Phubbing and Texting?

4 Signs You May Be Addicted to Your Cell Phone

Phubbing - Dad with cell phone and kids.
Be careful not to turn time with kids into phubbing with a cell phone in your hand.. Hero Images/Getty Images

Most people today use smartphones and other tech devices. They can be invaluable tools, helping us when we're lost (what did we ever do before map apps?), letting us communicate immediately with the people we love, allowing us to get news on the go, and so much more. But if we're being honest, we don't use our cell phones just for important and urgent matters; most of us have also used them to play games, share photos, and view silly videos.

Fact is, cell phones and other tech that allows you to connect to the internet can be fun and addictive. "Research shows that these are powerful mood and mind altering devices that can lead to biological changes," says David Greenfield, PhD, founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, in Farmington, Connecticut. "It doesn't matter what platform you're using--a phone, a tablet--when you're looking for information or email, that variability and unpredictability, if there's a positive experience online, you get a small dose of dopamine, much as you would get from gambling or sex."

In other words, dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate the brain's reward and pleasure centers, is released when something unexpected or pleasurable occurs. Alarmingly, cell phones and other devices we all use every day have the potential to become as addictive as gambling.

"The internet is the world's largest slot machine, and the smartphone is the world's smallest," says Dr. Greenfield. Now that we have a notification features on devices that let us know when there's an email or text, we check the phone over and over. "It's Pavlovian conditioning," says Dr. Greenfield.

We keep checking our phones because there's a chance we'll see something we see or like--the "reward" we're waiting for. And, of course, we all know how tough it is to put down fun games on the phone--designed to hook kids and grownups alike. Talk about addictive.

Symptoms of Cell Phone Addiction

Signs that you or someone you know might have a cell phone addiction include the following:

  1. Using technology to alter mood or consciousness. Whether it's boredom or depression, cconstantly reaching for the phone to change their mood or to seek stimulation may be a sign that someone is addicted.
  2. Preoccupation with going back to it when you're not using it. Someone who is addicted to their cell may be thinking about how to have it in their hand again as soon as they are separated from it.
  3. Seeking more stimulating content once you develop tolerance. As with other addictions, such as online porn, cell phone addiction can lead to someone wanting more (more stimulation, more time spent, etc.) once they build a tolerance.
  1. Interference with major areas in your life (family, finances, home life, work). When an inability to stop or cut back on cell phone use begins to take a toll on your relationships and work performance, it's a red flag indicating that there may be an addiction.

While the vast majority of people who use cell phones too much are not addicted, says Dr. Greenfield, overuse of cell phones is a very real and growing problem. Sleeping with your phone, feeling uneasy when you don't have your phone with you, or mindlessly checking your phone several times a day when you aren't expecting a message are all signs that you should take a hard look at your cell phone use. And of course, if you find yourself constantly phubbing ("phone snubbing," or choosing to interact with your phone instead of the person with you) your spouse or kids, it's a huge sign that you need to take steps to put the phone and other tech devices away and cut down your use.

If you need help, look for someone who ideally has a background with treating addiction, preferably tech addiction. And keep in mind that tech addiction can't be treated the same way as other addictions. (For example, alcoholism is treated with abstinence but it's practically impossible to cut out all tech.) "Don't be afraid to ask how long she has been treating people with tech addiction or how many cases she's handled," says Dr. Greenfield.

And get everyone you love to work together to minimize the use of tech devices in your life (including TV and video games) and cut down cell phone use. Spending time together in the real world is the best way to connect, especially if it's done without a phone in your hand.

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