Smartphones: The 21st Century Narcotic

By Hallie Hart Hodenfield 03/27/13

Treatment for mobile phone addiction is a boom industry, with experts identifying numerous new disorders. Most of us have the habit. How worried should we be?

Can you hear me now? Photo via

The folding-chair set has a new addiction to recover from, and an attendant anxiety: cell phone fixation, and nomophobia, or “no mobile phone phobia.” Sound ridiculous? Just as heroin binds to our pleasure-producing receptors and increases dopamine receptors, creating euphoria, and—when the drug runs out—enormous pain, so can a cell phone produce a literal buzz and its temporary loss prompt rage and panic and other symptoms of withdrawal.

The best description I have heard for the effect of heroin is that “it feels like love,” and the vibration of a new text can send tingles that actually signify love. As with all drugs, a certain tolerance is achieved after a while, so that more and more texts become necessary to caress those dopamine receptors into a state of bliss.

The behavioral addiction has compatriots in disorders like compulsive gambling, sex-addiction, overeating and shopping. But we all have cell phones, right? And most of us are glued to them much of the time. So how do we know if our use of a technological advance has become unhealthy enough to warrant the label of “addiction?"

Dr. Elizabeth Waterman, a psychologist at the Morningside Recovery Center, a dual diagnosis rehab in California, runs the first—and only—group for those suffering from compulsive behavior around cell phone use. Dr. Waterman said she first recognized it as a problem when clients began to exhibit erratic behavior after their cell phones were confiscated during the first 10 days of their stay. They invented all sorts of excuses as to why they “had to have” their phones, and after the phones were returned often started showing up late to groups, and becoming non-compliant with rules.

Cell phone use can be considered a problem when it interferes with the quality of daily life, and the ability to make and sustain relationships. “Humans are designed for face-to-face interactions,” Waterman says. New studies are revealing that the reduction in stress that comes from human contact is nullified when texting is the form of communication. The mobile phone is leading to social isolation, disconnectedness and even antisocial behavior.

A researcher at RMIT University in Melbourne has even classified four new afflictions: textaphrenia, textiety, post-traumatic text disorder and binge texting

This, along with other tech addictions, is a phenomenon for the Millennials, the first generation to have grown up with and mastered the new modalities. The proliferation of smartphones has also enabled this addiction to flourish. Dr. Waterman adds, “All of my clients who have phone addiction issues have smartphones. I have not seen any clients with regular cell phones struggling with nomophobia.” James Roberts and Stephen Pirog, of Baylor and Seton Hall Universities, have recently published a study on the subject of cell phone addiction in The Journal of Behavioral Addictions noting that young adults send an average of 109.5 texts per day, and check their phones an additional 60 times

Jennie Carroll, a researcher at RMIT University in Melbourne, has even classified four new afflictions: textaphrenia, textiety, post-traumatic text disorder and binge texting, which variously involve the rapid heartbeat associated with imagining or anticipating a text, the fallout from injuries associated with texting (especially traffic related), “repetitive thumb injury” and the anxiety resulting from a dry spell, which then sends an addict on a texting spree.

For over a decade, it has been noted that cell phones have replaced cigarettes as the defining habit of adolescence. They provide a similar occupation for nervous hands, a tool to cover the self-conscious face and a signifier of maturity. Cigarettes provided the patina of independence that have always been the essential components of cool. There are clear parallels, however, between the emergence of the smartphone and that of the cigarette. Both enjoyed a gleeful, carefree heyday in which our new habit was seen as harmless and ubiquitous; next youth are targeted as the most natural and profitable consumer; rumors begin to spread that perhaps our favorite pastime causes cancer; corporations hedge and dissimulate; it all turns out to be too true; and we try desperately to wean ourselves of our deadly dependence, or at least cut down.

But the cell phone is a symbol of connection, most notably to the teenager’s parents. Young adults text and talk to their begetters many times a day, well into adulthood. They don’t need a period of sharp individuation from their parents, and are defiantly uninterested in rebellion, the trait that defined and drove much of the behavior—and drug use—of both the Baby Boomers and Generation X.

