Rehab Clinics Say Smartphones Can Exacerbate Addictions

By McCarton Ackerman 07/14/14

Smartphones have made scoring drugs or delving into porn easier, while making recovery harder.

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Overcoming an addiction can be a difficult process as it is, but many substance abuse centers are now claiming that the relatively new phenomenon of dependency on smartphones is only making the recovery process worse.

Over 169 million Americans owned a smartphone as of last May. Not only does this technology make it easier to score drugs, but it’s also playing a major role in behavioral addictions such as gaming and pornography. “In 1988, you had to drive to an icky place for pornography and hope that nobody saw you,” said Robert Weiss, senior vice president of clinical development for Elements, a national behavioral health company. “Now you just say, ‘Siri, show me the porn.’”

The compulsive behavior of checking and using a smartphone has even led to new research supporting “nomophobia,” or the fear of being without your cellphone. A survey released last week by Bank of America showed that 47% of Americans said they couldn’t go a single day without their cell phone, while 41% of people who responded to a 2012 report from mobile security company LookOut said losing their iPhone would be “a tragedy.”

Even non-addicted teenagers are at risk since their smartphone use can also resemble drug use. Many teens who suffer from depression or anxiety use smartphones as a way of coping rather than sitting with uncomfortable emotions. “People don’t become addicted without some underlying deficit,” said Weiss. “They have a need to find something that is not in their life in another place.”

Although there is not a specific treatment plan for cellphone addiction, counselors at rehab centers across the country are now regularly working with clients to find what need their smartphones are filling. They will then attempt to fill that need through other avenues such as group therapy, writing or being in spaces away from electronics. A recovery retreat center for adult men in Fall City, Wash., called Restart Life, also specifically takes clients away from digital media for 35 to 90 days.

“The smartphone is the tool that helps exacerbate that addiction or it’s a tool they use not to deal with that addiction,” said Joel Edwards, executive director of Morningside Recovery in Newport Beach, Calif. “We’re dealing with more and more smartphones as part of the underlying issues. These technologies are driving addictions faster and with more intensity than ever before.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.