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Cellular Telephones: A New Addiction?

Cellular Telephones: A New Addiction?

As Americans' use of personal electronic devices increases, so too, do the controversies surrounding these now seemingly indispensable tools. Wireless networks and cellular telephone towers are ubiquitous, as are the users who wander the streets, oblivious to their surroundings, so rapt are they in their conversations and text messages. It is hard to tell the difference between the corporate executive closing a deal and the homeless or mentally ill person because hands-free headsets give the impression of talking to oneself.

Surveys indicate that more than 203 million Americans own a cell phone1 and as many as 30% say they cannot live without it.2 At Rutgers University, information technology students were challenged to turn off their cell phones for 3 days. Only 3 of 220 students completed the assignment.3 It seems there is no escape from the constant ringing of cell phones, with some playing familiar tunes that seem bizarrely out of place for the settings in which they are now likely to be heard. Only miles above the earth, in midflight, can we find some solace--at least for now, while the ban on the use of cellular phones during flights remains in effect. Like it or not, there seems to be no turning back. We find ourselves in a society that is increasingly enslaved by the tools designed to free us and isolated by the technology designed to bring us closer together.

But does this increased use and dependence rise to the level of an addiction? A recent query on Google returned 5,640,000 hits for the words "cell phone addiction." Parallels have been made to everything from cigarette smoking and caffeine to obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders, including pathologic gambling. As early as 2000, reports began to appear that suggested a link between the decrease in teen smoking and the simultaneous increase in cell phone use by the same age group--in essence, a substitution of one addiction for another.4 The cellular phone has also become a means of teen bonding, a symbol of acceptance, and a boost for self-esteem. Some teens are so dependent on this device as a means of communication that they will steal to support their "habit" and continue to engage in the behavior despite the negative impact on their functioning. Indeed, the use of the cell phone under these circumstances may cause the exact problems teens are trying to overcome and lead to more social isolation and failure in school.5

Statistics that demonstrate the persistence of cellular phone use in unsafe and illegal situations further reinforce the concept of addiction. It has always been a hallmark of any addiction that the individual continues to engage in the behavior despite the negative impact on his or her ability to function socially, interpersonally, and professionally. Such may be the case for some cell phone users; but does this warrant referring to a certain mobile technology as a "crackberry"?3

Addictive characteristics

Perhaps the reason that so-called cell phone addiction presents with characteristics and complications similar to those of other addictive disorders is that all addictions are a result of the same syndrome or collection of symptoms and signs related to the same underlying condition. Shaffer and colleagues6 espouse this syndrome model, describing shared neurobiologic and psychosocial antecedents and experiences of addictions. In this model, the antecedent to addiction syndrome is the interplay of individual vulnerabilities with exposure to and interaction with an object. Thus, individuals who are sensitive to the neurobiologic consequences of addiction--that is, the activation of reward circuitry or psychoactivation--will be more likely to become addicted when exposed to an object with addictive potential. The outcome of this interaction is described as a "subjective shift": a change in experiential state that is highly desirable and sought after.6

Taking this a step further, it has been proposed that engaging in an addictive behavior allows an individual to divert his attention from chronic aversive arousal, away from his own perceived preoccupations and self-consciousness, allowing for a self-induced dissociative state.7 One need only reflect for a moment on the behavior of habitual cell phone users to see how this model may fit. Cellular phone users are so wrapped up in their conversations that they are often oblivious to their surroundings, almost sleep-walking through stores and city streets, taking no notice of what is going on around them.

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