Who among us is unable to write down a list of things that irritate them? High on my own list: people who prioritize the phone. Why, when we’re in the middle of a conversation, does what we’re discussing become less of a priority the moment the phone comes to life? “Will you excuse me while I take this?” Would it matter if I did? Yes, important calls need answering, but to find that the person I’m trying to communicate with is drawn to every blip and purr emanating from his or her pocket is intensely annoying.
There’s something insistent about a phone call that cuts through everything else. Older telephones had a magnetic attraction, perhaps because of the mystery behind who was calling, but often because the sheer noise of a call dominated everything else. Cell phones are in a different league entirely. There’s no need for a loud call because we can use the mute button, we can see exactly who is calling so we can call back — and yet still they intrude, because we allow them to.
As everyone knows, cell phones are essentially pocket computers and this opens up a world of attractive possibilities: texting, gaming, emails, apps, videos and more. Such technology can work for us, but when cell phones start to dominate our waking hours it’s time to sit up and take notice.
The negative effects of cell phones
Fear of missing out (FOMO) can fuel anxiety in teens as they attempt to keep up with what’s happening and whether they are missing out. But the bright light from cell phones can suppress the release of melatonin and negatively affect sleep.
Researchers calculate that some cell phone functions, like texts or emails, can distract workers from key tasks for as much as 25 minutes. Over-reliance on cell phones has also been associated with increased anxiety, frustration and impatience. In other words, it isn’t hard to find material that points to the potential negative effects of cell phone use, but the notion of cell phone addiction takes us to a place of clinical concern about the effects on mental health.
Is there such a thing as cell phone addiction?
What do we mean by cell phone addiction? At one level there is consensus that cell phone dependence does exist, notably in young people. On the other hand the authoritative guide to the diagnosis of mental disorders (DSM-5) does not yet recognise cell phone dependency as an addiction.
Studies tend to reflect a variety of approaches targeting a host of issues such as sleep disturbances, impulsivity, self-image, anxiety, stress and depression, all of which add to the body of knowledge but also make the situation more complex as findings vary according to methodologies used.
However, by outlining some of the key features of addiction against cell phone use we can start to build a picture as to whether the behavior of a given cell phone user appears to correspond. For example:
- Is the cell phone always to hand, readily available, and the focus of attention for the person, perhaps even when driving?
- Is it used over and over, regularly and repeatedly checked?
- Does removal or loss result in anxiety, irritability, cravings and low mood?
- Is behavior hidden? Does checking or interaction occur at times when alternative behaviors are more appropriate?
- Is less time spent on alternative activities in preference to the cell phone?
- Health considerations and dangers
On their website, Newport Academy provides a handy article on the potential health effects and dangers associated with cell phone dependency. Apart from some of the mental health issues previously mentioned, additional concerns include “text neck”, eye strain, poor dietary habits, phantom vibrations of non-existent calls and decreased neural connectivity leading to poor emotional regulation.
Cell phone use while driving is a particular hazard. Newport cites stats claiming 11 teens die every day because they were texting while driving. Distraction by cell phones is a key factor in crashes 58 percent of the time. Teen drivers have a 400 percent higher chance of crashing than adults when texting.
Addiction is really the combination of two things. In the case of cell phones it is dependency on the cell phone to a point where it goes beyond normal use and feels outside of your control. Secondly, it must be negatively affecting your life in some way, whether this be family, friends, your studies, or your work. To fully meet the criteria for an addiction you (a.) need to spend more and more time on your cell phone, (b.) get withdrawal symptoms if you can’t use it, and (c.) use the cell phone to alter your mood (playing games, sending texts, checking and updating).
Breaking the habit
Whether or not you consider yourself an addict there may come a point when you think your cell phone is occupying just a bit too much of your life. Here are a couple of thoughts. Why not use your cell phone to your advantage? Try the BreakFree app, for example — Featured by Google as an “Essential App” — or for a more personal approach consider treatment by a psychologist, or look for a local support group in your area.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.