Are You Addicted to Your Phone?

Recently, David Matthau from 101.5 FM radio commented that he was stunned to see so many drivers using cell phones to text and make phone calls, despite the illegality of such actions and the knowledge that distracted driving, and texting in particular, leads to many accidents, some of which include fatalities.  We discussed the question of whether this type of phone use is addictive, and if so, what actually causes addictions.

           An addiction is a compulsive repetition of a behavior that ends up causing us to repeat the behavior so frequently that it impairs our judgment, relationships, and work.  There are two types of addictions. The first involves chemicals, and actually changes our brain chemistry. All addictions to substances such as drugs, alcohol, and tobacco fall into this category.  The second, sometimes referred to as “process addictions”, involves excessive behaviors such as eating (binge eating, bingeing and purging, and anorexia), spending, gambling, shoplifting, sexual activity, computer and hand held device use.

          What causes us to become addicted?  We hate being alone with ourselves and our feelings. We are gluttons for good feelings, but hate the spectrum of feelings that range from loneliness, boredom, nothingness, emptiness, sadness, to more extreme feelings of jealousy, shame, guilt, anxiety, anger and depression.  Initially, we perform a behavior and it distracts us from any of the inner feelings I just described. We end up repeating the behavior more and more, because it is so successful in providing us with relief from that which we wish to avoid.  Eventually, something shifts internally and we become dependent upon repetitively performing the behavior. The behavior then assumes control over us, possibly ruining our judgment, relationships and work.

          Let’s take a look at hand held devices as a case in point. Initially, the devices connect us with others through phone conversations, text messages, social media, games, etc. They are very effective in distracting us from attending to our feelings. The more we avoid our inner feelings, the less capable we are at dealing with them.  It’s like muscles and exercise: the more you use your muscles, the stronger they become. The less you use your muscles, the weaker they become. When we stop giving ourselves time to reflect and attend to our inner feelings, we become less likely to tolerate being alone with ourselves. So we begin using our devices more frequently, until one day, we are dependent upon their use.  They begin to interfere with our relationships. Spouses, friends and children complain that all we do is stay on the phone and they protest because they feel neglected. The phone preoccupation interferes with our judgment:  we may text while we drive, despite the fact that this is illegal and dangerous. Using denial, we convince ourselves that an accident cannot happen to us. We are somehow different.  Or, we convince ourselves that we must immerse ourselves in our phones for work, and therefore we are exempt from the law or the complaints of our loved ones.

          The behaviors I am describing are on a continuum.  We all use cell phones. However, for some of us, cell phone use becomes so problematic that we place our safety and the safety of others at risk every time we text as we drive. Or, we ignore the needs of our families and friends, by immersing ourselves in our devices while eating meals and spending time in their presence. We allow these device to overtake our lives. We avoid spending quiet time with ourselves, learning to be present in the moment

          How does therapy help?  Therapy helps you become comfortable with the emotions you attempt to block. It helps you accept and befriend all of your emotions.  Therapy helps you create incompatible behaviors with the behavior that is out of control. As an example, if you cannot keep yourself from responding to incoming texts while driving, try placing the phone in the back seat of your car, so it is inaccessible while you drive.

          In conclusion, not all use of hand held devices is addiction. However, if the devices are interfering with your judgment, your safety and the safety of others, your relationships and/or work, you might want to explore this issue with a psychologist or other mental health professional.