Experts say constant use of mobile devices hasn’t been diagnosed as an addiction — yet. But some contend that it’s fast on its way to being classified as a disease similar to drug addiction, alcoholism or gambling.

Dr. Chris Knippers, a counselor at the Betty Ford Center in Southern California, reports that the overuse of cell phones has become a social problem for tens of thousands of Americans not much different from other harmful addictions: an obstacle to one-on-one personal contact, and an escape from reality.  As cell phones have become prevalent in modern society, some people have a significant issue with not being able to disengage from it. While using such devices for everyday tasks, work, and socializing with friends and family is perfectly normal, not being able to put them down while engaged in a conversation with your significant other or a friend who’s sitting in front of you may denote an increasing problem.

David Greenfield, a psychologist who is an expert on Internet-related behaviors, says he predicted a decade ago that people would become dependent on mobile devices, even more than they are on PCs and laptops. Since phones don’t weigh much and fit easily into a pocket or a purse, “the threshold is even easier to cross, and there’s no end to it,” Greenfield says. “You’re pretty much hooked in wherever you are, if you want to be.”  Greenfield says constant and continual use of these devices produces chemical responses in the body similar to gambling.  When compulsive gamblers win a hand, they are motivated to keep playing till they win again — no matter how much they lose in between. “That’s a hit, and it’s a powerful reinforcer.” Jim Williams, an industrial sociologist based in Massachusetts, notes that cell-phone addiction is part of a set of symptoms in a widening gulf of personal isolation. He cites a study by Duke University researchers that found one-quarter of Americans say they have no one with whom to discuss their most important personal issues. Despite the growing use of phones, e-mail and instant messaging, Williams says studies show that we don’t have as many pals as our parents did.  “Just as more information has led to less wisdom, more acquaintances via the Internet and cell phones have produced fewer friends,” he says.

In Spain, where a population of 41 million people has more than 35 million cell phones, newspapers are filled with stories of young users spending so much class time making calls, receiving text messages and surfing the Web that they flunk out.  Up to 15 percent of Spanish teens sleep with their mobile phones to make sure they can answer messages overnight, and to pay bills approaching $1,000 a month, some have turned to crime. Over in Australia, a researcher at Queensland University concluded that cellular addiction stems from the fact that many users consider it to be a “security blanket” that improved their sense of self-worth and thus became obsessive in their perceived need to be near one. 

Michelle Hackman, a recent high school graduate in Long Island, N.Y., won a $75,000 prize in this year’s Intel Science Talent Search with a research project investigating teens’ attachment to their cell phones.  She found that students separated from their phones were under-stimulated (a low heart rate) and lacked the ability to entertain themselves.  Most of the teens at Hackman’s affluent high school own smartphones, she says, and could even be found texting under their desks during class. “It creates an on-edge feeling and you don’t realize how much of the lecture you’re missing,” Hackman says.

For some, the anxious feeling that they might miss something has caused them to sleep next to their phones.  Michael Breus, a psychologist and sleep specialist, said in his clinical practice, his patients often describe how they answer emails, text and surf the Web as they’re trying to wind down at night. “This behavior can increase cognitive arousal,” he says, “leading to the No. 1 complaint I hear: ‘I can’t turn off my mind and fall asleep’.” Other consequences of cell phone dependency include car accidents caused by people who text while driving, running up huge bills, having irrational reactions or panic to being without a phone, ignoring others during a meal or in the car while on the phone, and text-messaging to communicate, avoiding interpersonal contact. Cell phone addiction doesn’t have to ruin your life, your work, or your relationships with others. If you are unable to reduce cell phone use on your own, or if others feel you are using your phone too much, cell phone addiction could be an issue in your life and you should talk to a professional counselor.

Rose T. Maturo, MS, LPC is a licensed professional counselor with a mental health practice in Fairfield. Comments can be sent to dewrose@pa.net.

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