Cellularitis: A Socially Transmitted Disease (STD) that results in habitual use of one’s cell- phone to the detriment of his or her psychological and physical health and well-

I call it cellularitis. Like the common cold, it spreads from human to human. But, unlike Nasopharyngitis (the common cold), no one must sneeze on you to catch cellularitis. And, this STD (Socially Transmitted Disease) is highly contagious. The simple act of being near someone using their smart phone causes us to search for solace in our own cellular pacifier. 

Like anthropologists who study primates in their natural setting, two intrepid University of Michigan researchers studied the cell-phone habits of the possibly wildest primate of them all—teens and young adults. The pair positioned themselves near restaurants and coffee shops in and around the University of Michigan campus. Over four months they observed the communication rituals of teens and young adults as they ate lunch or sipped their espresso. They recorded cell-phone use in 10-second increments in these “public dyads” (two people in public) for up to 20 minutes. What they found was that people were twice as likely to pull out their cell-phone if their companion did so. And, here’s the big finish, women were more likely than men to do so whether talking to other women or men.

Two reasons were given why this might be the case: (1) prompting and (2) exclusion. Prompting suggests that when we see somebody checking their phone or taking a call or text, we are reminded that we may have an “urgent” matter that needs to be taken care of as well. Personally, I think social exclusion might be a better explanation for such behavior. Old manners die hard. Even in our technology obsessed culture, it is still seen as rude or off-putting for someone to abandon a conversation in mid-stream to attend to other matters. So, to avoid being socially excluded, we whip out our cell-phone and check the “likes” to our last post on Instagram or update our Facebook status. Women were the worst offenders because social inclusion is more important to them. Additionally, women are more attached than men to their cell-phones. A recent survey I did with college students found that women were more attached (addicted) to their cell-phones and used them an astounding ten hours per day compared to a relatively paltry seven and a half hours per day for male college students.

Is cell-phone use merely contagious (like a cold), something we catch then simply get over it? Or, could our current preoccupation with our cell-phones be something more sinister? Could we be addicted to our cell-phones?

Addiction has been defined in many ways over the years but usually involves the repeated use of a substance despite the negative consequences suffered by the addicted individual. In the last 20 years or so, however, our understanding of what it means to be addicted has expanded to encompass behaviors including sex, gambling, exercise, eating, Internet and cell-phone use to name a few. The medical and mental health communities now believe that any entity that can produce a pleasurable sensation has the potential of becoming addictive. A behavioral addiction, just like a substance addiction, is a powerful drive to continue a behavior despite the negative consequences for the individual and those around him. It’s all very medical. Any behavior that we repeat frequently can cause an explosion of biochemical processes with the release of such hormones as serotonin, epinephrine, and dopamine that generate strong feelings of elation and well-being in the pleasure centers of our brain.

Your brain’s Pleasure Center

The loss of control over the behavior in question, let’s say habitual cell-phone use, is a sure sign that you may be addicted to your cellular device – like free-basing cocaine or taking a hit from a crack pipe. For example, you may have had an accident or several close calls while talking/texting while driving but you continue to use your cell-phone while driving. Or, a common occurrence for a college professor like me is the student who repeatedly uses his or her cell-phone in class despite repeated warnings and penalties for such behavior. I hate to be the bearer of bad news parents, but it’s likely that Camille or Chloe’ spend more time checking their Facebook status than they do paying attention to my engrossing lectures. Granted, their cell-phone may be a lot more interesting than my talk on the nuances of outdoor advertising, but with the cost of a private college education reaching and surpassing $50,000 per year at many institutions of higher learning it is very likely not in the best interest of their (or yours!) financial future.

Too Much of a Good Thing: Are You Addicted to Your Smartphone? Copyright © 2018 by Dr. James Roberts. Reprinted here with permission from Sentia Publishing