Skip to content
IBSA Foundation_smartphone addiction
Editorial IBSA04 Apr 20248 min read

Smartphone addiction: the fine line between necessity and obsession among young people

Today's youth are the first generation to live their lives constantly online, in a world where borders have been eliminated and time flows much more swiftly. For the first time, the overuse of digital media has emerged as a new type of addiction, comparable to traditional vices such as smoking, drugs and alcohol. 

There is a fine, almost imperceptible, line that separates “good use” from abuse, the need to use smartphones for practical and social purposes from the fear of missing out on something and the stress of having to stay constantly logged on.

What, then, happens when this line is crossed and the desire to control one’s smartphone takes precedence over every other aspect of one’s life? This is a fundamental question, given the psychological, social and even physical impacts that smartphone addiction can have, especially on the young.

In Switzerland, the numbers are notable: 60% of children between the ages of 10 and 11 have smartphones, while 25% of children aged 6 to 7 have access to a personal tablet (the 2021 MIKE Study)1 . This trend is steadily rising, with ever greater numbers of parents providing their children with digital devices from a very early age, frequently assigning the role of babysitter to mobile phones and smartphones.

This situation draws attention to more than just young people’s digital lifestyle; it also turns a spotlight on the possible impacts this technological scenario could have on their health and well-being.

Use or abuse? When should it be called “smartphone addiction”?

In the hyper-connected world we live in, technology has become a widespread obsession; it can be accessed anywhere, by anyone. We are so used to it that we are no longer surprised when we see young people choosing screen-time over traditional pastimes, over sport or even over the nostalgic offline social activities that we recall from our own “good old days”.

However, behind the outward normality lies a troubling situation. The users hidden behind the digital devices and social apps are vulnerable young people, ready to panic at the very thought of being offline. To them, being without a smartphone means feeling lost, adrift in an emptiness that frightens them.

The hallmarks of addiction are plain to see: insomnia, irritability, loss of interest in other activities and a need to lie about the amount of time spent on a screen. According to Dr. Stefano Vicari, Full Professor of Paediatric Neuropsychiatry at the Università Cattolica in Rome and Head Physician at the Multi-Speciality Operative Unit of Paediatric and Adolescent Neuropsychiatry at the Bambino Gesù Paediatric Hospital in Rome, “When the Internet becomes the absolute priority, and we can see symptoms of withdrawal, it is clear that there is an addiction problem” 2.

This is not only a screen addiction; it can also manifest through gambling, compulsive shopping, information overload addiction (compulsively searching for information online), cyber sexual addiction (the overuse of porn sites), and cyber relationship addiction (the compulsive habitual search for online relationships).

Laura Marciano, Research Associate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, in her article on the topic 3, published in Ticino Scienza, reminds us that “only two disorders have been officially recognised, Online Gambling Disorder and Online Gaming Disorder. However, what we call ‘Internet addiction’ or ‘social media addiction’ is not an actual diagnosis, which is why we refer to these concepts using the term ‘problematic use’.

Why does technology cause addiction in adolescents?

The nature of the apps and games designed especially for this young audience is a crucial factor. These digital tools are carefully formulated to capture users’ attention and command continual engagement, driving users to seek constant gratification. Notably, these platforms are engineered to act on the dopamine system, which regulates the delicate balance between feelings of gratification and frustration.

The distinctive characteristics of this type of content—from its bright colours to its psychostimulant features—create an engaging and highly exciting experience for teenagers. It is important to underscore the fact that the risk of developing an addiction is not limited to individuals with a predisposition or with pre-existing issues; rather, all adolescents are potentially vulnerable, due to the very nature of these digital stimuli.

Furthermore, it is essential that we consider the unique context of adolescence, which is characterised by a host of physical, emotional and social changes. Teenagers find themselves facing a stage of life that is rife with turmoil and anxiety, during which they must deal with a wide range of intense emotions. During this time of growth and exuberance, adolescents experience numerous drives and desires for the first time, which often manifest in ways that are difficult to manage. The constant presence of smartphones in their daily lives offers an immediate escape that can satisfy those impulses, even during the school day.

FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out

Fear Of Missing Out, or FOMO, is a common phenomenon among the youth of today. This anxiety about being left out or missing out on important moments online drives many to be constantly logged onto social media and digital platforms. The fear of not being the first to know what is going on or of not being a part of significant events creates a constant state of stress, driving young people to check their devices incessantly and always be present online.

At the same time, in today’s society there is a growing insistence on the concept of constant availability. Young people find themselves having to meet expectations of being always reachable, both virtually and physically. This sense of having to be always available can be taxing and can further contribute to the spread of FOMO.

Mitigating the risks and recognising the benefits of technology

Big corporations and marketers have an in-depth understanding of young people, often exceeding that of their parents. They know that kids respond mainly based on their emotions. For this reason, it is essential that their emotions be directed constructively, and that young people be taught to recognise and manage their feelings. This can be done through education, culture, and a solid support system involving both institutions and the family.

In order to mitigate the risks associated with overuse of technology and to foster an healthy balance, it is therefore essential to adopt an approach that recognises both the positive and the negative aspects of the presence of technology in young people’s daily lives. 

Teaching children and teenagers about the importance of using technology in an informed and responsible manner is therefore essential. This can include setting limits on screen-time, encouraging participation in offline activities like sport, the arts, and time spent outdoors, and fostering a balance between digital and analogue activities.

What's more, it is essential to provide young people with the necessary skills to navigate the online world in a way that is safe and discriminating, teaching them how to consider the sources of the information they are consuming, how to protect their online privacy, and how to deal with cyber-bullying and abuse if it does arise. 

At the same time, it is important to underscore the benefits of technology, like access to education and information, the ability to connect to people from different cultures and diverse backgrounds, and the opportunities for creative expression and innovation that it offers.

Digital education and well-being: IBSA Foundation's initiatives

In recent years, IBSA Foundation has promoted several initiatives aiming to raise awareness regarding the importance of a well-balanced relationship with technology. One example is the competition entitled "Digitale On-0ff" (in English, “Digital On-0ff”), held in 2023 in collaboration with Lugano Living Lab, which used innovative language to educate an intergenerational audience about digital addictions. Actively involving young people through the creation of animated videos, it promoted digital awareness and education in an engaging manner. In 2022, the initiative "Digitale consapevole" (“Digitally Informed”) used a combination of psychology and play to reveal the "hidden tricks" of the digital world, thanks to the contribution of the Swiss mentalist Federico Soldati. Psychology, a common element both of technology and of performance arts such as magic, is essential to understanding the effectiveness of techniques of persuasion. 

The initiative planned for 2024, Happiness2.0, in partnership with USI, Università della Svizzera italiana, is a compelling new project that provides science-based communication activities for teenagers from the Ticino area, aged between 14 and 18, but that’s not all! At the heart of the debate lies the impact of social media use on the health and well-being of adolescents over time, examining key markers such as happiness, as well as developmental processes like the formation of personality and the need for social connections. Happiness2.0 will be able to offer an engaging experience thanks to its "HappyLab": two weeks of two-hour workshops, where science and art come together to explore these topics in a dynamic and stimulating fashion.

All of these activities contribute to fostering a balanced attitude towards technology, one that recognises both its risks and its benefits, helping young people of all ages to develop a healthy and sustainable relationship with the digital world, allowing them to take full advantage of the opportunities technology offers while reducing the potential risks associated with its overuse.


Seguici su Facebook     New call-to-action    Seguici su LinkedIn




[1] ZHAW University -  MIKE Study 2021
[2] Quotidianosanità.it - Dopo il Covid più bimbi e adolescenti dipendenti da telefonino, ecco i segnali da notare per genitori e pediatri
[3] Ticino Scienza a cura di Laura Marciano - Lo smartphone? Può essere anche un alleato e non solo un “nemico”
Piattaforma nazionale Giovani e media - Smartphone & tablet - onnipresenti
Pro Juventute Foundation - Dipendenza da cellulare
Fondazione Umberto Veronesi - Dipendenza da smartphone, ecco come gestirla
MonAM -Sistema di monitoraggio svizzero delle Dipendenze e delle Malattie non trasmissibili - Problematic use of social media (age: 11-15)


Editorial IBSA

The IBSA Foundation for scientific research promotes authoritative and accessible science education for health protection and supports young students and researchers through Fellowships and many other dedicated events.