As Americans become increasingly dependent on smartphones, recovery centers specializing in addictions and emotional problems say mobile devices are making some bad habits even worse.
“The smartphone is the tool that helps exacerbate that addiction or it’s a tool they use not to deal with that addiction,” says Joel Edwards, executive director of Morningside Recovery in Newport Beach, Calif. And with good reason: Roughly 169 million Americans owned a smartphone in May — a 70% penetration rate — market research group comScore found, and nearly two-thirds of people in their late 20s live in households with no landlines, according to data released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We’re dealing with more and more smartphones as part of the underlying issues. These technologies are driving addictions faster and with more intensity than ever before,” Edwards says.
Mobile devices help provide the three A’s — accessibility, affordability and anonymity, says Robert Weiss, senior vice president of clinical development for Elements , a national behavioral health company. “In 1988, you had to drive to an icky place for pornography and hope that nobody saw you,” he says. “Now, you just say, ‘Siri, show me the porn.’” Drug dealers will know an online message — “I’m in Newport Beach looking for tar or 420” — refers to black tar heroin and cannabis, Edwards adds, but those code words for drugs will go over the heads of most people. “Even a drug dealer has to take a nap occasionally, but it’s easy for people to connect with others to support that addiction,” he says.
Smartphones are also playing a central role in behavioral addictions like gaming, social networking, pornography and sex, says Hilarie Cash, co-founder of Restart Life , a recovery retreat center in Fall City, Wash. Restart Life treats males over 18 years of age and provides a retreat away from digital media for 35 to 90 days, helping them improve their social skills. About 95% of the addictions Restart Life deals with relate to gaming, Cash says, but there are often other issues like pornography and social networking mixed in. “With a smartphone you can do that all the time,” she says. Weiss agrees. “The last cultural revolution took place on the streets,” he says, “but this one is a lot quieter.”
Young people are particularly at risk, and not just those who have addictions, says Cole Rucker, co-founder and CEO of Paradigm Malibu , an adolescent mental health and drug abuse treatment center. “Years ago, the most difficult part for them here was that they couldn’t smoke cigarettes and now the biggest challenge is they can’t have their cellphones,” he says. Teenagers suffering from depression or anxiety often use smartphones as a coping skill rather than learning to sit with their emotions and developing relationships, Rucker says. “Very often, cellphone use is just like drug use, another negative coping style, and a way to avoid thoughts and feelings,” he adds.
Although smartphones can prevent people from dealing with anxiety, they may also compound it. Those who are heavy smartphone users can’t go 10 minutes without their phone before suffering from anxiety, according to one recent study co-authored by Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University and author of “iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us.” The study is due to be published in the August 2014 edition of the journal “ Computers in Human Behavior .” “Most people can’t last an hour without getting highly anxious if their smartphone is taken away,” says Rosen.
His researchers split a group of 163 college students into light, moderate and heavy smartphone users. Half the students sat in silence without their phones and half with them turned off and out of sight. Regardless of where their phone was, the light users showed no increase in anxiety for the entire 75 minutes, the moderate users showed a slight increase between 10 and 20 minutes, but the heavy users showed more anxiety than the light users at the 10-minute mark, and their anxiety continued to rise until the experiment ended. “Most young people, who are among the heaviest users of their smartphones, can’t last an hour without getting highly anxious if their smartphone is taken away,” he says.
Of course, smartphones typically facilitate existing addictions or underlying emotional problems rather than cause them. “They may be addicted to sexual content on their phone or gaming on their phone in the same way that people are addicted to gambling rather than casinos,” Weiss says. “There is no treatment for cellphone addiction or Internet addiction.” The basic criteria for figuring out whether you have a problem includes whether your behavior interrupts with your work, family life, beliefs or life goals, and has negative consequences. “People don’t become addicted without some underlying deficit,” Weiss says. “They have a need to find something that is not in their life in another place.”
That said, there’s also a growing body of research supporting “nomophobia” — the fear of being without your cellphone. Nearly half of Americans (47%) say they couldn’t go a day without their smartphone, according to a survey released last week by Bank of America. One-in-five people reach for their phone as a 21st Century replacement for the post-coital cigarette, according to a 2012 report from mobile security company LookOut, and 41% of people said losing their iPhone would be “a tragedy,” according to a 2010 Stanford University poll. “I have really bad anxiety if I can’t get to my phone,” says Kevin Raposo, 30, a technology blogger in Boston. “I leave it within hands’ reach by my bedside.”
It isn’t always clear when dependence on a smartphone has become a problem. The counselors at Morningside Recovery try to find out what need smartphones are filling and find a way to replace that through group therapy, journaling, and walking in nature. “We put our clients in front of a group of people and actually have them carry on a conversation,” Edwards says. While anxiety and depression could be the main problems, the issue could also be due to loneliness or work-related stress — for example, when a father checks his office emails while sitting at the dinner table, he says. And the consequences of smartphone dependence can be just as dire as a substance dependence. “Texting while driving and drinking while driving is the same kind of crazy,” Edwards says. (MarketWatch)