Overuse of Cell Phones: An Addiction Like Any Other?

Pam Harrison

November 30, 2012

Cell phone use and text messaging can become as addictive as any other behavior, such as compulsive shopping, gambling, and overeating, new research shows.

Investigators from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, found that both materialism and impulsiveness drive addictive tendencies toward cell phone use and text messaging.

Dr. James Roberts

"People understand substance addictions. They understand that we can take a drug that impacts parts of our brain and reinforces the pleasure principle, so we're addicted to that particular substance. But it's no different with behavioral addiction," said lead investigator James Roberts, PhD, in a video clip in which he discussed the study.

"We get some kind of reward from the use of our cell phone that produces pleasure — a lot of dopamine and serotonin in our brain — that keeps us coming back. So I think, and the research tells us, that behavioral addictions like cell phone addiction are just as real as substance addiction."

The article was published online November 17 in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions.

Materialism, Impulsiveness

The study included 191 business students at 2 US universities who completed a paper and pencil survey administered during class.

The questionnaire took approximately 15 minutes to complete and contained scales that measured materialism, impulsiveness, and mobile phone and instant messaging use.

Addictive tendencies toward mobile phone use and instant messaging were measured by mobile phone technology addiction (MPAT) and instant messaging technology addiction (IMAT) scales; responses were recorded on a 7-point Likert scale.

Mean scores for MPAT and IMAT were 5.06 and 2.52, respectively.

Impulsiveness was measured using Puri's 12-item scale, in which students were asked to rate how well 12 adjectives described them. The mean impulsiveness score was 3.2.

Materialism, best understood as the importance placed on worldly possessions, was measured using Mowen's 4-item scale. For this scale, respondents were asked to rate how accurately 4 personality traits described them.

On each of the respective scales, a higher score reflected a higher level of dependency, impulsiveness, or materialism.

Greater Potential for Addiction?

Results showed that both materialism (P < .001) and impulsiveness (P = .029) significantly predicted MPAT scores. Similarly, materialism (P = .001) and impulsiveness (P = .029) significantly predicted IMAT scores.

"Note that the impact of materialism on either addictive behavior is large relative to that of impulsiveness," the authors write.

The larger effect that materialism had on cell phone use in the current study relative to texting may also reflect the fact that cell phones are a sign of conspicuous possession.

In contrast, texting may be seen more as a private engagement and does not signal any particular status.

Dr. Roberts noted that whenever people display addictive behavior, it has negative effects on quality of life.

With cell phone and texting addiction, "it's an opportunity cost, so we are crowding out so many more important activities, including family and friends and other pursuits, that might bring us true happiness," he said.

Furthermore, cell phones are becoming "increasingly dangerous," because they offer more and more opportunities to interact with them, so their potential for addiction is greater, Dr. Roberts added.

Caution Warranted

Petros Levounis, MD, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York City, told Medscape Medical News that gambling and compulsive sexual behavior come closer to the definition of frank addiction than cell phone and texting behaviors.

"We also have a long way to go before we develop reliable diagnostic criteria [for cell phone addiction and texting] to guide us in further research and clinical practice," he added.

On the other hand, Dr. Levounis does believe that the symptoms of those with these new technological addictions "share a lot of similarities with the more classic addictions of alcohol and drug abuse."

Journal editor Zsolt Demetrovics, PhD, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungry, agreed that excessive use of cell phones and texting has similar characteristics to other addictions.

On the other hand, Dr. Demetrovics was uncertain whether overuse of cell phones should be viewed in the same light as a classic addiction.

"To consider something as a disorder or illness, the behavior must impair one's life significantly. And at this moment, we do not see these dramatic consequences in a large population," he told Medscape Medical News.

Nevertheless, Dr. Demetrovics believes it is important to pay attention to these behaviors, especially because they can cause some harm.

"But we should not overdramatize them as serious illnesses," he emphasized.

The authors and Dr. Levounis have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Journal of Behavioral Addictions. Published online November 17, 2012. Abstract