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Hanging Up on Cell Phone Addiction

What to do when an electronic device becomes your best friend

cell phone users

In a recently published study at Baylor and Seton Hall Universities, researchers studied cell phone and instant messaging – or texting—addiction among college aged men and women.

College students are the heaviest users of information and communication technology and an overwhelming number of them own smart-phones and use them throughout their day—sending an average of 109.5 text messages a day, receiving just as many each day, and checking their cell phones 60 times on an average day.

Investigators discovered that measures of materialism and impulsiveness were predictors of technological addictions among college-aged men and women. So what this says is that materialism—acquisition of stuff—and placing a high value on the kind of stuff you’ve got—as a display of or as an extension of the self—correlates highly with cell phone use; whereas use of instant messaging, does not correlate so much with materialism, but is related more to impulsivity.

None of this is surprising. Many of us do flash our phones—even unwittingly—as a kind of status—so many peacock’s tails in an age of AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

How many of us spend more time with our cell phones—checking our email through it, checking for texts, for missed calls—then we do with our own minds? Picture this. You’re at the sushi bar, alone, dabbing at the wasabi clumps in your soy sauce dish. There’s no ringing, no electronic beeps or boops, no strong vibrations in your pants pocket, yet you pull out your phone anyway—Why? Can’t it wait? Whatever it is. Does the repetitive reassurance of finger swiping or button pushing make it easier for you to sit in silence among your fellow diners, your bento-box craving brothers-in-lunch?

Perpetual contact has become a norm, especially in the younger age groups, and yet—the irony being that there’s constant connection to–or interfacing with the cell phone—yet the quality of information is poor or skeletal. There is, ironically, a greater chance for social isolation when most of your social life is mediated through this device.

But is the compulsive checking and texting an addiction? If there is a pleasurable reward there is the potential for addiction. Behavioral addictions have rewards, tolerance—needing or seeking more to sustain desired level of pleasurable payoff, withdrawal, feeling badly as you are cut off from the desired stimulation.

The major problem as I see it is not so much you get a buzz, a text, or an alert, or a fresh new email from a friend, relative, or potential lover—and the rewarding hit of brain neuro-chemicals these elicit—hence the term ‘crackberry’—the problem is when no one is there. The intolerable gaps of time between contacts, might be tiny, but can feel like eons filled with soul-shrivelling loneliness and dejection.

What happens to you when you are left to crash downward into the abyss of ‘no one wants me just now', in these seconds becoming minutes, becoming hours? Depending on your sensitivity, proneness to impulsivity, and how strongly you equate being contacted with the relative strength of you esteem for yourself—you can be left feeling grief stricken or even completely bereft. Utterly lonely. Despairing.

Think about it. To some it may sound extreme—but to someone prone to feeling easily rejected, abandoned—we all know people like this—the low lows after hitting the tri-tone high note of someone needing you wanting you—the let down even moments thereafter can be brutal, and even, a kind of repeating self-injury.

So what is an addiction? Many of us want to feel good, or at least, better than we do right now. One of my patients in recovery from his addiction summed it up: “I didn’t do drugs because I’m mad at the world. I did drugs because it made me feel good.” But then, he got caught in the vicious loop of increasing tolerance and withdrawal and relapse onward and downward ad nauseam. Literally.

Visionary Marshall McLuhan said we have become global wanderers, information gatherers rather than food gatherers. He also said that societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which humans communicate than by the content of the communication.

Maybe we are becoming cyborgs, part human part computer--all of us—any of us who have ever even once texted someone, the mere presence of the term text, to text, a verb that did not exist only a few short years ago—makes you—the way I see it--part machine.

And how do we live today?

It’s clear, we need new guideposts to orient ourselves. The answer could lie simply in what we expect from our relationships and from ourselves—and in the knowledge that we are ever rapidly shifting.

Is an addiction still an addiction if everyone’s doing it? We need to look at what suffers when we behave as we do. There may be no critical number of texts sent, or times a phone is checked, to easily distinguish someone who has a frank addiction to a technology from someone who doesn’t. Or to a very specific application of that technology.

Think about how a therapist would see us in the throes of our addiction—they could point out what might be missing from a our life as a result of time spent rooting around our digital backyards for elusive bits of highly valued treasure, desperately awaiting a signal from some other--it even could be anyone--trying to tell us something, to ask us something, or just by mere contact alone irrespective of a message’s content, indicating that we still matter. That we are worth something, and so therefore, providing just that much more impetus to go on living.

Let’s talk about solutions. How would you cope with impulsive behavior? One way is to make it impossible to make good on the urges as they come. And you can do this for portions of the day which you designate in advance as time for doing life unplugged.

Can you manage with just an hour of unplugged time? Turn your phone off, stick it in a drawer, and leave it there for an hour. It’ll help to think of this as an experiment. Whatever separation anxieties you feel, let them float in an out of you as you train your eyes and attention to life unfolding right before you. By making it physically impossible to do anything about your urges to use—use your phone, that is—even if the impulses well up, allow yourself some breathing time. It could be boring—so what?

As you practice this, and over time, expanding your digital downtime from one hour to larger chunks of time, the heart rate slows down, you’re less on edge, even neglected interests begin show up again. Most people who do find their initial anxieties give way to living at a more chill level, feel more present in life without even intending to be. What will you end up doing? Maybe riding your bike? Reading a magazine article without interruption, or a book chapter?

Or perhaps looking into someone’s eyes long enough to get to know them better?


You can hear the above blog entry as a podcast of Optimal Living with Dr. Jeremy Spiegel at Dr. Spiegel is founder and medical director of Casco Bay Medical, with offices in Greater Boston, Massachusetts, Portland, Maine, and at the DiMele Center for Psychotherapy in New York City.