Color image of a group of people holding their smartphone devices

Anthropology: Exploration of Screen Addiction and Its Effects

Technology plays a vital role in all of our lives today. Globalization and advancements in technology improve business and transform our personal relationships. Devices, such as smartphones, are now an important tool that we use anytime and anywhere. They enable us to multitask, as we can communicate, message, find entertainment and information using mainly just our smartphones. Television, computers, and smartphones make our lives easier and better in many ways. However, now, it is also easier than ever to become addicted to the screens of those devices. This article will explore the issue of screen addiction and its cultural significance. I will also look at the idea and the effectiveness of a digital detox as a possible solution.

Understanding the issue of screen addiction – statistics on digital usage

In order to understand screen addiction, it is important to understand how many of us use smartphones and in what circumstances. For this, I am going to look at the United Kingdom as an example.

Different sources provide different estimates. However, according to Ericsson, there are 6.4 billion smartphone users around the world. This accounts for nearly 4 out of 5 of the mobile handsets in use around the world today (DataReportal, 2021). The worldwide Google search for the term “screen addiction” has been increasing since 2004. This suggests that people are becoming more aware of the problem, and concerned about their screen time. According to some of the statistics in the United Kingdom:

  • In 2019, almost 90% (55.5 million) of people were smartphone owners (Strugar, 2021).
  • 55% of Brits cannot get through dinner at home without checking in on their phone (YouGov, 2018).
  • 65% of Brits use phones in bed before going to sleep and 45% when they wake up in the middle of the night (YouGov, 2018).
  • 55% of married Brits check their phones while in bed in the presence of their nearest and dearest (YouGov, 2018).
  • 95% of children aged 3–4-year-olds watch TV programs or films (on any device) for 12 hours and 42 mins a week, while 51% watch YouTube for 8 hours, 6 minutes a week (Ofcom, 2020).
  • Half of the ten-year-olds in the UK now own their own smartphone (Ofcom, 2020).
  • 83% of 12-15-year-olds own a smartphone, while 88% watch TV programs or films for 11 hours and 48 minutes a week, and 89% watch YouTube for 11 hours a week (Ofcom, 2020).

What is screen addiction?

Owning digital devices, such as smartphones, tablets, or TVs, is not a problem in itself. Technology helps us communicate, learn, stay healthy, and much more. This was especially shown during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Therefore, it can and has many positive aspects. The problem begins when we use our screens excessively, and begin to show symptoms of behavioral addictions (like compulsive gambling).  The similarities include:

  • loss of control over behavior
  • persistence, or having real difficulty limiting behavior
  • tolerance, the need to engage in the behavior more often to get the same feeling
  • severe negative consequences stemming from the behavior
  • withdrawal, or feelings of irritability and anxiety when the behavior isn’t practiced
  • relapse, or picking up the habit again after periods of avoidance

Another similarity is related to the triggering of a chemical in the brain that reinforces compulsive behavior. The chemical called dopamine is transmitted through the brain in rewarding situations. Dopamine is usually released during social interactions. Most people use smartphones/tablets/laptops as tools of social interaction and connecting with others on social media. Social interaction is known to stimulate the release of dopamine, affecting the pleasure center of the brain. Over time, we need more and more activity to release dopamine and induce the same pleasurable response. This drive to keep checking the phone for the hit of dopamine can become an addictive cycle, creating dependency.

Symptoms of screen addiction:

There are various signs and symptoms of screen addiction. They can be categorized into emotional and physical symptoms. Some of the common emotional symptoms of screen addiction include:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • feeling of guilt
  • isolation
  • avoidance of work
  • inability to keep schedules
  • loneliness
  • boredom with routine tasks
  • procrastination

Physical symptoms may include:

  • backache
  • headache
  • insomnia
  • neck pain
  • vision problems
  • weight gain or loss due to poor nutrition
Color illustration representing screen addiction
Photo credit: Keith Vlahakis (

Screen addiction or impulse control disorder?

Despite these similarities, there is a debate whether phone overuse is really an addiction or an impulse control issue.

