Smart phone ‘addicts’ do not need rehab

By Jack Flanagan on October 22nd, 2013

It wasn’t an important meeting, just a general catch-up. How’re things? Everyone happy? But I’m new on the committee, so it was important to keep face and say something – anything – relevant. I should’ve been focused. But I wasn’t: my right hand was jammed in my pocket, tickling the screen of my iPhone.

So I ask myself, could I be an “addict”? I’m quite quickly convinced, with my twitchiness and secretive behaviour. I mean, I could be twisting my fingers around a bag of cocaine. Looking online, there is (of course) a wealth of articles from generic tech blogs ready to supplement my hysteria and the creeping suspicion that I have an addiction to my smart phone.

It’s what scientists call an a priori question, meaning I’m seeking a particular answer before I look at the research. I’ve decided already that something is true, my addiction, and I’ve gone online in search of evidence that supports the story I’ve come up with.

A priori questions are understandably not seen in the best light in science communities. If they have to be used – for whatever reason – you can adjust the statistics to make it less likely you’ll find a tangible result, hopefully evening out the already improved chances of finding one. We can’t “adjust the statistics” in our minds, so when we think a priori, we’re likely to find the answer we’re looking for.

But I’m hardly alone in my iPhone hysteria. Smart phones are a massive industry. In the US, 70 per cent of the population is said to have one. China, which sees the highest market share, is predicted to sell 240 million smart phones this year alone – that’s 18.5 per cent of a 1.3 billion population going out and buying a smart phone. And by the end of 2013, it’s said that 1.4 billion people will be using one – about a fifth of the planet. Few innovations have seen such a rapid rise to prominence.

It is natural, then, that we ask questions about what smart phones do to us. In the 90s, there was the “radiation” scare, in which we thought mobile phones, as they were catching on, cause damage to our brains. Today, with plenty of people nervously touching their phones as I do, we ask if people are addicted. It’s being called nomophobia, or fear of no mobile phone.

But a nervous habit does not an addiction make. Could touching up your make-up be an addiction? What about any other minor obsessive behaviour, like worrying about the stove? Even more noticeable obsessive behaviours such as hand-washing and so on aren’t really “addictions” in the typical way we understand them. As Damian Thompson notes in his book The Fix, we have no word for “liking something a lot”, so we use addiction because it’s the best we’ve got. The danger with that is confusing “liking something an awful lot” with a serious, clinical condition.

Addiction as a diagnosis has a very precise meaning. An “addict” – someone who needs treatment – will usually experience withdrawal, won’t be able to control him or herself, tries to justify their behaviour or cut it down (and fails) and thinks about their ‘fix’ all the time. Usually they develop tolerance to their fix: a user might need to take more and more of the same drug, or a cocktail, in order to get the same high they did as the first time. And, importantly, the rest of their life suffers: they become ill, they lose friends or a job, and the world seems to fall apart around them.

“So, hey,” say the researchers and smart phone users “some smart phone people are those things.” And it’s true: there are people who have suffered from “Blackberry thumb”, carpal tunnel syndrome, ‘iPhone’ (sore) neck and back problems. There’s also stories of people reaching over their partners in the night to check a new text, for shame. There’s even some evidence for withdrawal symptoms, such as missing your phone or getting short-tempered without it.

This is odd behaviour. And authors Damian Thompson and Sherry Turkle have both gone to great lengths to identify how smart phones – as well as many other modern conveniences – have enabled people to behave very oddly. But a lot of the arguments for smart phone addiction usually take a nostalgic approach to addiction: when Thompson and Turkle were children, the only thing people obsessed over was alcohol and gambling, diagnosable addictions. But just because obsessive texting and checking social media is very new and it looks like addiction, doesn’t mean it is one.

One of the greatest thing about the smart phone is its utility. In a recent survey, 47 per cent of participants said that their phone was used primarily for a variety of functions – social media, email, gaming – but not for texting or making calls. What we have in our hands now are mini-computers. This means that, instead of making calls on my mobile, checking emails on my laptop, playing games on consoles and using my wallet to fish for debit and loyalty cards, I have one handy device for all. If I, then, spend more time on my smart phone – is that surprising?

In fact, if you were looking at particularly obsessive behaviour with smartphones, you’d need to be very specific. What is the smartphone being used for: gaming? Social media? Texting? The whole point of diagnosing something is to help treat it, so unless a person enjoys something about the smart phone as a holistic device, smartphone addiction is too general to be of any use to a clinician or a rehab centre. Despite what the few smart phone rehab centres that have popped up have to say on the matter.

Still, you might say: there are a ton of people who are unhealthily obsessed with smart phones. Take, for example, the illnesses people develop, mentioned earlier – these are real, quantifiable effects of too much phone use. That seems naïve: what about sub-aqua diving, or ballet-dancing? If people do either of these things for too long, it severely weakens their bones. Refined sugar and coffee are, ostensibly, terrible for you. People who drink several cups of coffee a day are even said to show some withdrawal symptoms (short temper, “need”) but it’s still a long way off being called an addiction, because no-one has ever “lost it all” or “hit rock bottom” because of a 3-day caffeine bender.

Opinions that smart phone use can be addictive often come from how new the phenomenon of the smart phone is. It isn’t just Thompson and Turkle who are using the pre-smartphone era to define their proposed addictions. In a study which set out to establish a “Smart phone Addiction Scale” (SAS), Korean researchers were looking for six markers for addiction. Something like “Daily-life disturbance” – their first one, the type which makes you forget to feed your kids or go to work – is definitely a sign of unhealthy obsession.

But factors like “cyber-space-oriented relationship” or “overuse” or problematic. Are gay men, who disproportionately meet partners online, suffering from internet addiction? If someone spends 5 hours one day on a smart phone, 1 hour on social media, 1 hour checking emails, 2 hours online and 1 hour texting, is that excessive, or getting their money’s worth?

“Normality” is just a case of what we’re used to. Damian Thompson is an Englishman, and in his book The Fix he describes an office worker having coffee and cake for breakfast, insensible of how unhealthy that is. He seems to forget pain au chocolat, and that in Italy a cappucino and biscotto for breakfast is the norm. Equally, for toddlers today it may be more natural to “flick” through pages on an iPad than in a real magazine.

In another study, a team of researchers found that people addicted to the internet also had a poorer diet. They concede at the end of the paper, however these results aren’t necessarily directly related i.e. one may not cause the other. Comorbidities, where two or more medical conditions come together, such as obesity and internet addiction, may actually come from a deeper, more troubling source.

In last week’s article on video game addiction I talked about how social phobia and depression can play a big part in developing the disorder. It may also be the reason people go online, for solace.

In “smart phone addiction”, we don’t know what we’re dealing with: It’s not just because it’s new, but also because a smart phone acts as so many things, which makes a diagnosis of what the actual problem is very difficult. That’s the whole reason we use the word addiction – to help people recover from one. It looks like, right now, there is no reason to suspect the humble (but useful) smart phone of being addictive.

And, for all those people like me who seem anxious to check their texts and forever be clear of FOMO: maybe just put down the phone? But, in any case, you don’t need rehab. Jut a bit of self-discipline.