Reading Between the (Head)Lines

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Smartphone Addiction

Nomophobia- fear of being without your smartphone- affects 40% of the population

With every passing day, technology is overtaking our daily lives. Regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, career or economic status, you're probably packing a smartphone right now. In fact, 56 percent of all Americans own one. The phone, computer, tablet and other high tech devices have become not just an object, but for many a best friend.

Many suffer from anxiety if they lose their phone, even if only for a few minutes. We rely on it to do everything from saying "I love you" to breaking up, from checking bank balances to investing, from sharing photos of the grandchild to sexting. We can carry out a plethora of daily tasks, right from the palm of our hand.

Don't act so shocked. You know who you are! At the dinner table, it's becoming the norm to constantly check for texts, emails, tweets and Facebook updates. In a darkened theater, there are always several who are multi-tasking while watching the movie. Women used to go to the Ladies' Room in pairs, but that is obsolete. They now take their phone instead -- and men do, too.

Over dinner, in church, while driving, at one of our kid’s performances and even when carrying on a face to face conversation the smartphone is guaranteed to keep you in tune and in touch.

But, of course, there's more to the story. Now Americans are bringing their smartphones into the bedroom. That's right -- texting while having sex. A recently released study indicated one in ten participants admitted to having used their phone during sex. As far as young adults, ages 18 to 34, make that one in five -- 20 percent. Check out this chart by Jumio to see where else Americans are using their phones.

The bedroom isn't the only intrusion the smartphone is making into supposedly private, sacred moments, either. The 2013 Mobile Consumer Habits found 12 percent use their beloved devices in the shower. Worse still, more than 50 percent acknowledged they still text while driving, despite the fact that this is six times more dangerous than driving drunk.

It used to be that a ménage à trois was three people engaging in consensual sex, but in this high tech world, that third person is being replaced by the smartphone. Unless, of course, you decide to facetime another, while in the act with someone else, in which case it becomes like……uh, never mind.

Ok. Do we really have to talk, text, tweet or post while taking a shower or having sex? The "I-must-have-my-phone-with-me-at-all-times" mindset has become such a real problem, there's now a name coined for the fear of being without your phone: nomophobia -- as in no- mo(bile) phone-phobia------ that rush of anxiety and fear when you realize you are disconnected- out of the loop with friends, family, work and the world.

This lack of connection can be the result of no connection, a dead battery, no minutes, forgetting your phone or worst of all: the horror of losing your phone. I bet some of you got nervous just reading those words, right?

This is not a problem just in the US, either. According to research from Versapak, 41 percent of Britons feel anxious and not in control when detached from their smartphone or tablet and 51% admitted to suffering from "extreme tech anxiety" at one time or another. Leon Edwards of Versapak stated: "Being disconnected from technology is surprisingly stressful. There's often a feeling of missing out, as we worry about what's going on … without our knowledge."

According to another poll by SecurEnvoy, 70 percent of women have phone separation anxiety, as opposed to 61 percent of men. Now, I doubt we're going to see this phobia in the DSM anytime soon, but the anxiety revolving around smartphones (or lack thereof) is very real. We consider the smartphone an extension of ourselves, a best friend, even a soul mate. So the loss can be similar to losing a best friend.

Another interesting aspect here is that being without a phone connection is social in nature. In other words, it's not so important that the boss wants that report on his desk by 10 a.m. But it is very important to know that Kate just gave birth to a new prince. So, it’s not surprising that nearly seventy-five percent of participants indicate their smartphone is less than five feet from them at any given time.

Anything can be abused, even the smartphone. As our culture becomes ever more tech savvy and tech hungry, phone-free zones will become more and more common. Think back to the time when cigarettes were not only allowed, but encouraged during air flights. As smoking encountered more hostility, the smoke-free zones began popping up everywhere.

The same thing seems to be happening to the cellphone. Have you noticed that certain areas are now displaying "No cell phone use" signs? It's because common courtesy is often thrown out the window when we're on the phone. We don't want to hear about Aunt Jennie's new boy toy, Grandpa's gout or our neighbor's sister's boyfriend who needs bail money.

