By KATE STARR
One early October night at a Washington D.C. Mexican restaurant, Lily Gewirz, 19, is glued to her smartphone as the waitress takes orders from the group of four high school girlfriends. “I’ll have the chicken fajitas,” she says, without making eye contact. When the pre-meal chips and salsa arrive, Gewirz must decide between reaching for food and responding to her 15-plus texts. She chooses the texts.
Her sizzling, juicy fajitas emerge, but they’re cold by the time Gewirz is done scrolling mindlessly through her Twitter feed. Occasionally she giggles to herself, lifting her head long enough to share an Instagram post with her friends. Meanwhile, the other three girls talk about drunken college nights and catch up on life in the two months since they last got together.
While her friends chat and laugh, Gewirz remains fixated on her phone. “I’m absolutely a smartphone addict,” says Gewirz, a sophomore at University of Vermont. “I love always being able to know what the world is up to.”
Just about everywhere, whether during a meal, in class or at the movies, there’s no shortage of college students staring at their phone screens. With these portable devices that allow us to surf the Internet, communicate with friends and play mindless games, there’s never a moment we have to be alone. However, as smartphones become smarter and offer even more options, new research suggests that they lead to higher levels of phone addiction among students like Gewirz.
A recent study from Baylor University found that female college students spend an average of 10 hours a day on their cell phones, and male students an average of eight hours, mostly browsing the web and communicating via social media applications and text messaging. The researchers also cited a recent 2011 infographic by HackCollege, which claimed 60 percent of college students admit they are phone addicted.
Dr. James Roberts, a Baylor researcher, thinks that percentage will continue to rise. “Cell phone use is becoming so deeply integrated in our lives that it really is an invisible addiction,” he says. “Definitely as the smartphones get smarter our potential for addiction increases.”
In fact, a 2011 study by TeleNav, a GPS navigation provider, suggests students are willing to give up just about anything to feed their mobile addiction. Roughly 33 percent of phone users said they would rather give up sex for a week than their cell phone. Even more, 54 percent would rather give up exercise for a week, 22 percent their toothbrush and 21 percent their shoes.
These statistics might seem laughable,, but Hilarie Cash, CEO of a technology addiction treatment program, says phone addiction can destroy social relationships, create serious emotional distress and lead to long-term physical injuries among other negative side effects.
“Rather than you control the phone it’s like the phone controls you, and you engage in it despite its negative consequences,” says Cash, who founded the reSTART Center for Digital Technology Sustainability.
About 90 percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 sleep with their cell phones on or right next to their beds, according to a study by Pew Research Center. That, Cash believes, causes one of the biggest problems with cell phones: they interrupt sleep by constantly buzzing and lighting up with notifications. The result can be serious sleep deprivation, which often causes poor school and work practices and a lack of desire for non-technological activities like exercising.
Alongside sleep deprivation, Cash mentioned other physical ailments that coincide with phone addiction including carpel tunnel, tendonitis in the elbows and permanent eyestrain from staring at a tiny screen. Psychological consequences are usually depression and social anxiety, Cash says, as well as a shortened attention span. Though there is no surefire cure for phone addiction as of yet, solutions range from rehabilitation facilities to, ironically, cell phone applications.
Cash’s organization offers a for-profit reSTART Recovery Center program for phone users who want to kick their addictions. Typically, it consists of a 45- to 90-day in-patient detox period where participants are completely without technology.
From the time they start to the time they leave, Cash says of the roughly 200 patients who have participated in reSTART, 85 percent report significant increases in functioning and sensible being.
As another alternative is a number of iPhone and Android applications that specifically target smartphone addiction. Although somewhat counterintuitive to fight application addictions with an application, the developers seem to believe this approach can have a meaningful impact.
The app “Pause” restricts iPhone users’ access to social media and, if desired, all forms of communication, for a specified period of time. Participants can share updates on what they are doing instead of operating their smartphones and can even compete with friends to see who can stay offline the longest. Mikko Poutanten, one of the developers of Pause, says the application has not only been successful in lessening addicts’ cellphone use, but also in sparking more awareness about the prevalence of phone addiction.
Hannah Mittelstaedt, an Android developer at Etsy, launched an Android application called Nomophobia in 2012 when she started to notice how dependent her friends are on their smartphones. When an Android user unlocks his or her screen, Nomophobia will display the time it has been since the user last checked the smartphone.
“I think it’s nice to be aware of just how often you’re looking at your phone,” Mittelstaedt says. “We can’t let ourselves be bored, even for a second, and that’s a problem.”
Most phone addict specialists agree that none of these cures will work if smartphones users ignore or deny their addiction symptoms. Dr. James Roberts says that excessive cellphone use is so socially accepted in our society today that phone addiction is often seen as humorous rather than dangerous.
Indeed, Gewirz, and many other college students like her, don’t see the problem. “There’s no way I need to go to some kind of phone rehab or shut off my iPhone,” Gewirz laughs. “It’s just a phone. It’s not a big deal.” Her friends, on the other hand, all agree they regret the time they lose with Gewirz when she’s off in her virtual world.