a doctor and integrated academic trainee in rehabilitation medicine at the Cicely Saunders Institute of Palliative Care and Rehabilitation at King’s College London. Gemma Scott is a doctor working in clinical radiology at King’s College Hospital, London.

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