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Can Excessive Cellphone Use Become an Addiction?

By Alan Mozes
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Dec. 4 (HealthDay News) -- Can an obsession with your cellphone rise to the level of an addiction? Two researchers who headed a recent study think so.

"Of course, cellphones have their merits," said study co-author James Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. "There's clearly a utilitarian value. But we're talking about something that is portable and available 24 hours a day. And like anything, if we go overboard it can become a problem."

Factors such as materialism and impulsiveness might play a big role in tipping cellphone use into an addiction, Roberts said.

"That's particularly true when we use them excessively in public," he added. "Because when we do so we're signaling that we've got this shiny object, this status symbol, our iPhone or Android or Blackberry, and that we've got important people to talk to or text, who are maybe even more important than the people right in front of us. And that we're so important that we have to talk everywhere and all the time in front of others. And all of that is an expression of materialism."

Roberts and his Seton Hall University co-author Stephen Pirog reported their findings online recently in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions.

The authors pointed out that cellphone use among U.S. college students now hovers over 90 percent, and studies show young adults check their phones an average of 60 times per day and send out an average of 3,200 text messages per month.

With that in mind, the research duo set out to explore the notion that there could be real cellphone addiction. They looked at responses to a survey of 191 college students, ages 19 to 38, who were enrolled in business studies at two U.S. universities.

The survey was designed to gather information regarding the participants' typical cellphone habits and how readily they could exercise control over those habits.

At the same time, impulsive and/or materialistic tendencies were assessed to see to what degree those traits might help drive cellphone usage.

To gauge impulsiveness, respondents were asked (among other things) how much they exercised self-control, responsibility, restraint and rationality when making decisions, as opposed to giving in to careless, extravagant and/or high-rolling behavior. Materialism was similarly scored in terms of the value they said they placed on buying, owning or acquiring nice or valuable objects.

The result: Based on the survey responses, the team determined that cellphone use, at least among college-age students, did appear to be driven by both materialistic and impulsive tendencies, with those scoring highest in either quality being more likely to excessively use their mobile device.

Why? According to the researchers, for many people cellphones become "conspicuous artifacts of acquisition" and "fashion statements." People who are materialistic may view their cellphones as public signifiers of status and/or power -- above and beyond their mere usefulness as a communication device.

For example, the team observed that materialism seemed more of a factor behind the drive to pick up a cellphone and place a phone call, as opposed to merely sending a text message. This, they said, could be because the act of calling is typically more conspicuous than the act of texting.

By contrast, those who tend to be impulsive seem to be driven to both call and text excessively. In the latter instance, the authors suggested that the impulsive user's need to do something quickly and repeatedly seems to be easily pacified when texting.

Roberts and Pirog noted that impulsiveness of this kind is a well-known component of both behavior and substance addictions. This led the pair to conclude that an excessive drive to call and/or text can be viewed as similar to other behavioral addictions, such as gambling, compulsive shopping, over-exercising, or excessive credit card use.

Not everyone agreed with that assessment, however.

James Maddux, professor emeritus in the department of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., took issue with the study's design.

According to Maddux, the types of questions the researchers asked the college students -- do they check their phone first thing upon waking, is it difficult to control cellphone use, and do they "feel lost" without the device? -- aren't useful in determining how harmful the behavior might be to the person involved.

"My guess is that you could ask similar questions of a group of people about their cars, their TVs, their pets, and their friends and family members and find that lots of people have [so-called] 'addictive tendencies' toward lots of things," he said. "So calling this a study about 'technology addiction' is a stretch, to say the least," Maddux added.

"They do make a good case in the introduction that people can be addicted to behaviors -- gambling, Internet usage, video games, cellphone usage -- in ways that are very similar to the ways people can become addicted to substances," Maddux said. "Their study, however, does not make a very good case for this [when it comes to cellphone use]."

More information

For more on addictive behaviors, visit the American Psychological Association.

SOURCES: James Roberts, Ph.D., professor, marketing department, Hankamer School of Business Baylor University, Waco, Texas; James Maddux, Ph.D., professor emeritus, department of psychology, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.; Nov. 17, 2012, Journal of Behavioral Addictions, online

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