Vol. 23 No. 11
Cellular Telephones: A New Addiction?
By Lauren D. LaPorta, MD | October 1, 2006
As Americans' use of personal electronic devices increases, so too, do the controversies surrounding
these now seemingly indispensable tools. Wireless networks and cellular telephone towers are
ubiquitous, as are the users who wander the streets, oblivious to their surroundings, so rapt are they in
their conversations and text messages. It is hard to tell the difference between the corporate executive
closing a deal and the homeless or mentally ill person because hands-free headsets give the impression
of talking to oneself.
Surveys indicate that more than 203 million Americans own a cell phone and as many as 30% say they
cannot live without it. At Rutgers University, information technology students were challenged to turn
off their cell phones for 3 days. Only 3 of 220 students completed the assignment. It seems there is no
escape from the constant ringing of cell phones, with some playing familiar tunes that seem bizarrely out
of place for the settings in which they are now likely to be heard. Only miles above the earth, in
midflight, can we find some solace--at least for now, while the ban on the use of cellular phones during
flights remains in effect. Like it or not, there seems to be no turning back. We find ourselves in a society
that is increasingly enslaved by the tools designed to free us and isolated by the technology designed to
bring us closer together.
But does this increased use and dependence rise to the level of an addiction? A recent query on Google
returned 5,640,000 hits for the words "cell phone addiction." Parallels have been made to everything
from cigarette smoking and caffeine to obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders, including pathologic
gambling. As early as 2000, reports began to appear that suggested a link between the decrease in teen
smoking and the simultaneous increase in cell phone use by the same age group--in essence, a
substitution of one addiction for another. The cellular phone has also become a means of teen bonding,
a symbol of acceptance, and a boost for self-esteem. Some teens are so dependent on this device as a
means of communication that they will steal to support their "habit" and continue to engage in the
behavior despite the negative impact on their functioning. Indeed, the use of the cell phone under these
circumstances may cause the exact problems teens are trying to overcome and lead to more social
isolation and failure in school.
Statistics that demonstrate the persistence of cellular phone use in unsafe and illegal situations further
reinforce the concept of addiction. It has always been a hallmark of any addiction that the individual
continues to engage in the behavior despite the negative impact on his or her ability to function socially,
interpersonally, and professionally. Such may be the case for some cell phone users; but does this
warrant referring to a certain mobile technology as a "crackberry"?