Are They Using It Often or Is It An Addiction? – Cell Phones

March 25, 2022

For better or worse, cell phones are everywhere. Children, teens, and adults often spend much of their day using cellular phones for work and pleasure. As vital as these tools may be to complete work and some academic tasks, many parents question when daily use evolves into cell phone addiction. 


Defining The Term Addiction

At its most basic level, addiction is explained as an overwhelming and compulsive need to obtain and use a habit-forming substance or engage in habit-forming behaviors. People who struggle with an addiction may (or may not) understand the potential and actual harms their actions cause. Yet, they will continue to engage in their behaviors regardless of any negative consequences. There are many types of addiction, including those related to drugs and alcohol and other behavioral addictions. 


Today’s teens have a challenging and complex relationship with technology. Many are expected to use technology (iPad, laptops, etc.) at school both within the classroom and at home to research, complete, and submit homework assignments. For many (even youth at elementary school levels), a significant portion of their academic needs are found online through various web portals. Many parents are hard-pressed to find a course in school where classic handwriting is a part of the curriculum or where assignments are handed out and passed in paper form.  


Also, teens use handheld devices to manage their social lives by using social media platforms and various apps. They also use cellular technology to help manage schedules and appointments. Today’s teens face intense levels of pressure as compared to even a decade ago. Sometimes, teen phone use is related to recreational activities designed to help reduce stress, but phones are often used to keep up with family, friends, and loved ones as well. Given the important role technology plays in their lives, how do parents ensure their use does not get “out of control?” And if it does, is there a treatment for cell phone addiction


Does Cell Phone Addiction Exist? 

There isn’t a recognized “smartphone addiction” or “cell phone addiction” diagnosis. However, parents often wonder if their teen’s attachment to their cell phone qualifies as addictive behavior. Despite the lack of an official diagnosis, research has shown that a few common adolescent personality traits are commonly associated with internet or technology addictions, both of which are closely related to cellular phone addiction. These traits include low self-esteem, low cooperation, altered reward dependence (where a teen becomes dependent on rewards associated with technology instead of natural rewards such as hobbies), and high harm avoidance (when teens become worrisome, fearful, and shy). 


Cell Phone Addiction By the Numbers

Although cell phone addiction is not an “official” diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, parents and medical professionals have a growing level of concern about the effects of excessive cell phone use among teens and adults alike. The results of the Common Sense Media Report released in 2016 found that over fifty percent of teens “feel addicted” to mobile devices. Data from the same survey suggests fifty-nine percent of parents reported they believed their kids were addicted to their devices. 


Two notable numbers center around responding to messages and the frequency with which teens check their phones. The 2016 survey showed that seventy-two percent of teens felt compelled to respond to texts, social media messages, and other notifications immediately. Seventy-eight percent of teens check their devices at least hourly at a minimum.


Another report released by the Pew Research Center in 2018 indicated that teenage girls (fifty percent or more) are “near-constant” internet users compared to about thirty-nine percent of boys. This report also showed that more than ninety-five percent of teens have smartphones. 

Many teens use their cell phones for various reasons, both personal and academic. Therefore, it might be more beneficial to focus less on counting the minutes of use and more on how the phone is used when discussing cellular phone addiction.  


Cell Phone Addiction Symptoms

Because cell phone addiction is not a specified diagnosis, there are no specific symptoms or diagnosis criteria to define the illness. For some parents, this lack of clarity leads to the question, “how do I recognize cell phone addiction in my teen?” Until the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) is updated to cell phone addiction or technology addition, mental health professionals suggest using the diagnostic criteria for compulsive gambling and substance abuse as a starting point for assessing problematic cellular phone use. Remember, although cell phone addiction does not have a list of unique symptoms, problematic use of cellular devices can still be evaluated as a behavioral disorder and treated through treatment programs for behavioral challenges at Hillcrest in Los Angeles, California.  


