A new study in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions by Roberts, et al looks at the incidence of cell phone addiction among college-age males and females. The study also looked at what types of programs or behaviors had a positive correlation to addiction. As it turns out, some people do seem to be addicted to their cell phone, but perhaps the more accurate statement is that people are addicted to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.
Incidentally, I am writing this as I am sitting at a Starbucks, the enabler, par excellence, of socially acceptable addictions. Both men and women are sitting on their cell phones doing something with their thumbs. If any of these people were to leave home without their cell phones, would they suffer from withdrawal? That’s one of several questions from the study. Another is whether you find yourself using your cell phone more and more.
Withdrawal is one of several indicators of addiction. Roberts, et al use the standard definition of addiction to identify whether college co-eds are addicts. They look for the presence of salience, euphoria, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict, and relapse, as well as the incidence of continued use despite negative consequences. They found that many people have a cell phone addiction that is comparable to a behavior addiction, like compulsive shopping or compulsive gambling. (This is different from a substance addiction, which can involve not only neurological changes due to the formation of a habit, but also neurological effects that are a result of how the substance interacts with the body). In an effort to determine how and why a cell phone addiction forms, they focused on identifying the “tipping point” in which the cell phone goes from being a tool that people like to use, to becoming a need.
When exactly this tipping point occurs is difficult to identify. Incidence of phone addiction seems to correlate with the prevalence of Smart Phones, which means the underlying issue is what the phone is being used for. Furthermore, many of the students they surveyed consider their cell phone an integral part of their identity, meaning that the cell phone is viewed as something more than a tool or business or diversion. According to Kent Dunnington in his book Addiction and Virtue in which he looks at addiction from the perspective of Aristotle and Aquinas, addiction has an orienting nature to it that provides a semblance of identity and order (priorities) in a disordered, fragmented world. As the authors of the study point out, “Cell phones have become inextricably woven into our daily lives – an almost invisible driver of modern life.”
The study determined that men and women, who are addicted to their cell phones, use the cell phone slightly differently. Activities that positively correlate to cell phone addiction in men were number of emails sent, reading books, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, number of phone calls, and number of texts. Activities that positively correlate to cell phone addiction in women were Pinterest, Instagram, Amazon, Facebook, number of calls made, and number of texts and emails. Women spent significantly more time on their phones compared to men (10 hours per day versus 8 hours per day), but had the same number of calls, texts, and emails as men. Women spent more time on Facebook, but Facebook was a stronger predictor of addiction in men.
The authors contend that the addiction has to do with being socially connected. Gaming, for example, was not strongly correlated with cell phone addiction, while social media was. Furthermore, mental health issues as a result of cell phone use indicate that social connection is much more important to people than entertainment. Consider two issues that have arisen since Smart phones became popular: Text bubble anxiety and email inbox overload.
Ben Crair has a thought-provoking piece in the New Republic on the concept of “text bubble anxiety” or the sense of tension someone has when they know that another person is typing a message but the message has not been sent. The longer someone takes to type, indicated by ellipses on iPhones or “Bob is typing…” in Google Chat, the more anxious the other person becomes because the longer someone types, the more we tend to assume it is something bad. In reality, the other person may have been interrupted by another phone call or had to re-type the message for some other reason. When the person finally does send the text, and it happens to have trivial content, then we tend to be disappointed. This roller coaster ride of assumptions takes an emotional toll. Jessica Bennett, in an op-ed in the New York Times, confesses that her therapist recommended turning off the typing awareness indicator because it was causing her mental distress.
Another mental health issue is due to an overwhelming email inbox. Some people become so burdened by a burgeoning inbox that they must declare what Sherry Turkel, sociologist at MIT, calls “email bankruptcy.” Similar to financial bankruptcy, email bankruptcy is when your inbox becomes so full of unread or unaddressed emails, that it has become too unwieldy. This can cause some people additional stress and anxiety. One solution is to archive all emails, clear their inbox, and send a message to contacts saying that if they want to continue to do business with you to send a new email.
When it comes to addiction, the behavior is really a symptom of a deeper problem. This study indicates that cell phone addiction is really an addiction to mediated socializing. Dunnington says that addictive behavior, which is based on something more than mere sensory pleasure, can tell us what human beings most deeply desire. While addictions, like addictions to social networking, may begin as diversions to deal with boredom, they morph from diversions to addictions because they provide a sense of purpose or, in this case, a sense of community that is lacking in our modern individualistic culture.
Sherry Turkel says that it is important for people in our culture to demarcate sacred spaces where one will not engage in internet mediated socializing because people need to interact with one another in a more substantive way. She also says that people need to learn the practice of privacy and solitude, or put another way, people need to set personal boundaries and to cultivate an ability to be alone without being lonely.
While this study certainly has its limitations (e.g., the test subjects were college students), it is telling that the activities that have a positive correlation to cell phone addiction are not gaming or entertainment, but social networking.