Impulse control disorder is a psychiatric disorder in which the person affected is unable to resist the urge to do something. Many psychological disorders include impulsive tendencies. For example, Pyromania (urge to deliberately start fires) and Kleptomania (urge to steal) are the most common examples of impulse control disorder. Impulsive behaviors can involve positive actions, and lead to choices or behavior that has a positive result. However, the impulse to engage in negative behavior and actions can lead to negative results, such as addiction.

Excessive screen time

Technology plays an important role in our lives, not just in terms of entertainment, but also in education and work. The country that spends the most screen time is the Philippines. Filipinos spend on average 10 hours 56 minutes on their devices. The average American spends 7 hours and 11 minutes looking at a screen every day.  This is slightly above an average Brit who spends 6 hours and 25 minutes of screen time per day. Overall, however, the biggest screen time consumers are in Asia and South America (Moody, 2021).

It is recommended that parents limit screen time for kids to a maximum of two hours per day. Moreover, kids aged 2-5 should be given one hour of screen time per day, and children younger than 18 months should not have screen time at all. There is no strict recommendation for screen time for children older than 5 and adults. The general rule is that screen time should not interfere with learning, relationships, physical activity, sleep, or mental health.

Effects of excessive screen time

The effects of excessive screen time are related to the symptoms associated with screen addiction, and they include:

Behavioral and development problems in children – children are the most vulnerable to excessive screen time as it is easy to calm them down by putting a TV on or playing a video. However, this can lead to delays in cognition, language, and social-emotional development.

Mental health issues – too much screen time is associated with various mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

Physical issues – too much time spent looking at the screen while lying or sitting. This can lead to physical problems such as obesity. Obesity can lead to further health problems such as heart disease. Another common health effect is poor posture due to hours of looking down at our screens. This can lead to backaches, neck aches, and headaches. In addition to this, blue light from screens can significantly contribute to eye problems (digital eye strain).

Problems with sleep and insomnia – one of the main symptoms of screen addiction is sleep problems. Media use negatively impacts our sleep due to the blue light that devices emit. This can decrease levels of a hormone that regulates when we sleep and wake up (melatonin) (Kennedy, 2020).

illustration showing how smartphone light affects brain and body

Screen addiction and relationships

The amount of time we spend on our devices impacts our relationships. The term “phubbing” means snubbing your real-life company by burying your head in your phone. According to a study by Roberts and David (2016), such behavior can lead to conflict and decreases a partner’s relationship satisfaction. As people spend an increased time looking at the screens of their devices, it limits the time they spend on real-life interactions. However, screen addiction can also disrupt the quality of real-life interactions even if people manage to do something social. They pay less attention and are not fully present in social situations.

color image of two people embraced in a hug, looking at their phones

The relationship between screen addiction and the fear of missing out (FOMO)

There are many reasons why people are addicted to screens. Checking social media, messaging, online shopping, gambling, video games and other forms of digital entertainment gives people pleasure. However, one of the main reasons why people become screen-dependent is the fear of missing out. FOMO is the feeling of anxiety over the possibility of not being included in an exciting or interesting event that may be currently happening elsewhere that others are experiencing and posting about on social media. The term was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013. Despite the fact that it is new, the feeling itself is not. People were always trying to keep up with a handful of neighbors, family members, or friends. Today they try to keep up with hundreds of friends and followers.

Where does FOMO come from?

FOMO originates in unhappiness. According to studies, those with lower levels of mood and life satisfaction tend to experience higher levels of fear of missing out. Individuals who experience the fear that everyone else is having more fun than them, tend to reach for their devices more than an average person. FOMO makes people check their smartphones right after they wake up, before they go to bed, and during meals (Barker, 2016).

Smartphone dependency and a sense of security

Phones help people feel more secure as they distract them from negative things, making them feel better, and provide social support. Being able to reach the phone at any time, means people have access to friends and family any time they want (Pearce Stevens, 2018). Having a phone handy, even without using it, is reassuring, especially in awkward social situations. However, according to a study by Hunter et al (2018), it does not keep stress levels low.

