I admit it. I’ve become dependent on my cell phone. I keep it near me at all times. I check for new text messages frequently. But how can I tell if this is unhealthy; if I am addicted?
Cell phone over-use has received a lot of media coverage, particularly for teenagers and young adults. The alarms have been raised about the number of texts sent each day, about the consequences of sexting, and concerning the places where people use their phones. Science may now be catching up to the media concerns.
So how would you decide if your attachment to your cell phone is an addiction or perfectly normal behavior? Atchley and Warden (2012) suggested applying standard definitions of additions to cell phone usage:
Tolerance (decreased value requiring more use to get the same effect);
Withdrawal (symptoms is you don’t have access to your addiction);
Inability to cut back on use;
Reduction of competing behaviors;
Engaging in the behavior despite risks and negative consequences.
Atchley and Warden then tested one aspect of potential cell phone addiction – can you delay responding to a text message. You probably know people who respond immediately to incoming text messages – interrupting whatever else they are doing. This is what Atchley and Warden studied. They asked college students to imagine receiving a text with a request to “text me when you can.” The students then evaluated options to text back immediately with a small monetary reward or wait to text with a larger monetary reward. Most students wanted to text now and pass on the extra money that would come with waiting. Texting immediately was more important than extra money.
People are also emotionally attached to their cell phones. Shari Walsh and her colleagues (Walsh, White, Cox, and Young, 2011) have conducted surveys about phone use and attitudes in teens and young adults. Not surprisingly, many individuals consider their phones to be part of their self concept. Identifying your cell phone as part of your self predicts not simply how frequently people use their phones, but also their involvement with their phones. Mobile phone involvement included measures such as keeping your phone nearby, thinking frequently about your phone, interrupting activities to respond to your phone, feeling distressed without your phone, and being unable to reduce phone use.
Both sets of researchers noted that cell phone use is risky in some situations, such as driving (a point I’ve made in other blog posts: see Texting Zombies and Unicycling Clowns). They also argued that cell phone use can interfere with performance on other more important things if you become focused on your phone during work, school, and some social activities.
Addiction is the picture these studies are painting, at least for some people. These young people can’t wait to respond to their phones, use them at inappropriate times, consider their phones as part of themselves, think about and check their phones constantly, and are distressed if their phones aren’t near. Does that describe you? Are you that attached to your phone? Is this an addiction?
I’m not sure we want to call this an addiction yet. Instead, I think we are seeing an emerging form of social interaction. Teens and young adults are natives in the land of technology. They have grown up with cell phones and the internet. Their social lives are tied up in these machines; they live across the internet and airwaves.
According to the research, social interaction may be the driving force behind cell phone use. For example, Atchley and Warden also found that people will vary how fast they feel they need to respond based on who they received that text message from. People feel the need to respond faster to romantic partners than friends. Walsh and colleagues noted a critical aspect of phone involvement is feeling connected to others by using your cell phone.
Feeling a need to be socially connected hardly seems like an addiction to me. Admittedly I would like to see more thoughtful consideration of when and where we use our cell phones. Not while driving. Not in the classroom. Not in a meeting. Not at the dinner table. But I am clearly the wrong person to be deciding the rules. I grew up when you waited to make a long-distance phone call until after 10 on Sundays when the rates dropped.
Staying constantly in touch with your entire circle of friends may be the new norm in tech-land. Although I find it odd to interrupt a live conversation to respond to a text message, I didn’t grow up in tech-land. I’m not a native. The natives of tech-land, these wonderful young adults, are developing their own rules for social interaction. To an outsider, they may appear addicted to their cell phones. But I see an emerging form of social interaction in tech-land. These young adults are defining what forms of cell phone use are normal. And if being constantly in touch through your cell phone is normal, then it probably isn’t an addiction.