by Lauren Lin
Cell phones today have many uses, like texting, taking photos, scrolling through social media, playing games, and of course, actually calling other people. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the number of people who use cell phones rises every year and that cell phones are becoming increasingly important to our day-to-day lives. As a student, it’s not uncommon to see your classmates checking their phones in the middle of a lecture, and many of us would probably find it difficult to go a full day without using our phones.
Despite the frequent use of the term “cell phone addiction”, it is critical to note that while some researchers believe that cell phone addiction is a valid mental disorder that should have diagnostic criteria and treatments, others are hesitant to classify problematic phone use as an addiction. The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition), which was published in May 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association, does not include cell phone addiction in its list of mental disorders. In fact, addictions in the DSM-5 are mostly substance use disorders (e.g. alcohol use disorder), with gambling disorder being the only behavioural addiction in the DSM-5. According to the DSM-5, behaviours like compulsive buying or compulsive sex are considered to be impulse control disorders rather than addictive disorders. Therefore, there are researchers who suggest that the next edition of the DSM should include a new addictive disorder for cell phone use, as well as researchers who believe that it should be a new impulse control disorder instead.
The criteria for substance abuse disorder and gambling disorder described in the DSM-5 includes (but is not limited to) the following:
A 2016 review by Gutierrez, Fonseca, and Rubio found that many studies done on cell phone abuse reported behaviours that have parallels with the DSM-5 criteria for addiction. Therefore, cell phone addiction may align with our current understanding of addictive disorders. However, some researchers theorize that the distress, anxiety, and inability to stop cell phone abuse could be caused by the social aspect of cell phones (i.e. the communication cell phones facilitate) rather than the cell phone use itself. Additionally, other researchers believe that cell phone abuse could be a consequence of another psychological issue or variable, such as social anxiety or the desire for approval due to low self-esteem, instead of being its own disorder. Some researchers even acknowledge that what seems like cell phone abuse could be adaptive and typical for certain lifestyles or professions.
Although there isn’t a consensus on whether cell phone addiction exists, there are many studies that try to investigate cell phone addiction and abuse. These studies seem to indicate that there is a high prevalence rate among young people (especially adolescents who had their first cell phones before age 13) and that the prevalence rate varies across different cultures. Interestingly, men and women also seem to differ in how they use their cell phones. Females generally use cell phones for more time than males and mainly for communication purposes, while males tend to use cell phones for communication and gaming equally. In terms of effects, cell phone abuse seems to decrease the amount and quality of sleep an individual gets and is associated with substance use disorders, anxiety, depression, stress, and loneliness. However, the relationship between mental health issues and cell phone abuse could be bidirectional in that they affect each other. Currently, treatments used for gambling disorder, such as therapy and self-help groups, seem to be the most promising ways to help people who have cell phone abuse, but more research needs to be done.
Therefore, the good news is that you may not have a cell phone addiction even if you find yourself seemingly glued to your phone. However, problematic cell phone use can still cause issues, so it’s important to be aware of whether your phone use is negatively impacting your life.