Addiction is a powerful word that gets thrown around a lot these days. There's drug addiction and alcohol addiction – we're all familiar with that. There's also sex addiction and gambling addiction.
But can we be addicted to our smartphones? Increasingly psychologists are saying yes we can.
Dr. Ira E. Hyman, Jr., a professor of psychology at Western Washington University, says there's a difference between addiction and dependence. Writing in Psychology Today, Hyman admits to being dependent on his cellphone but not to the extent of not being able to control his use. When you arrive at that point, he writes, you're looking at addiction.
He isn't alone in drawing that conclusion. Experiments have shown that some users, especially young users, will pass up money offered in exchange for waiting to reply to a text message from a friend and instead will reply immediately.
And it's not just texting. Some people will take a call in a crowded restaurant -- even in a movie theater.
"Cell phones have become a necessary part of our daily lives. Still, it is important to remember when to silence or turn them off -- like during meals and while studying or on the Internet," said Courtney Stewart, research associate at the Indiana Prevention Resource Center, an organization originally established to deal with drug addiction. "Too much information can overwhelm our senses and leave us feeling depleted. So put the phone down and spend some time talking with your friends face to face or better yet, take a walk with your friends if you want to connect and get some mood-boosting exercise."
Stewart says cellphone addiction may be hard to identify because, unlike drug and gambling addition, it can be hard to define. Feelings of withdrawal if you don't have your phone, compulsive checking of the phone, and using it to feel good characterize cell phone addiction, she says. And the consequences can be real, just like with other more-recognized additions.
"Students and others could experience the inability to concentrate on the task at hand, be it school work, your job or an important conversation," Stewart said. "School work may suffer, deadlines are not met, and many instructors and employers now ban the use of cell phones while in class or on the job. Failure to comply with these rules can result in declining grades, removal from the classroom and losing your job."
Life and death
It can also be a matter of life and death. Using your mobile device when you should be placing your undivided attention elsewhere can lead to accidents. In 2011, about 1.3 million automobile accidents involved cell phone use, although a recent study calls into question the link between accidents and talking on a cellphone.
There are even some humorous accessories to help cellphone users control their habit. One is a pouch for your phone that blocks the signal – for those who can't bring themselves to turn off their devices. Another is a cage in which you can lock up your phone. Stewart, however, suggests just confronting your cellphone demons.
Her advice? Make a habit of turning off your phone. When you go to a movie, go out to dinner with friends or doing work that requires concentration, turn it off.
If you are unsure if you are really addicted to your phone, you can take this test.