9 Negative Effects of Using Cell Phones Too Much

The downside to being constantly connected to your cell phone

Couple in restaurant with cell phone - phubbing
Keep date nights cell phone-free and stop phubbing. Liam Norris/Cultura/Getty Images

Cell phones are an invaluable technology that has changed fundamentally the way we communicate and get information. But as with anything good, too much of it can lead to problems. A growing body of research is highlighting the various drawbacks of overusing cell phones and other mobile devices, including--ironically--the fact that all this communication technology is actually pulling us farther apart and negatively affecting our interpersonal relationships.

One increasingly-talked-about downside to constantly being attached to a cell phone is phubbing, or "phone snubbing," a trend that is unfortunately on the rise. Phubbing is basically defined as looking at a cell phone rather than interacting with the person you are with, and research shows that it can damage your relationship with your romantic partner and may also harm your bond with your kids.

Overusing cell phones and cell phone addiction are the compulsive companions to phubbing, and like phubbing, they are increasingly becoming problems for more and more people. Being constantly attached to our cell phones is taking a toll, not just on our relationships but on our mental and emotional well being and even on our health. For instance, cell phone use while driving has become a growing danger: Texting and cell phone use have been shown to dramatically increase the chances of motor vehicle accidents leading to injury and even death.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), about 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or other electronic devices while driving at any given moment in the day in the U.S., and in 2012, driver distraction led to 3,328 people being killed and 421,000 people being wounded in crashes.

Why Phubbing and Using Your Phone Too Much Makes You Less Connected

Doing this once in a while is unlikely to be harmful (after all, we all need to occasionally wait for an important email from work or answer a text from a friend about something urgent or timely). But the problem occurs when you check your texts and email every few minutes or several times an hour, and all these "just gonna check my messages" moments add up to a large amount of time spent with the phone. Before you know it or realize it, you might be using a good chunk of the time you're supposed to be spending with your partner or children focusing on your phone instead of on your family.

And considering how busy families are today, all the time we spend on phones is a heavy price to pay. "The more precious your time is, the more you need to be vigilant about how you spend it," says says James A. Roberts, PhD, professor of marketing at Baylor University and the author of Too Much of a Good Thing: Are You Addicted to Your Cell Phone?.

 His advice: We have to set spouse-to-spouse or parent-to-child time that's free of cell phones.

When you are with someone and he is constantly checking, scrolling, texting, or engaged with the cell phone in his hand, it can feel like you are not really fully with that person. "When you have a conversation, it sends a clear message that you are playing second fiddle," says Dr. Roberts. Not only is this behavior rude, but it can damage the quality of that relationship. Dr. Roberts' study on phubbing, conducted at the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, found that nearly half the adults surveyed reported being phubbed by their partner, more than a third said that they felt depression as a result of this behavior, and almost a quarter said that it caused conflict in their relationships. "Relationships are the cornerstone of our happiness," says Dr. Roberts. "Phubbing makes us feel bad, but even worse, it leads to unhappiness and depression."

There's even an evolutionary explanation for why we feel so uncomfortable when we're with someone who's not fully there with us in that moment. "It's a violation of social conditioning," says David Greenfield, PhD, founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, in Farmington, Connecticut. "It's an uncomfortable feeling when behavior is not predictable. When someone is in a room with us and is on the phone, we feel like we are we are in an unsafe situation on a primitive level."

The Cost of Overusing Your Cell Phone and Phubbing

  1. It takes away from other things. We have enough things that interfere with our family time--busy work schedules, homework, extracurricular activities. Research shows that many people often lose track of time when they're on their cell phones (understandable considering how many things we can do on these devices, from checking news and sports scores to seeing what friends are posting on social media sites, not to mention getting email and texts). When you spend time on the phone, you have that much less time to spend fully engaging and giving your attention to your spouse and kids.
  2. It is addictive. Research shows that smartphones are powerful mind- and mood-altering devices that can be as addictive as, say, gambling. 
  3. It's contagious. When people are phubbed, they tend to pull out their own phones in response. "It's cellularitis--a socially transmitted disease," says Dr. Roberts. "When other people use their cell phones, we do it too in self defense."
  4. It's just plain rude. Phubbing and pulling out your cell phone at the dinner table or in the middle of a conversation is just bad cell phone etiquette. Unless there's an urgent matter you need to hear about, there is no reason to keep your phone at hand when you are with other people.
  5. Kids will learn from your cell phone behavior. The other thing to consider when you're a parent who is constantly connected to her phone is the fact that kids learn by watching what we do. Even young children, more of whom are getting cell phones at younger ages, are likely to pick up on the way a parent might engage in phubbing and adopt that behavior.
  6. It's changing the way we think. Cell phones have changed the way we interact with each other and have cut down the time we may spend being creative, says Dr. Greenfield. Constant screen use in kids is especially worrisome because all that screen time is changing the way they handle boredom and making it less likely that they'll find time to do activities that encourage them to exercise creativity and use their imagination. 
  7. The time you spend comes at a great cost. For every minute of time spent online, there is a cost: The negative impact of having less time for important things in your life such as sleep, leisure time, work, and family time, says Dr. Greenfield.
  8. It's easy to lose track of time. How many of us have ever been on the phone, checking social media posts or scanning headlines or playing a fun game and then realized later that we'd spent much more time than we had planned? "In every lecture in which I've asked people in the room if they've ever lost track of time when online, eighty to ninety percent of the people admitted doing so," says Dr. Greenfield.
  9. Your interaction with your spouse or child is not as good as you may think. We may picture ourselves as multitasking machines, doing a good job with everything all at the same time. But what we may not realize is that attention has limited capacity, says Dr. Greenfield. When you're with someone and you're on the phone at the same time, you are where the phone is--in the virtual world. "It's not quantity; it's quality," says Dr. Greenfield."If you're with your child for five hours but you are on the phone constantly during that time, it's not a really spending time with her."

For tips on how to control your cell phone use, and not let it control you, read, "12 Ways to Control Your Cell Phone Use and Stop Phubbing, Being Rude."

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