Addiction experts in Europe are warning that the Internet will be responsible for the next wave of addiction cases, fueled by the rise of smartphone addiction. Addiction counselors point out how they’re seeing a rise in cases of online gambling and pornography addiction, which they believe is being fuelled by the 24-hour access provided by our increasingly ubiquitous smartphones. Internet use disorder, closely related to smartphone addiction, didn’t quite make the grade in the newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-V), instead being marked as a “condition for further study.” Despite this lack of official recognition, there are still many reasons why experts are starting to become concerned about our technology use.
Cell Phones: Accessing Addictions
Gerry Cooney, who works as a counselor at the Rutland Centre—an Irish rehab center—argues that smartphones are a particular problem because they offer access to a multitude of potentially addictive online services. You can access social media, play online video games, access pornography and gamble through your smartphone 24 hours a day, and this makes it much more difficult to avoid temptation for those at risk for addiction. This puts smartphone addiction in a fairly unique position. Of course, if we see people constantly hunched over their cell phone screens, we may conclude that they’re addicted to their smartphones, but really the phones are merely the way we access addictive websites and services. In short, smartphones have the potential to be addictive because they’re a portal to the Internet; the only difference between a cell phone and a laptop is that you can’t fit a laptop in your pocket. This muddying of the waters of Internet, social media, pornography, online gaming, gambling and smartphone addiction makes defining and treating the issue more complicated than for an unambiguous drug or alcohol addiction.
Social Media, Fear of Missing Out and Social Skills
Of these smartphone-accessible addictions, social media is potentially the largest concern. When in the past we’d have to actively log on to Facebook or Twitter to see what’s been going on, smartphones will often notify you of activity even if you don’t click the app. This plays on the “fear of missing out” (the “FOMO factor”)—where we feel like we’re “out of the loop” or missing out on social interaction with friends—because every notification that “person x has updated their status” effectively rubs salt in the FOMO wound, encouraging us to give in and open the app. Speaking to an Irish newspaper, Cooney pointed out, “It’s not necessarily a young person’s issue. Facebook is something that a lot of people are now struggling with, the constant need to stay in touch.” Much of the concern is about the impact this constant online interaction will have on real-world socializing and, particularly for young people growing up with smartphones. Counselors in Ireland are hearing from parents concerned that their children are no longer speaking to or communicating with others without using technology and fearing that they haven’t been able to develop socially as a result. Sean Harty, of the Addiction Counselors of Ireland, said that, “They don’t know any other way to communicate. They lack social and interpersonal skills.”
Research on Smartphone Addiction
Although the research wasn’t sufficient for the condition to be included in the DSM-V, more and more studies are confirming that the Internet and smartphones lead to addiction-like reactions. For one, when people can’t get access to their phones, they go through withdrawal symptoms—including anxiety, nervousness and sweaty palms—much like drug or alcohol addicts do when denied a fix. Reports from the European Net Children Go Mobile study show that about one in three children under age 16 is “very” or “fairly” bothered when unable to use a smartphone. Additionally, half of the children reported checking their phones to see if something had happened (i.e. the “fear of missing out”) very or fairly often, and a quarter reported neglecting friends, family or schoolwork because of their smartphone use. Perhaps the most compelling evidence concerns the impact of Internet use, social media and (consequently) smartphone use on neurotransmitters in the brain. Research shows that brain chemicals like dopamine are linked to Internet addiction, along with related structural changes in the brain, and these are both also associated with drug addiction. By providing continuous access to this type of stimulation from Internet use, not to mention allowing access to more widely accepted addictive activities and media such as gambling and pornography (which affect the brain in the same way), smartphones have the potential to reinforce and create addiction. With mounting scientific evidence and plenty of anecdotal support, it seems like Internet and smartphone addictions will come to characterize the compulsive behaviors of the 21st century. And as extreme as it seems now, with the upcoming rise of things like wearable technology, the situation only appears primed to get worse. Improving our understanding of these issues is a vital step, but all the more crucial is identifying people at risk of developing a problem and helping them find the support they need to break free of their dependence. Rehab centers and addiction counselors need to be prepared for the new wave of addictions coming over the horizon.