A cell phone isolates you from contact with those surrounding you, such as classmates, bolstering the cocoon of disembodied communication. Each user maintains ultimate control to discontinue connection at the merest hint of discomfort or conflict. This does nothing to further the project of adolescence, much of which is dedicated to comprehensive socialization, learning both to get along and disagree amicably with others. You can’t bum an app, or strike up a conversation while asking someone to light your screen.

It has long been reported that cell phones emit radiation and their use lowers sperm count—and might cause cancer of the head and neck. In 2011 the World Health Organization stated that there are potential cancer risks involved in long-term cell phone use. The technology is too new to know definitively what the dangers are, but enough fear is warranted that the governments of a dozen countries, including France, India, Israel, Australia and the United Kingdom have issued warnings about cell phone use, particularly for children and young people, who are more susceptible to the effects of radiation.

Marshall McLuhan viewed gadgets as an extension of the human body, and as such, compared our engagement with them to the myth of Narcissus, whose etymological root is the same as narcotic—not incidentally, he notes. This seems an accurate description of the people you can see glued to their phones, literal extensions of their hands and eyes, mouths and ears, on every corner, at business meetings and in bed, with reports that more than 15% of Americans have admitted to using their phones during sex.

An indication of the cell phone’s drug-like qualities is the inability of most people to ignore an incoming text during 12-step meetings. There is new wording in the text of many 12-step meeting introductions, discouraging people from texting, as people forego recovery from one addiction in order to concentrate fully on another.

But the reason I am so addicted is it provides both connection and a way to disengage

Tina, a sober drug addict and alcoholic, says that when she started attending AA, fixating on her phone was the only way she could get through a whole meeting. “I felt exposed, anxious, I didn’t know anyone. I would reach out to people who weren’t there to complain or to share about the meeting I was in. One time I was playing a game and someone in the row behind me texted me, ‘Stop playing that game.’ I felt super ashamed.” She says she no longer uses her phone during meetings, and when she wants to connect, she raises her hand and addresses the group.

There are the contrarians, neo-Luddites who eschew the smartphone, wandering around with a switched-off flip phone in their pockets. Those who rely only on a land-line are mostly urban legend now. The original Luddites were not actually opposed to new technology, but rather to the dependence created by the new machines and the fear of the impending obsolescence of the human touch. The question of dependence, which prompts these neo-Luddites to ignore your text messages, and makes them immune to advertising, is an intuitive understanding of the similarities between technological advance and addiction. Both encourage and profit from the feelings of reliance and need. Tor, a 25-year-old human rights activist, is one of these technophobes, and a Millennial to boot. “I was in Africa when the smartphone hit,” he says. “I missed the explosion, and therefore the social pressure. “A smartphone is okay when you can’t talk but not to replace talk.”

David Velasco, a New York editor and self-professed cell phone addict, says the first thing he does when he enters a room is check all the outlets. He also carries an extra charger with him at all times. He stashes other chargers everywhere he frequents. He refuses to turn his phone off, ever, including on planes. He panics before entering a subway, preferring to ride those he knows trundle through hot spots, or are close enough to the surface to pick up errant signals. "I do feel trapped without my phone," he said. "But the reason I am so addicted is it provides both connection and a way to disengage.”

Last week The New York Times ran a story on the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the heart, indicating the capacity for human connection. The health of this nerve can be strengthened by person-to-person contact, and weakened by overuse of a cell phone. This, in turn, contributes to a weakened immune system and other aspects of physical well-being. Essentially, one’s ability to love is a biological fact, and it can atrophy just as readily as an underused muscle, leading not just to a lonelier, but a shorter, life as many drug addicts of other stripes have proven.

Are we going to see twenty-somethings spare-changing for Boost cards? Men sprawled on the sidewalk drenched in urine and clutching smartphones with swollen purple thumbs? Probably not. The future will be as we have already imagined it, with both humans and our interactions replaced by machines, and we won’t have to mourn an addict’s death, because we won’t remember how to care.

Hallie Hart Hodenfield is a writer in New York

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Hallie Hart Hodenfield is a writer and freelance journalist, living in New York. She is also a clinical social work professional experienced in mental health counseling with children, adolescents, and families, particularly related to issues of trauma. Her experience extends to global social work and practice with immigrants and refugees.  writer and freelance journalist. You can find Hallie on Linkedin.