cell phone addiction

How to Spot Cell Phone Addiction Symptoms

September 24, 2021

Today, pretty much everyone has a cell phone. It is not uncommon to see people of all ages; some far younger than one might expect, walking around with a cell phone in their hand. In restaurants on airplanes or in other public settings, smartphones are frequently used as a means to entertain and quiet kiddos who aren’t interested in sitting still. Although perhaps beneficial at the time, this often creates a dependency on technology that increases with time and age. Cell phones have made interaction with friends and family easier, opened the world to instant news coverage, and removed the need for a paper atlas in your car or a recipe book in your kitchen.

Today many people, regardless of age, have a complicated relationship with technology. Adolescents and teens may be among those who struggle most; for reasons that stem from their own choosing and from expectations. Many teens are expected to use technology both within the classroom and at home to complete and submit homework assignments at school. Also, handheld devices are used to manage their social lives by using social media platforms and various apps.

Today’s teens use smartphones, iPads, and other similar technology to manage schedules, appointments, and other day-to-day obligations. 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. Unfortunately, this often leads to technology playing a vital but possibly dangerous role in your teen’s life.

Is Cell Phone Addiction Real?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), is considered the gold standard for mental health providers during mental health evaluations. They look to the DSM for lists of diagnostic criteria to help verify the presence of, or severity of hundreds of varying conditions. Currently, there isn’t a recognized “smartphone addiction” or “cellular phone addiction” diagnosis listed in the most current edition of the DSM. However, it is essential to note that the most up-to-date edition was published in 2014 after many years of revision and review. A lot has changed since then.

Regardless of the presence of diagnostic criteria, many parents naturally worry about their teen’s attachment to their cellphone. It is not uncommon to wonder if this could qualify as addictive behavior or addiction. Despite the lack of an official diagnosis, research has shown a few common adolescent personality traits 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 Among Teens

When mental health conditions are not commonly recognized as an “official” diagnosis, it can be challenging to find reliable research statistics on the prevalence of those conditions.  Given that cell phone addiction falls into this category, there is limited data for parents to rely on. However, there are some research studies that point to cell phone addiction as a genuine concern among teens. In 2015 a survey of teens showed that seventy-two percent of those surveyed 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. In 2016, the results of the Common Sense Media Report found that over fifty percent of teens reported feeling addicted to mobile devices. The same report indicated nearly sixty percent of parented said they believed their teens were addicted to their cellular technology.

More recently, in 2018, Pew Research conducted a survey on teen cell phone use. The data from this survey indicated that teenage girls (fifty percent or more) are “near-constant” internet users compared to about thirty-nine percent of boys. Data from the same report showed an overwhelming ninety-five percent of teens have a smartphone.

Symptoms of Cell Phone Addiction

To date, cell phone addiction is not defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. However, members of the medical and mental health communities have suggested using the criteria provided for diagnosing compulsive gambling and substance abuse as a starting point for assessing problematic cellular phone use. The characteristics of problematic cell phone use allow it to be evaluated as a behavioral disorder and treated through treatment programs for behavioral challenges at Hillcrest in Los Angeles, California.

Using the diagnostic criteria for problematic gambling (or gambling addiction) as a guide, there are various symptoms you could look for in your teen. These would include many of the same symptoms typically present in the diagnostic criteria for other behavioral disorders. For example, your teen may need to use their cell phone with increasing frequency to feel “satisfied” or to reduce anxiety related to not knowing if they missed a call or message. They may also try to use it with less frequency but fail. You may also notice your teen’s use of their cell phone may become so excessive that it causes conflicts with the family or withdrawal from the family.

You might 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. You may also notice classic signs of withdrawal, including 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.

Other potential symptoms of cell phone addiction are more specific to the overuse of technology. Although these will not be listed as a diagnostic criterion for other behavioral addictions, they may serve as an additional warning that you may want to consider seeking cell phone addiction treatment help for your teen at a teen-focused treatment center like Hillcrest.

Overusing technology such as cell phones or iPads can lead to various physical health problems. The first is digital eye strain. Viewing a small, digital screen for multiple hours can lead to eye strain. Symptoms of digital eye strain include itching, burning eyes, blurred vision, eye fatigue, and frequent headaches. Another symptom of phone overuse is neck problems. You may notice your teen experiencing neck pain resulting from looking down at their phone for too long at any one time. This is sometimes referred to as “text neck.”

Treating Teen Cell Phone Addiction

Although an official diagnosis of cell phone addiction is not possible, treating the symptoms of cellular phone dependency can be highly beneficial for your teen. Although teens use their phones for various practical needs, there are a host of other reasons cellular phones are used. It is these “other” reasons that can lead to challenges with dependency and possibly addiction.

Before seeking treatment, there are a few things you can do at home to help your teen and other members of your family reduce their screen time. It will be essential for all members of the family to participate in the same screen time schedule. A few examples of at-home lifestyle changes that may help your teen reduce their cell phone use include utilizing device “check-in” policies, establishing screen-free zones in the home (such as the dinner table or bathroom), and modeling healthy boundaries. Parents and caretakers need to remember that adolescents and teens learn from watching. When parents use their phones to excess or at inappropriate times, teens will inevitably learn from their example. If you set rules for family members, it is essential for you as a parent to adhere to the boundaries as well.

If you try the above measures and they do not seem successful, or you are still concerned about your teen’s cell phone use, it may be time to seek help. Additionally, if your teen’s use of technology, including their cell phone or iPad, affects their daily functioning either at school or at home, seeking treatment for cell phone addiction may be beneficial. Cell phone addiction is a relatively new behavioral addiction. It is not formally listed in the DSM, and therefore receiving an “official” diagnosis is unlikely. However, several teen-focused treatment centers specialize in treating this disorder, including the team at Hillcrest.

Add an inpatient treatment center like Hillcrest, your teen can participate in various treatment programs such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and individual process therapies designed to help them better understand the roots behind behavioral addictions. Although there is little research to prove the effectiveness of these treatments on cellular phone addiction specifically, there are decades of studies to prove evidence-based treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy are highly effective when used to treat other behavioral disorders such as gambling addictions and substance abuse disorders. Because there are many similarities between other behavioral disorders and addictive behaviors and the symptoms and impacts of cell phone addiction, a comprehensive treatment program based on similar treatment models could help your teen identify and overcome the harmful behaviors that continue to feed their addiction to their cell phone.

If you are concerned about your teen’s cellular phone use (or other forms of technology, including iPad, laptops, desktops, or other portable devices), contact the admissions team at Hillcrest today. Let our caring and compassionate treatment professionals work with your teen and family to design a comprehensive treatment program to address and overcome a dependency on technology. It may be challenging to consider seeking help for your teen for a condition that isn’t clearly defined; however, treatment at Hillcrest can help your teen learn healthier, safer ways to integrate technology into their day-to-day lives without misuse or overuse.