Smart Phones: Addiction or Obsession? (Part 3)

By Kelly Logie, 1/25/17

We all want to feel connected. Smart phones do just that.

But how much is too much? When are we crossing the line to addiction?

We can predict things all we want. People can say they are addicted to their phones, but we need to hear from the experts before we make any diagnoses.

Lee Salkin, licensed therapist and mental health/addiction counselor, provided a list of signs and symptoms of addiction.

  • Lying to people about how much they use
  • Feeling helpless and guilty
  • Difficulty stop using
  • Preoccupation
  • Feeling necessity driven
  • Financial burdens
  • Jeopardized relationships
  • Getting in the way of functioning in daily life

Whether or not this issue should be labeled as addiction or an alternative is the real question. There is still a lot of speculation and difference of opinions.

Can anything be qualified as an addiction if it’s impeding your ability to function and live your life? Does it depend on how technology is being used?

We need to look at the psychological reasons behind this issue.

Associate Professor Department Chair of the Psychology Department at Whitworth University, Patricia Bruininks, believes we are more isolated than we have ever been. She thinks smart phones keep us connected, but they also allow us to escape boredom, loneliness and discomfort.

“We continually check our phones with the hope that there will be some kind of reward in the form of a social interaction (text or Facebook message),” Bruininks said. “Cognitive psychologists would refer to this as a variable interval reinforcement, which is the type that maintains a behavior the longest.”

There are some similarities between chemical addiction and smart phone addiction, according to Alisha Epps, Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at Whitworth University.

Although given the relative newness of the smart phone phenomenon, she says the jury is still very much out on how comparable it specifically is to substance use.

“We know that with chemical substance abuse, those rewarding and addictive properties come in large part from increasing activity of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain associated with reward and pleasure,” Epps said.

Epps claims that even if cell phone addiction was some day found to increase dopamine levels, which is purely speculative at this point, the mechanism by which it does so would be different. Chemical substances like cocaine can actually enter the brain and hijack these areas involved in reward and dopamine activity.

“Since cell phones don’t exert their effects by entering the brain in this way, they would be altering the brain in a very different way, which would lead to very different strategies for treatment from some of the biological efforts to prevent or treat substance abuse,” she said.

Salkin would not compare smart phone addiction to substance abuse. He claims this is an issue that would be considered more of a disorder rather than an addiction.

“This is a non-inducing disorder. It is lower in intensity, because we are culturally set up for smart phone usage,” he said. “If I were to put it on a scale, it would be a lower version of an eating disorder.”

He says that eating disorders and smart phone usage are similar because they are necessities. We eat to stay alive, and we use smart phones to communicate with one another, in settings like school, work and home life. He used gambling as another example, saying that someone can choose to gamble. If you don’t gamble, you are fine.

Salkin also mentions that the physical damage would be low in comparison to alcohol and drug addictions.

High scores in extraversion seem to correlate with excessive cell phone use in a number of studies, and it also seems like neuroticism may be linked as well, at least in regards to social media usage, according to Epps.

Based on the latest stats Epps has seen, smart phone overuse seems to be higher in females, while illegal drug use is historically higher in men.

If gender can impact this topic, what about other qualities?

Does the generational gap have any influence?

Kelly Creasey, social studies teacher at Mountainside Middle School in Spokane, Washington thinks the biggest problem for the current and future generations will be the affects on their ability to communicate.

“Teens are losing their skills for speaking to each other face to face, conflict resolution, expressing their thoughts,” she said. “Even their writing skills suffer, because of shortcuts and abbreviations in text messaging. Some kids only express themselves through emojis.”

Caitlin Hansen, English Teacher at Mountainside Middle School doesn’t think addiction is the right word to label this epidemic.

She made a point of saying that twenty years ago, computers were not what we know them as today. Technology was not as ingrained into our everyday lives.

“Kids are growing up as digital natives. They know all about technology that is constantly developing along side them,” Hansen said. “It’s changing the world as we know it and creating a demand for new jobs and professional fields that didn’t exist before they did. To call that addiction isn’t fitting.”

So what do we call this phenomenon?

I asked 100 college students how they spent the most time on their smart phones, and how they would describe their feelings toward their smart phone.

I created both surveys, and they were sampled by convenience. In the first survey, I asked the question of what college students spend the time on when on their smart phones. They had the options of choosing from social media, texting, email, calling, taking photos/videos and alternative apps.

The second survey proposed the question of how college students describe their feelings towards their smart phone. It featured the options of being addicted, obsessed, having it be a necessity, being “in a relationship” and being “in love” with your phone.

In the second survey, I specifically wanted to test to see if there was more of a positive or negative correlation with feelings related to smart phones. The “in a relationship” and “in love” categories being positive, while the addicted, obsessed and necessity categories were geared more toward the negative side.

Based on the results, 46% of the respondents said they felt as if they were obsessed with their phone, while 22% claimed they are addicted, coming to a conclusion that a majority of college students have negative views toward their smart phones.

So where do we go from here? How do we acknowledge this issue in the future?

“With any type of item that gets in the way, knowledge and education is the best way to go,” Salkin said.

Do we need regulation?

Obviously, we can’t make a law saying, “Only people over the age of 18 can have smart phones.”

In the past, we have seen marketing campaigns that feature the warning signs for smoking, for example. Highlighting the consequences it could have if someone were to smoke excessively.

Looking at the pros and cons, and addressing both sides of a potential danger needs to be embraced in our society.

Salkin recommends that we take this approach with smart phones in order to prevent this issue from becoming even worse.

Even though there are many questions still unanswered, being informed is the best thing we can do.

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