Our Creepy Attachment To Cell Phones Could Be An Addiction

09/05/2014 12:13 pm ET | Updated Sep 05, 2014
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I’m taking a community college stats course right now through the UCLA extension program, and even though I’m only 29, I've found myself experiencing a lot of horrifying "back in my day" moments.

Here’s one: The class costs $575, and a parking pass for the quarter costs an extra $129. Because this ain’t high school, presumably no one is being forced to take the class, except in the sense that you can use the credit when applying to a four-year college down the road.

This is why I’m always amazed that many of the (mostly younger) students around me sit in class with their phones in their hands, quietly scrolling, playing and texting while the teacher lectures, writes math problems on the board and asks the class to participate. In fact, a group of friends who sit behind me in class has appointed one person to take notes for everyone to scan later, so the rest of them can scroll on their phones until it comes time to sign the attendance sheet.

What’s going on here? Disrespect (for the teacher and their own education) and a misguided belief in multitasking, are a couple of things that come to mind. But what if my fellow students actually can’t put down their phones — not even to pay attention to a fairly complex class that they paid a lot of money to take?

Research on the possibility of cell phone addiction is an emerging field, and a lot of it centers on the habits of the youngest millennials (now teens and young adults), a generation that can’t remember what it was like to not have a cell phone. A recent study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions found that female college students spend an average of 10 hours a day on their cell phones, while male students report spending nearly eight. The study also found that about 60 percent of study participants think they may be addicted to their cell phones.

“That’s astounding," said lead researcher James Roberts, Ph.D. in a press release about his research. “As cellphone functions increase, addictions to this seemingly indispensable piece of technology become an increasingly realistic possibility.”

Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business, surveyed 164 college undergrads about their relationships to their phones and explored which cell phone activities seemed to be most associated with cell phone “addiction.” He found that they differed between male and female participants. For instance, for women, Pinterest, Instagram and number of phone calls were good predictors of a possible cell phone addiction, while listening to music was not.

Meanwhile, for men, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were stronger addiction predictors, as were phone calls, texts, emails and reading books and the Bible on their phone. More utilitarian applications, like visiting Amazon and news, weather and sports apps seemed to reduce the likelihood of a possible addiction.

Roberts hypothesized that the gender differences could mean that women use their phone to foster social relationships, while men are more interested in entertainment and usefulness. But because the participants weren’t randomly sampled (they all came from a class at Baylor), it’s unclear how generalizable the results are to a larger population of college-aged people. Still, based on the behavior of my fellow classmates, I’m guessing Roberts’ findings are a pretty accurate reflection of how attached young people are to their phones.

“Cell-phones have become inextricably woven into our daily lives -- an almost invisible driver of modern life,” Roberts concluded in his study. “It is incumbent upon researchers to identify the all-important ‘tipping point’ where cell-phone use crosses the line from a helpful tool to one that enslaves both users and society alike.”

Heavy stuff.

Of course, it’s important to note right now that gambling addiction disorder is the only diagnosable behavioral addiction officially listed in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. Gambling addiction disorder is classified this way because of its similarity to substance abuse disorders in terms of “clinical expression, brain origin, comorbidity, physiology, and treatment,” according to the American Psychological Association.

But researchers like Roberts, who created his own scale for measuring addictive cell phone behavior, are building a body of work that explores whether or not cell phone “addictions" could be a diagnosable condition in the future. In the U.K., researchers surveyed a sample of 1,529 teenaged students about their cell phone use for a 2013 study and classified 10 percent of them as “problematic users.” They tended to be public school students, considered themselves expert users of cell phones, used their cell phones extensively and even identified the same kind of problem in their peers.

Another study of college students in Turkey found that people who scored high on a scale for problematic cell phone use were also more likely to come from a poor family, have a type A personality and receive their first cell phone at 13 or younger. The researchers also found that as cell phone addiction levels increase, sleep quality decreases.

One note of caution: It’s important to remember that Roberts’ study shows that most people who are “addicted” to their cell phones are primarily using them as a way to stay connected to other people. In a 2013 blog post for Psychology Today, psychology professor Ira Hyman, Ph.D., writes that researchers may just be observing the rise of a new norm in social interaction: immediate, hyper-connected and here to stay.

“Feeling a need to be socially connected hardly seems like an addiction to me,” Hyman writes.

Until psychologists sort it out, I’ll continue to keep my head down and suppress the urge to say something to my classmates about their classroom scrolling habits. And to be perfectly honest, I’m no model of healthy cell phone use either; I checked Instagram no less than five times while writing this story to see if anyone had "hearted" my latest photo.

Also on HuffPost:

6 Signs Your Smartphone Is Stressing You Out

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