Behavioral addictions may not receive the same respect that substance abuse does, but they are still cause for concern. Addiction to substances, such as alcohol and drugs, is a recognized mental disorder and physiological disease. Using mind-altering substances inappropriately can lead to addiction because they change aspects of the user’s brain, which leads to tolerance, withdrawal, and the cycle of using again and again to get a high and to stop the bad feelings associated with not using.
Addictions to behaviors are less cut and dry. They do not involve putting a chemical into the bloodstream, and so many experts do not believe that they exist in the same realm as other addictions. Others, however, see behavioral addictions, or obsessions, as a real problem. This means being addicted to a particular object or behavior rather than a chemical substance, and could include eating, shopping, using the Internet, or using a cell phone.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM, which is the go-to guide for psychiatrists, therapists, policy makers, insurance companies, and courts for labeling mental illnesses and disorders, only recognizes substances as true addictions. However, a new edition of the DSM is set to come out within months and may include a more serious take on behavioral addictions. It still may not refer to these as addictions, but it is expected to include more behaviors that cause obsessive actions.
There are similarities between behavioral addictions and substance addictions. It begins with experiencing pleasure associated with a certain behavior. For instance, when someone uses his cell phone during a commute to work or during a college lecture, he relieves his boredom and is able to check e-mail or catch up on Facebook. The behavior may also be a way of coping with stress or other bad feelings. The process of engaging in the behavior, feeling pleasure, and ignoring repressed negative emotions becomes ritualized until it is a big part of everyday life. Eventually, he may experience cravings or withdrawal when he cannot get to his phone for a certain period of time. When he finally gets to it, there is a great feeling of relief. This cycle is very similar to substance abuse.
A recent study targeted cell phone addiction in particular and was printed in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions. The study, conducted by Dr. James Roberts of Baylor University, related materialism and impulsiveness to obsessive cell phone use among college students. The results were obtained by surveying nearly 200 students about their cell phone use and what it means to them.
In previous studies, surveys found that young adults send, on average, 110 text messages every day, for a total of around 3,200 per month. They check their phones about 60 times throughout the day and spend approximately seven hours a day interacting with some type of communication or information technology. Although it may just seem like this intense use of cell phones, smartphones, and the Internet is becoming the norm, there are worrying signs that some people (young adults especially) are succumbing to a behavioral addiction.
Based on questions asked on the Baylor study survey and answers received from the college students, compulsive use of cell phones has similarities to compulsive shopping and other materialistic behavioral addictions. The overuse of the phones, including texting, social media use, chatting, and Internet access is driven by the same type of materialism seen in compulsive shoppers as well as by the same kind of impulsiveness. The phone, and its use, has become a status symbol among many people, but especially the young.
Because cell phones give students and others access to communication by a variety of means, at any time of day, becoming obsessed with them is not surprising. The authors of the study, however, caution that although it seems like a probable outcome, this type of compulsive behavior should not be taken lightly. Having constant access to so many functions does not justify being continually plugged in.
Aside from the dangers of developing a behavioral addiction, there are other negative consequences of cell phone obsession. Being hyperconnected erodes personal relationships. Although contact between social groups occurs through the phone, real relationships with deep connections become more difficult to maintain when someone is constantly using her phone.