How often do you go somewhere without your phone? And how do you feel when you go somewhere with no signal? Let’s be honest, the majority of us would admit that going without our beloved devices close at hand causes a lot of stress. And the stats show it: studies show that nomophobia, the fear of being without our digital devices, impacts over 90% of us!

But why have our smartphones become our constant companions? Are our devices and apps guilty of tricking us into spending more time online? Here’s how our digital sidekicks have been designed to keep us hooked in more ways than we might realize – and what kinds of implications an unhealthy attachment to your devices may ultimately even have for your personal privacy and security.

Why am I hooked?

1. The convenience

There are around seven billion smartphones worldwide, accounting for around 85% of the 8 billion global population. And when you think about the different functions a smartphone can do, it isn’t much of a surprise that they are so popular. With the abundance of apps on the market, this palm-sized device can simplify the stresses of your everyday life, eliminate boredom, and keep you connected. You can even live out an entire romantic relationship from your phone using AI!

Mobile games mean you can entertain yourself on long train journeys and quiet nights alone, fighting baddies, solving puzzles, and scoring points. Fitness apps, meanwhile, can help you to reach your #newyearnewme goals. They can track your progress, discover new workouts, and gain motivation on those days when getting out for a run doesn’t seem so appealing (and the chocolate cupboard does).

The list really is endless… And that’s part of the problem. Why wouldn’t we want to use these empowering tools to get fitter, build stronger connections, and make those long, arduous commutes more enjoyable?

But what we may not realize is that these apps have specific features designed to keep us coming back for more. With the average person spending over three hours on their smartphone each day, our app usage may be extending beyond what’s actually beneficial.

2. The infinite streams of content

What might have started as a ‘quick check’ to see what’s going on in your digital sphere may lead to you disappearing down a content rabbit hole. Further news stories, posts, and engaging videos appear automatically as you scroll to keep you interested. Without the pause of waiting for more to load, you can easily lose track of time.

And, with unique algorithms ensuring that what you see is similar to the posts and content you’ve previously engaged with, there’s no wonder you can’t turn away – even if that is the seventh reel of ‘dogs acting stupid’ you’ve seen that day. With TikTok, the proof is in the pudding, with the average person spending 90 minutes a day on the app!

3. The instant gratification

You’re probably familiar with that rush of joy you feel when something you’ve shared online has received multiple ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ from followers. And this feeling then spurs you to want more. This social validation triggers the reward system in the brain, a complex network that reinforces certain behaviors by releasing dopamine (the pleasure hormone).

You also get this dopamine release from other things like eating chocolate or shopping, which is why you may end up eating your way through a whole share bag of treats or seeping into your overdraft (if this is you, check out how to stay safe while shopping online here). When you can get this same rush on your device without breaking the bank or your new diet, why wouldn’t you?

4. The relentless notifications

Not used your running tracker for a while? No worries – your app will notify you of your competitor’s latest time on their morning run. When this notification pops up on your device, you’ll feel drawn to explore it further (they can’t have run that fast, surely). And then, to avoid FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), you’ll later go back to the app to track your own run and compare.

While notifications can – like in this case – drive healthy habits to some extent, in other cases like when a notification pops up saying your friend has posted a new Instagram story, this can drive you back into that dopamine feedback loop of losing hours scrolling through content.

5. The escapism

Whether it’s binge-watching the latest series, or getting lost in photos of your favorite holiday destination, there’s no denying that smart devices offer an exciting portal of escape from everyday stress. This relief from any negative feelings brought on by the average day-to-day stimulates a further dopamine release (and the accompanied joy) which then reinforces delving deeper into your great escape.

While this can be good and even necessary for some people to switch off and de-stress, when it gets to a stage where you’re missing out on real-life excitements, finding it hard to concentrate and becoming less productive, it might be time to rethink those movie marathons.


The dangers of nomophobia

Now you have a bit more of an understanding of why you may be so attached to your devices, but how might this impact your overall health and well-being?

1. Lack of quality sleep

In addition to the anxiety and stress you may feel when you’re ‘disconnected’, which can impact your sleep quality anyway, the blue light your device emits can seriously play with your melatonin production, the hormone responsible for sending you to slumber. If you’re up late scrolling, you may miss out on that high-quality rest you need – vital for a healthy immune system, cognitive function, and, let’s be honest, overall good mood.

2. Social isolation

Ironically, the many social media apps on our phones can actually take us away from our In-Real-Life (IRL) relationships. Think about it, when you’re out with your friend for lunch, do you have your phone on the table in front of you? And do you gaze at it every minute or so to check for notifications?

This may mean you’re not fully engaging with your lunch date and miss out on any crucial body language indications that would enable you to strengthen and connect further. Your friend who’s working their way through a tough time at work, crying over their ex, or simply just wanting to catch up, may not be so impressed with the lack of attention you’re giving them. It’s tricky to balance your online and offline social spheres, especially when those notifications keep buzzing.

3. Reduced concentration span

A constant stream of notifications, immediate gratification, and the fast-paced nature of devices mean that our attention span suffers. Why would we read a two-page document when we can just watch a 20-second video summary? Smartphones and devices are changing how we consume information, both online and offline. This can potentially lead to decreased productivity in work or educational settings in the real world.

So, increased anxiety, sleep disruption, reduced concentration… it’s not sounding positive. But when your device can offer a world of escape, education, entertainment, and more in the palm of your hand, it’s all about finding the balance.

How about your privacy and security?

Lest we forget: It’s not a stretch to think that an unhealthy attachment to your tech may also ultimately cause you to neglect your personal security and privacy, to the point that you may engage in online behaviors that are downright risky.

For starters, if you’re tired and struggle to focus, the odds are higher that you just won’t think before you click when a convincing but malicious message lands in your inbox. You might also lose your guard in other situations, such as when using free Wi-Fi networks without the right precautions, or you may be more prone to reusing your passwords across many of your online accounts. The same goes for downloading a sketchy app that promises free access to the latest hot TV show. And the list could go on…

In addition, children and teens are even more vulnerable to the perils of the online world, so if you’re a parent, you may want to make sure that your own behavior models a healthy use of technology. Besides talking to your children about healthy digital habits, you can use ESET Parental Control to help you set boundaries that enable your children to make the most of their connectivity in a safe and controlled way.

To help protect all members of the family, ESET Mobile Security is built from more than 30 years of experience and research to ensure that your devices and online world are protected, wherever you go – including when the pull of the online world is a little too strong to resist.