Restaurants are answering the demand and enforcing a "no cell policy", aka "Quiet Zones", even offering discounts for patrons who leave their cellphone with the receptionist. Some airports are now offering lounges that are cellphone free. Just like with cigarettes, the cellphone pendulum is beginning to swing.

For many of us this will be a welcome respite. For others, it will be a source of intense stress and anxiety. So the question now is, when does cell phone obsession become an outright addiction?

Yep. Smartphone addiction. Maybe you're addicted, or perhaps you know someone who is. You probably already know the symptoms –

• Feeling anxious whenever you do not have your phone in your physical possession.

• Constantly checking the phone for new texts, coupled with the compulsion to respond immediately.

• Did you feel that? Your phone just vibrated, and you felt it. Yet looking at the phone, you realize it's a false alarm. Phantom cellphone vibration syndrome is real, and it's a symptom of addiction.

• You're not listening. In fact, you have no idea what the person in front of you is talking about. Why? Because you keep checking your Facebook page, tweets and texts.

• Failing in School. Poor grades can often be blamed on using the smartphone in classes. There are apps that block social media, which may help.

• Running to the store for 30 minutes and halfway there you realize you forgot your phone and you MUST turn around to get it.

If checking and rechecking your phone comes as naturally to you as breathing, or if you feel anxious or restless any time your phone is not on or near you, you may have a technology addiction. No, you probably don’t need a twelve step program just yet, but if you introduce yourself as “Hi, I’m John and I am a smartphone addict", then here are some things which can help:

#1: NO texting while driving. Make this a RULE! This is not only for you, but also for the benefit and safety of others. If you need to text -- do it before or after you drive. Risking your life just to give a quick response is beyond foolish.

#2: No phone in the bathroom. Seriously? You can't wait a few minutes to go into the most private room known to man? If nothing else, consider the vast amounts of germs crawling on your phone. You may wash your hands, but it defeats the purpose as soon as you start handling that now dirty, germ-riddled phone. Plus, who on the other end likes to hear a toilet flush?

#3. When you step up to the counter to either order or check-out, put the phone down and take care of business. There are customers behind you and they don't want to hear whatever. This is especially true in the Express Lane.

#4 No phone use during sex…… No, I’m not going to explain why not. Just don’t do it.

#5. When going to bed, no more falling asleep while staring at your screen. I know it's fun to tweet, keep up with high school friends on Facebook and buy things on eBay just before closing your eyes, but we're trying to overcome an addiction here. Shut it down and get some shut eye. Oh, and turn the phone off -- completely off -- before falling asleep. You do NOT need to check for messages at 4 a.m. while going to the bathroom.

#6. When you're with friends, turn your phone off. No, not on vibrate. OFF. It's okay. Nothing bad will happen and you won't miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Each time you do this, it will become easier.

#7. If you're on a date, come to a mutual agreement that you each will only check your phones every 90 minutes, at the same time and for 5 minutes max.

#8. Finally, last but not least, when you're able to manage the above without suffering a panic attack, shortness of breath or dizziness, then try leaving the phone at home. Yep, this is the real deal -- graduation day. Spend a day without technology at your fingertips. You may need to do this in small doses, starting off with an hour or two and then progressing -- gasp -- to a whole day. Believe it or not, you can do it and the world will not come to an end.

Again, anything can be abused, and moderation is the key. If you can use and appreciate the technology that is available right at your fingertips without letting it rule your life or hinder those around you, then bravo. But for those of you who believe your smartphone is an appendage, think catching up with your friends can only be done on Facebook, or consider Suri to be your true BFF, then you may need to check out the Internet and Tech Addiction Anonymous website.

Dale Archer, M.D., is a clinical psychiatrist and author of The New York Times bestseller, Better Than Normal: How What Makes You Different Can Make You Exceptional.

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