Cell Phones Are the Latest 'Addiction'

The United States is in the midst of an epidemic of (Excuse me, I have to take this call.)

Sorry about that. Let's get back to the story.

Americans from all walks of life are jonesing for the latest (Hold on just one sec. I've been trying to get this guy on the line all day. I'll be right back.)

There we go. OK, let's try this again.

America's love affair with cellular phones — 212 million carried them as of April 2006 — may have blossomed into a full-fledged addiction, with the devices interfering with personal relationships, classroom lectures, businesses and, yes, journalists' deadlines.

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Some have even called cell phones "the new cigarettes," seeing as how people fiddle with them in elevators, whip them out as soon as they leave the office, take "cell phone breaks" on the job and chat away while walking, driving, etc.

And when your phone isn't ringing, your brain sometimes tricks you into thinking that it is — a phenomenon that has been dubbed "phantom ringing."

"I’m never without my cell phone,” Courtney Tompkins, spokeswoman for the medical school at Des Moines University and owner of a small business, wrote in an e-mail.

“When we go to bed, we have one cell phone on each side of the bed. I use it as an alarm throughout the day; I text- and picture-message constantly. I can send a text message while driving or talking on another phone. I hear phantom ringing often. I’ve been teased at the gym for keeping my phone in hand while walking and next to me while I work out. Yes, I’m a cell phone junkie!”

Karen Gail Lewis, a therapist in Cincinnati, says she has even seen clients break out their phones in the middle of a counseling session.

“I have even had couples in my office for couples therapy where one takes the call,” she said.

In 2003, information-science professor Sergio Chaparro wanted to test out just how deeply cell phones had insinuated themselves into the lives of his students at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

He gave them a seemingly simple homework assignment: to turn off their cell phones for 72 hours. Of 220 students with cell phones, only three could bring themselves to complete the assignment.

“They were afraid. They were truly afraid,” said Chaparro, now a professor at the Simmons Graduate School for Library and Information Science, in Boston.

“What I found was basically a high level of dependence on cell phones. Most students were particularly, I would say, scared of the experience.”

As part of the experiment, the students were required to keep logs of their thoughts and feelings while going without their mobile phones. The responses were telling, he said.

“They had high levels of anxiety, high levels of stress, high levels of insecurity,” he said. “Some of them also told me personal stories. One student told me that the year before she went on a spring-break trip for a week, and the minute she got on the plane, she realized she had forgotten her cell phone. So her mom had to FedEx her the cell phone because she couldn't be without her cell phone for a few days. She was afraid of even driving without her cell phone.”

But as bad as it seems, the obsession with cell phones for the most part doesn't qualify as a genuine addiction, many experts say. And you'd hard-pressed to find someone to take you in as a patient suffering from a pure case of “the talkies.”

“I firmly believe that cell-phone use, as with anything that's a behavior in life, can turn into an addiction, and the way I would define addiction in a clinical sense is any behavior in which a person becomes dependent to the detriment of an important part of their lives,” said Christopher Knippers, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and is an assessment specialist at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

“Quite frankly, the average person doesn't have to really worry about becoming addicted. A glass of wine can be a wonderful accompaniment to a meal, but most people aren't going to become alcoholics. If you already have a certain set of personality traits or biological traits in yourself, you're going to become addicted to something anyway.”

Andrea Macari, an instructor of psychology at Suffolk County Community College with a doctorate in clinical and school psychology, said it could be a long time before a cell-phone addiction might be recognized as a genuine mental disorder, if ever. Nevertheless, it can definitely qualify as maladaptive behavior.

“The symptoms are similar to the symptoms we see with other types of addictions,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The following are some common symptoms: The person feels uncomfortable when not using a cell phone; their cell-phone use has increased significantly; their need to talk on the phone is insatiable; their cell-phone bill is causing financial distress; they are having problems at school and work because they are constantly using their cell phone; they are having interpersonal problems because they are constantly using their cell phone; they are endangering their health because they use their cell phone during inappropriate times (driving, etc.).”

And it's not just a matter of etiquette. Knippers offered one example that he himself witnessed of cell phones hurting personal relationships.

“The other night, I went out to a relatively casual-dining restaurant, and we were watching this man with his young children at another table,” he said. “And from the time before he ordered until the time that he was walking out the restaurant, he had a cell phone to his ear. And his little kids were sitting there in silence, just munching away on their food. He was ignoring his little kids, which doesn't sound like a crime, but is a case where the cell phone was interfering with an important aspect of his life.”

And though Knippers still said that most people who casually toss off jokes about being addicted to their mobile telephones probably aren't, more and more Americans will be making that claim for real.

“It's real rare at this point, but I think we'll see more and more of it,” he said.

Whether or not cell phones can cause real addictions, Macari said that it's a good idea to look to cognitive behavioral therapy if you want to wean yourself off the gadgets.

“Create cell phone times that specifically define the times that you are able to use the phone. For instance, I will only use the phone from 6 to 8 p.m. I would also recommend buying a cell phone that works with a prepaid calling card so that when the minutes are up, that is it," she said.

Macari also said cellular "addicts" should explore the reasons why they need to talk on the phone.

"Do they feel insecure in life, but important when on the phone? Are they uncomfortable when by themselves? Are they running from loneliness?” she said.

But in this 21st-century world of instant results, it's nearly impossible to go cold turkey when many businesses almost demand that their workers carry cells.

“You can't outright ban your own cell-phone use, but when you start to catch yourself using a cell phone instead of dealing with a problem at work or in a relationship, you need to limit yourself as to when and where you use a cell phone,” Knippers said — by cell phone at the beach.

Of course, for every person who kicks a cell-phone dependence, there always seem to be four more who are just starting to get the taste.

Take 39-year-old Chaparro, for instance. When he first conducted his casual study at Rutgers, he was one of only four people in the room who didn't own a cell phone.

“I refused to have a cell phone,” he said, laughing. “I got one a year later. And now I find myself replicating my students' behavior.”

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