Color image of a crowd of people on public transportation using smartphones

Ways to overcome screen addiction

Screen addiction and the constant fear of missing out means that people are losing their sense of self and not participating as real people in their own world. When we are unhappy with our own lives, social media are the last place we should look for happiness, because what is posted there is not real life.

Relocating attention

According to an Israeli psychologist and economist, Daniel Kahneman, people’s happiness is determined by how they allocate their attention. In his book “Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not What You Think”, Kahneman suggests:

If you are not as happy as you could be, then you must be misallocating your attention… So, changing behavior and enhancing happiness is as much about withdrawing attention from the negative as it is about attending to the positive (Kahneman in Barker, 2016).


Some people believe that smartwatches could save us from excessive screen time. Small screens with basic functions, such as answering calls and checking alerts, might help people pay less attention to viral videos, social media, and smartphones as a whole.

Digital detox

Digital detox is a period of time when an individual voluntarily refrains from using digital devices. The purpose is to help people be more present and improve balance with technology use. Digital detox is becoming more popular as people become more aware of their excessive screen time. Many people are now concerned about developing addictive behaviors and wanting to reduce stress and anxiety by re-focusing.

Some people choose to go to a digital detox retreat, also known as a digital detox camp. Digital Detox company helps people to get inspired, educated, and empowered by creating more mindful lives both online and off. The company introduced digital detox retreats around the world as a way of overcoming digital dependency. They host Camp Grounded Summer Camp for Adults each year, where people trade their digital devices for camp activities, such as wall climbing, archery, macro yoga, creative writing, and more. This enables them to feel more grounded and stress-free.

Gratitude – the source of happiness

According to many studies, gratitude and mindfulness can significantly improve well-being. Gratitude can decrease feelings of depression, anxiety, loneliness, envy, and neuroticism. People who are thankful for what they already have felt that they have more. Meanwhile, social media can make them feel like they have less. Therefore, being present and grateful for every moment, while limiting screen time, can be an effective way of overcoming screen addiction.

Color image of a "device free zone" sign in digital detox camp

Cultural significance in anthropology

The problem of screen addiction is becoming more recognized by societies around the world and the scientific world in general. Anthropology plays one of the roles in investigating and understanding this complex issue and its impact on people, societies, and cultures. As a result of research, there are new solutions and ways of managing screen time and screen addiction.

Despite the fact that excessive screen time has many negative effects on many of us, it cannot be generalized. This is because people’s experiences with technology are very different, as, for instance, not all of us experience FOMO. People from different cultures use their digital devices in different ways. Similarly, online platforms are used differently by different people. Therefore, screen time affects everyone in a different way.


Barker, E. (2016) This is the Best Way to Overcome Fear of Missing Out. Available: Time

DataReportal (2021) Digital Around the World. Available: Global Digital Insights

Georgiev, D. (2021) 39+ Smartphone Statistics You Should Know in 2020. Available:

Hunter, J., Hooker, E., D., Rohleder, N., Pressman, S., D. (2018) The Use of Smartphones as a Digital Security Blanket: The Influence of Phone Use and Availability on Psychological and Physiological Responses to Social Exclusion. 80 (4). Psychosomatic Medicine. Available:

Kennedy, M. (2020) How Much Screen Time is Too Much? Follow These Guidelines for your Child to Avoid Harmful Health Effects.

Moody, R. (2021) Screen Time Statistics: Average Screen Time in US vs. the rest of the world. Available: Comparitech

Ofcom (2020) Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report 2019. Available:

Pearce Stevens, A. (2018) Smartphones may serve as digital security blankets. Available: Science News for Students

Roberts, J., A., and David, M., E. (2016) My Life Has Become a Major Distraction from my Cell Phone: Partner Phubbing and Relationship Satisfaction Among Romantic Partners. Computers in Human Behavior. Vol. 54. Available: ScienceDirect

Smith, M. (2018) Most Brits Can’t Get Through Dinner, Work or Even Bedtime Without Checking Their Phone. Available: YouGov

Strugar, M. (2021) How Many People Own a Smartphone in the UK? Available:


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