I sit at my computer, Internet turned off so I can get some work done. And then I reach for my smartphone to check my email.
My husband grabs his phone first thing in the morning, reading a mobile newspaper, and last thing at night, playing chess.
We use our phones a lot — to text our teens (yes, even in the house), to check our calendar, the weather, Facebook and email.
Are we addicted?
You certainly hear people say they’re addicted to their phones, but is it truly addiction?
Psychiatrists have been debating this point for years — not about smartphones per se, but whether what some call behavioral addictions are comparable to drug addictions. In other words, is problem gambling in the same category as cocaine abuse?
The first problem is what “addiction” means. “‘Addiction' is defined differently, depending on whom you talk to,” says Stuart Gitlow, a psychiatrist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
Some think there’s a fundamental difference between ingesting or injecting psychoactive substances — such as cocaine and alcohol — and behaviors that don’t involve chemically altering one’s mood, such as shopping and playing video games. Indeed, psychiatry used to put heroin and gambling in different categories, the latter lumped in with impulse control disorders such as pyromania and kleptomania.
“Now, the thinking has changed,” says David Gorelick, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. With the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, problematic gambling has been moved into the same section as substance use disorders.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine, of which Gitlow is president, takes a similar view: that the same core concepts underlie behavioral addictions as drug addictions. For instance, like addictive drugs, addictive behaviors cause a high or a buzz and can produce tolerance (you need more to get the same buzz) and withdrawal (you feel badly when you don’t engage in the desired activity).
The primary characteristic of addiction is a loss of control over one’s behavior despite knowledge of adverse consequences, Gorelick says, such as fractured relationships and poor performance at work or school.
So how might this thinking apply to smartphone use?
A 2014 study asked 164 college students about their smartphone use: Women spent an average of 10 hours a day on their phones and men logged more than seven hours. The researchers asked about specific activities on the phone and found that social media apps, such as Instagram and Pinterest, engendered the most addiction-related responses.
Indeed, social media addiction is another recent area of study for researchers.
But before anyone fears that we’re addicted to our smartphones, let’s consider this: Many people read books late into the night, putting off sleep. Others tinker in the garage for hours on end, ignoring household chores. Is that addiction or recreation?
“Addiction does not equal ‘something you do a lot,’” Gitlow says. And people who read a lot do not have their behavior judged as negative. But with cellphones, Gitlow says, “we’ve undergone such a rapid transition that the perception is different.”
(My teenager would add that whenever teens are involved, the perception is different: Whatever they’re doing must be bad because it’s different from what we adults did.)
Back to the psychiatric diagnostic manual for a minute: The experts who moved gambling into the addictive-disorders category cited one other behavior as a potential future addiction: Internet gaming disorder.
So smartphone addiction is not an official psychiatric diagnosis for now, but you may still feel uncomfortable with your level of use. Perhaps you feel as though you spend way too much time looking at your device. Perhaps you feel twitchy trying to keep yourself from checking Facebook or e-mail.
Most advice pertaining to changing habits start with analyzing what the habit is and drilling down to why you do it. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg covers the topic in depth, and it includes a handy chart for understanding why you repeatedly do some of the things you do.
For me? I use my smartphone throughout the day, but I have phone-free hours in the evening. And I’m considering moving the charger plug out of my bedroom.