Hooked on handsets
Are you addicted to your smartphone?
It is a question which has created a great deal of debate in recent years as smartphones seemingly become more and more indispensable to our daily lives.
In Asia, a region that has given us the selfie stick and emojis, people’s love of the smartphone has created something that some psychologists call nomophobia or no mobile phone phobia.
Young people throughout Asia are rarely seen without their phones. In restaurants they photograph meals, share pictures with friends and then proceed to send texts. Even in cinemas now you are asked not to use your mobile phone.
But does this constitute an addiction?
Christopher Hunt, a clinical psychologist at the University of Sydney, said smartphone addiction creates nice headlines, “but addiction itself is a poorly defined concept”.
“You can apply the word addiction to anything because no one has a clear definition of what an addiction really is.”
Hunt noted that traditionally, an addiction is defined in terms of tolerance and withdrawal. “We know with heroin, alcohol and cigarettes there is a strong withdrawal. With smartphones we are looking more at behavioral addiction. Like gambling. But this is still a very controversial topic, and the research is not settled on whether this is an addiction or not.”
Smartphones are “just the medium”, Hunt added.
“It underlines something we are doing when we use them to look things up. The point is, you can overuse them and that can lead to problems. You can use them to gamble and that can lead to problems. You can constantly use Facebook and other social media which can lead to social problems.
“The thing is these are really old problems being done in a different way.”
David Greenfield, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut, recently told Time magazine: “Only a small percentage of people qualify as addicted.
“But many people overuse their smartphones.”
Greenfield, who is also founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, pointed out that the line between “overuse and addiction is gray”. “But you are moving into addiction territory when you cannot stop using your phone even when it is harming your life. Whether you are in a work meeting or behind the wheel, if you cannot help being on it even when you know you should not be, that loss of control is the hallmark of an addiction.”
In the same article, James Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University in Texas, agreed with Greenfield’s definition.
He said that “withdrawal” is a major sign of addiction.
“If you feel anxious, irritable, or uncomfortable when your phone is not within reach, that is a red flag. And if you seem to be on your phone more and more, that ever-increasing desire for a ‘dose’ of smartphone is akin to substance abusers who build up tolerance to drugs or alcohol.”
Adrian Carter, senior research fellow with the department of psychology at Monash University, Melbourne, said smartphone addiction is not a “widely recognized condition in psychiatry or psychology”. “While there may be some psychologists, clinicians or scientists who are willing to promote the existence of smartphone addiction, this is not a common view within psychiatry or the field of addiction.”
Smartphone addiction is not included in the major diagnostic classification systems for mental illness, such as the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition), he added.
“There are plenty of activities that we wished that we did less of,” Carter said.
“We watch too much TV, eat too much sweet food, or spend too much time on Facebook. Sometimes we wished we did more exercise. But this inability to adhere to our longterm goals to live a healthy and fulfilling life or succumbing to our immediate desires does not make this an addiction.”
In psychiatry and psychology, Carter noted, addiction is reserved for behaviors that cause significant harm to a person’s health such as addiction to alcohol or heroin that can lead to serious health consequences and even death.
“In society, we may use the term addiction to describe our over-engagement in some activities, but this is different from the clinical diagnosis which describes a more harmful and less controllable psychiatric illness.”
Carter said it is unclear whether smartphone use is the cause of people’s “problematic use” or if it is the sort of activities people use their smartphone for, such as shopping, gambling, gaming or viewing pornography.
“It would be premature to describe people’s problematic use of smartphones as a psychiatric illness such as addiction. However, that does not mean that someone might not benefit from talking to someone to help reduce their reliance on smartphones or to realize their long-term goals and live a full and healthy life,” he said.
Carter said people must be wary of “miracle cures”.
“There is a long history of selling miracle cures for addiction at significant cost, but with limited evidence that they are effective.”
Hunt at the University of Sydney said one of the problems is that people generally fear new technology.
He said people tap into this fear and make money from it.
“As yet, there is no evidence to suggest smartphones are addictive. Essentially it is a social change, a new medium. Just like the television and the telephone were.”
Primary school students use smartphones outside a museum in Beijing.