Using substance abuse disorders and problem gambling as a model, there are several symptoms parents can look for in their teens. For example, your teen’s cell phone use may become so excessive that it causes conflicts with the family or withdrawal from the family. You might begin to notice your teen is struggling in school or with emotional and cognitive functioning. Also, your teen might start to exhibit classic symptoms of addiction, such as continued use despite adverse effects, changes in sleep patterns, increased anxiety or irritability when they cannot use their phone, and an increase in their phone use to achieve satisfaction and avoid feelings of sadness.


Depending on your teen and the reasons they use technology, it can be challenging to determine if their use is for daily activities and needs or if their attachment to their cell phone has evolved into problematic use. If this is the case, ask yourself some of the following questions. Does your teen become angry, anxious, or even violent if their phone is taken away from them? Does your teen skip or avoid social and family events to use their phone instead? Is your teen’s personal care, academics, friendships, and family relationships negatively affected by cell phone use? Has your teen experienced any other significant changes in eating habits, sleep, or mood that you or they cannot otherwise explain? The answers to these questions may help you decide if it might be time to consider talking to the professionals at Hillcrest about the treatment opportunities we can provide to help your teen with their cell phone addiction. 


How Can Cell Phone Addiction Harm Your Teen?

Cellular phone addiction is very closely related to other impulse control addictions. Consequently, teens addicted to their cell phones often experience similar effects. The parts of the brain that regulate emotions, decision-making, and impulse control tend to change with impulse control-related addictions. There is also an increased likelihood that your teen may begin to consume alcohol or use tobacco products and experience a change in their dietary habits.


Other effects of teen cellular phone addiction include something referred to in the medical community as “text neck.” This is the term for the neck pain associated with looking down at a cell phone for too long or too often. Individuals with an addiction to cellular phones also suffer from digital eyestrain. This is often accompanied by burning and itching of the eyes and blurred vision associated with looking at a small screen for at least two hours at a time. Finally, research shows a significant increase in car accidents related to teen cellphone use. Several studies have shown that texting and driving can be equally as dangerous as drunk driving, both of which result in a large number of fatalities each year.


Managing and Treating Cell Phone Addiction

There are many reasons why cell phone use can be helpful or even beneficial for teens. Today’s cellular technology helps teens remain connected with peers, obtain assistance with school assignments, and even use calendars and apps to help stay organized and on track with academic requirements. Before considering treatment, there are a few things you can do at home to help reduce cell phone usage and determine the extent to which your teen may be struggling with cellular phone addiction.


Some teens and their families may succeed with certain lifestyle modifications that can reduce screen time and potentially reduce dependency on cellular technology. While some lifestyle changes impact (mostly) your teen, others might be beneficial for all family members as they encourage greater family connectivity away from screens. Examples include device “check-in” at night, screen-free zones in the home, education about the harms of cell phone addiction, screen time limits, boundaries for phone use, and parental modeling of healthy phone use boundaries. 


In some cases, lifestyle changes may not provide the help your teen needs. In some cases, your teen may need help to understand addictive behaviors and the harms they can cause. They may also need help learning how to overcome addictive behaviors. If you suspect your teen is “addicted” or their cell phone use is adversely affecting their daily functioning, it is time to seek help. 


Although cell phone addiction is a relatively new behavioral addiction that isn’t formally listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, several rehabilitation centers specialize in treating this disorder. At an inpatient residential treatment facility like Hillcrest, your teen can participate in various treatment programs, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and individual process therapies, to help them learn to manage their cell phone use in a healthier way. 


While there is little research regarding how these treatments impact cellular phone addiction specifically, there are decades of study proving evidence-based treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy is highly successful when used to treat behavior-based addictions. Given the similarities between other addictive behaviors and cellular phone addiction, a therapy program based on the treatment models used to address these addictions could help your teen identify the adverse behaviors feeding their addiction. If you are concerned about cell phone addiction and your teen and would like to know more about the treatment programs at Hillcrest, call us today to speak to an admissions counselor.

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