Is digital the new world of addiction?

What's the first thing you do in the morning and the last thing you do before you go to bed? A generation ago, many of us may have answered: “Have a cigarette.”

Today we answer: “Check my phone.”

While the former is unarguably the product of addiction, the idea of the latter as an addiction is murkier. Is it possible to be addicted to our phones and the internet in general? The opinions of thought leaders on these questions may surprise you.

An all-in-one tool

The multifunctionality of smartphones makes it easy to reach for them as our resource of choice. From games and web surfing to GPS and a camera, there’s a solution on our phone — or a corresponding app — for just about anything. And because of its multiple uses, determining if phone use is the product of addiction or simply the phone’s own myriad capabilities can be difficult to discern.

In his article Cell-Phone Addiction: A Review, Jose De-Sola Gutierrez describes addiction as “an unstoppable and uncontrollable desire that can lead to use (a drug, a technology) despite its negative and detrimental effects.” While the immediate negative effects of cell phone use may not be as readily obvious as the cancer risks associated with cigarette use, they still cannot be ignored.

Your phone, a threat to your health

In this country an average of six teenagers ages 16-19 die every single day because of distracted driving, according to the CDC, and while the rate among adults is noticeably lower, the risks posed by driving while on the phone have prompted government legislation in states across the nation.

To date, text messaging while driving is illegal in 47 states, and 14 states have banned cell phone use by anyone while driving. The state of Oregon is also introducing new, stiff fines and even jail time for motorists who fail to comply with existing laws banning cell phone use while driving.

In addition to potential hazards tied to cell phone use while driving, continual heavy cell phone use has been tied to problems associated with the user’s eyes and increased muscle pain.

Cell phone use has also been tied to numerous mental health disorders including sleep deprivation and depression, stress disorders, increased anxiety and the consumption of tobacco or alcohol in greater quantities. In addition, research shows heightened cell phone use can hinder a person's — particularly a younger person's — social experiences, as young users report spending less time with friends and less time going out on dates than they did in years past because of heightened cell phone use.

Recognizing and treating the threat

While more experts are widely accepting smartphone dependency as a legitimate addiction, would-be patients are understandably resistant to break away from their prized possession in a smartphone-dependent world.

The patterns of abuse appear most frequently in young women, particularly those who already show the need for excessive social networking or suffer from image and self-esteem problems. But smartphone addiction can strike people of any gender and age.

Because of the wide range of potential people suffering from cell phone addiction, treating the problem ranges from simple avoidance of the device for extended periods of time all the way to full-blown rehab. But as therapist and addiction expert Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., stated to Shape.com, as with any other addiction, the first step is acknowledging the problem. "If you think you have an issue, there's a high probability that you do," he said.  

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