Nerd, interrupted: Inside a smartphone addiction treatment center

Ashley loved her fiancé, Dave, but he was committed to another—his phone. Sharing her story with an online support group for cell phone addicts, she explained that their problems started out innocently enough. (Names changed for privacy.)

At first he was constantly texting on his dumb phone. Then he moved on to a BlackBerry, and never ignored a single call, text, or email.

But soon enough, the BlackBerry failed to provide enough of an information rush. The quick high of each incoming message didn’t last, and Ashley always found Dave jonesing for his next fix. He finally found that relief in his first Android phone, which let him mainline a steady stream of tweets and Facebook updates.

Ashley and Dave were soon sleeping in separate bedrooms. Dave’s phone left his hands only when he needed to sleep, and sometimes not even then: Ashley remembers peeking into his bedroom to find her fiancé curled up, fast asleep, with his phone clutched in his fist. And just when Ashley thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did.

“Then… the iPhone 5 came. And I no longer existed,” she told her support group.

We often joke about being addicted to our phones, but it’s a problem that actually affects thousands of people worldwide. How can these people get real help when the culture itself is so deeply influenced by the smartphone and the mobile Internet? People addicted to these central accoutrements of the digital age need a dedicated type of rehab therapy and wellness programs to bring them back to reality. Backing away from an obsession with always-on, always-connected gadgets can be as hard as backing away from cigarettes or heroin.

Charlene deGuzman’s short film gives a sadly accurate portrayal of how our phones are a central part of our social interactions.

‘No-mobile-phobia’

There is a name for the feeling of anxiety caused by separation from one’s smartphone. Nomophobia—literally, “no-mobile” phobia—is the fear of losing or being without a cell phone. It’s not an official, clinical diagnosis, and you can’t find an entry for it in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), but there is reason to believe that it is a growing problem.

Lookout
Most of us feel anxious when our phone goes missing.

A 2012 study by two-factor authentication developer SecurEnvoy found that 66 percent of participants suffered from nomophobia, up 13 percent since 2008. In a different study, mobile security company Lookout reported that 73 percent of participants said they felt panicked when they lost their phone. Nearly 60 percent said they don’t go an hour without checking their phones.

And we’re using our phones everywhere. Credentials management company Jumio found that one in ten smartphone owners admit to using their phone either during religious services, at a child’s school or function, in the shower, or during sex. Roughly three-quarters of participants said they were usually within five feet of their smartphone at all times.

That data shouldn’t come as much of a shock. We are deeply dependent on our phones, as they provide quick access to information, entertainment, and communication with other humans. As we access more and more types of information on our phones, the more socially acceptable this kind of behavior becomes. And the more our society accepts this behavior, the harder it is to tell whether—and when—such actions are becoming a cause for concern.

Jumio
We’re guilty of using our phones when we know we shouldn’t.

“People don’t realize the negative consequences of tech use, because we consider [mobile phones] a necessary, integral part of our lives,” says Hilarie Cash, a specialist in Internet and tech addictions. Cash is the cofounder of the Restart Internet Addiction Recovery Center in Fall City, Washington, just 15 miles east of Microsoft’s main campus. She treats patients with a variety of tech addictions, and believes that nomophobia and addiction go hand in hand, with the Internet playing a major part.

“Mobile phone addiction is an Internet addiction,” she says. “People are not getting addicted to their dumb phones.”

Elizabeth Waterman, a therapist at Morningside Recovery in Newport Beach, California, agrees, adding that most of her patients with nomophobia have a larger, underlying issue. “Usually, nomophobia is a symptom of multiple diagnoses,” Waterman says. “It’s never just a phone addiction.”

Both Cash and Waterman say their patients suffer from a wide range of disorders, such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder, or Asperger syndrome. Some come from a broken home life; some have a paralyzing fear of being alone in public. Whatever the background, the phone attachment is usually just the tip of the iceberg.

Mobile phone and Internet addictions start just as other addictions do.

“All addictions have certain things in common,” says Cash, “like the feelings of pleasure or release, the development of tolerance, and an experience of withdrawal when access is lost.”

The next time you get excited over a phone notification or someone posting on your Facebook wall, you can blame it on human psychology. Interacting with our phones stimulates the release of dopamine in our brains, and addicts anticipate the pleasure of the next tweet, text, or quick search on their phone in the same way a drug addict anticipates the next fix. If the device is taken away, addicts miss out on the feel-good response and experience withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety to the point of a panic attack.

Depression, however, is the most commonly shared result of nomophobia. When we have face-to-face interaction with other humans, we experience something called limbic resonance. According to Cash, human interactions stimulate the release of specific neurochemicals in our brains, which are necessary for full emotional and physical well-being. “Without enough limbic resonance in our lives, over time, we function and feel less and less well. This is why isolation is bad for us. We are social animals; we need one another.”

Although we think we’re socializing when we’re voraciously texting and sharing info with friends on our phones, we’re actually denying a crucial piece of our genetic wiring. People deep in their dependent relationship with their phones need a serious shift to interrupt the artificial stimulus the device affords, and must relearn how to get their interpersonal stimulus from other human beings.

“Recovering addicts are like newborns,” says Cash. “They must grow, adjust, reset, and redevelop basic functioning skills.”

Next page: Digital rehab

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