Addiction to Electronic Devices

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Symptoms of Cell Phone Addiction

We all look to our electronic devices, especially our cell phones, for information, connection and to get information quickly. On this week’s On Call for All KidsJennifer Katzenstein, Ph.D., director of psychology and neuropsychology at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, explains that we are so used to having them by our side now, many of us get very anxious if we don’t have our cell phone with us, even though many of us never even had one growing up!

We have become increasingly dependent on our devices, and now, more than ever, we are using our devices to communicate, get information and remain in contact 24/7. This lends itself to feeling anxious or stressed when we don’t have that source close by at all times.

What is cell phone "addiction"?

For most of us, we like to have our cell phone or other device close to us, but if we forget it or leave it behind, it isn’t too big of a deal, other than some mild anxiety. There is debate about whether or not you can have an addiction to a cell phone. But, it seems that there can be an addiction, as many compare devices to mini gambling devices.

What causes an individual to be addicted to social media and/or their phone (is it a compulsion, a fear of missing out, etc.)?

There are many things. Behaviorally, this can include the reinforcement of staying connected at all times and being engaged on social media. Also, the reinforcement of “likes” and activity on one’s account. This reinforcement is variable, which is the most reinforcing kind. You never know when you may or may not have your “needs” met by the phone. We get instant gratification. Data suggests that children and adolescents who spend more time on electronics do have increased rates of anxiety and depression; however, they can be protected against this with more time outside and activities that don’t involve screens.

There is also some data to suggest that use of devices reinforces dopamine pathways, a neurotransmitter that is a “feel good” chemical involved in our reward-seeking behaviors. When this pathway isn’t reinforced, we actually experience chemical withdrawal in our brains.

What are the signs someone is "addicted”?

Signs include loss of control over behavior related to the cell phone, changes in mood related to use, tolerance of the device, and inability to regulate the use of the cell phone/device. This can also result in symptoms of withdrawal when the cell phone isn’t there, including anger or irritability, difficulty concentrating, repeated focus on not having the device, restlessness, sleep problems and craving of the device, such that it interferes with ability to complete things like schoolwork, job-related activities, and daily living activities such as showering.

Can cell phone "addiction" negatively impact a person's relationships? And, if so, how?

Cell phones, with or without addiction, can sabotage relationships! When we are talking to someone and look to our watch or our phone, we are telling them that something has come to our attention that is more important than they are, and you are essentially rejecting them. If we let our cell phones distract us during meals and quality time together, we aren’t able to truly engage and be present in the quality time, which then conveys to those involved that there is something happening that is more important than them. It is incredibly important to stay present and if you do have to check your phone/device, make sure you are letting the other person know why, and creating and agreeing about expectations about checking the phone, if that is needed.

How do I break the cycle?

Put limits on your use, and make sure you follow them. Make sure to put yourself on a “digital diet” and reduce the apps you use, remove them from your phone even! Cut back on time you spend on your phone, and put it away at certain times of the day so you aren’t tempted to use it. Setting up a very clear schedule for yourself, and your child, can help too. There are great schedules available on the American Academy of Pediatrics website.

Center for Behavioral Health at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital

Center for Behavioral Health
The Center for Behavioral Health in the Institute for Brain Protection Sciences at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, provides evidence-based mental health screening, consultation, evaluation and treatment.

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