Is Teen Cell Phone Addiction the New Gateway Drug?

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Teen cell phone addiction has recently become a topic of discussion for parents, and educators alike. Is cell phone use potentially as addictive as other behaviors like gambling or even as addictive as drugs themselves? Many parents are wondering if teens more susceptible to the possibility of other behavioral and substance use disorders if they become addicted to their cell phones.

Behavioral Addiction vs. Drug Addiction

When most people think of addiction, they think of drugs like heroin and methamphetamine. Some also understand the dangers of other substances that may be used safely, like alcohol and prescription drugs, and how, if these substances are abused, they can create addictions of their own. But these are not the only kinds of addictions that exist.

According to a study published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine, “Behavior science experts believe that any source which is capable of stimulating an individual could become addictive.” This opens up the possibility of becoming addicted to activities, such as gambling, sex, eating, and even cell phone use. In recent years, a link to addicting behavior has even been found with Internet usage, and gaming.

Is Cell Phone Addiction Like Drug Addiction?

In many ways, teen cell phone addiction can be similar to drug addiction. One of the greatest links, as stated by a study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, is the rush of dopamine an individual will often experience when using their cell phone. Many teens can’t articulate the desire to use their phones constantly except that it makes them feel good, which is not an accident. The release of dopamine that occurs when a person uses a cell phone is similar to the release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters that occurs when drugs are used.

Many of the same issues that are present among teen smartphone addicts are also seen among drug abusers: specifically that teens obsessively check their phones, they make excuses in order to continue doing so, even when asked not to, and they could potentially become upset or anxious when unable to. These are all classic signs of both behavioral and drug addictions.

Teens and Smartphone Addiction

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, smartphone addiction can also be called nomophobia, which is an abbreviation of “no mobile phone phobia.” This is an issue that teens and adults alike can experience when they have an irrational fear of not being able to use their cell phones. It causes certain issues that shared with other types of addiction, including withdrawal symptoms and compulsive behavior.

However, this is an issue that is hitting teens especially hard because they are the ones using their cell phones more than any other age group. A survey cited by the NIDA found that 75 percent of all teens engage in texting on their phones, sending anywhere from 60 to 100 texts daily. This could be construed as obsessive behavior, and when coupled with the fear of suddenly being unable to use a cell phone, potentially even addictive.

What Are the Warning Signs of Smartphone Addiction?

As stated previously, teenage cell phone addiction symptoms are extremely similar to those exhibited by behavioral and drug addicts. You can begin to notice these similarities when you understand exactly what these issues entail. Ask yourself the following questions in order to determine if your teenager may be struggling with cell phone addiction.

Is your teenage son or daughter…

  • Constantly checking their phone to the point where other activities in their life are beginning to suffer?
  • Consistently using their phone in places where they shouldn’t like the movies or at church?
  • Unable to cut back on their cell phone use, even if they said they would or have been asked to do so on multiple occasions?
  • Experiencing problems at school (including failing grades and/or behavioral issues) that are linked to their cell phone use?
  • Consistently losing track of time when they are using their phone, causing them to miss class, skip doing their homework, or fail to meet engagements?
  • Having trouble sleeping because they are using their cell phone too much?
  • Checking their phone as soon as they wake up, and perhaps even throughout the night?
  • Experiencing serious consequences of their cell phone overuse, including:
    • Getting into a car accident because they were texting?
    • Getting in trouble at school for using their phone?
    • Getting fired from a job because they were unable to put their phone away?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, there is a strong potential that your teenage child is struggling with a real cell phone addiction.

An obsession can be an issue, and many adolescents do become obsessed with their cell phones. But the most serious problem occurs when addiction sets in, causing uncontrollable behavior that cannot be stopped. An addiction can be as much a physical addiction, such as the need to always have a phone in your hands, as it is a psychological one, such as the feeling of anxiety when you are unable to check your phone.

In addition, teens that have become addicted to their phones will normally experience some severe withdrawal symptoms if they are suddenly unable to use them. Whether their phones are taken away or they are temporarily unable to connect to a network, they could experience several, intense symptoms such as

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Anger or hostility
  • Panic

Any type of behavior or activity that causes highs and lows to this type of extreme could potentially be construed as addiction. These teenage cell phone addiction symptoms are all problematic and recognizing any number of them in your adolescent child could be a strong sign that they are, in fact, addicted to their phone.

Can Cell Phone Addiction Lead to Other Issues?

Teen cell phone addiction could potentially lead to other issues, as recent studies are finding out. According to the American Addiction Centers, people who become addicted to a behavior often experience metal health issues associated with the inability to stop that activity or behavior. Here are some additional health risks that can be associated with teen cell phone addiction:

  • Insomnia and other sleep problems
    • Cell phones emit blue light, which can suppress the process of melatonin, a hormone that is needed for healthy sleep. If a teen is constantly using their phone, especially before bed, they will not be able to sleep as well, which can often to other, more serious health issues.
  • Depression and anxiety disorders
    • People who experience issues with behavioral disorders are often likely to struggle with depressive symptoms as well as anxiety. Drugs of abuse often cause these same issues in addicted individuals, especially during withdrawal. Often, cell phone usage in teens can contribute to these feelings, as teenagers feel the pressure to always be active on their phones, and on social media.
  •  Stress
    • The “Fear of Missing Out” has recently become an issue many teens struggle with, especially if they are spending too much time on their cell phones, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. This “Fear of Missing Out” can lead to stress, which many teens do not want to admit is actually being caused by their obsessive cell phone use.
  • Substance abuse
    • There could be a potential relationship between substance abuse and cell phone addiction. When a teenager struggles with impulse control, such as the impulse to always be on their devices, this can teach them dangerous, indulgent behavioral patterns that can translate to addiction later in life. The inability to say no to using a cell phone, could signal a potential issue with saying no to alcohol, tobacco, or other substances in the future.

While there is no guarantee that any of these issues will occur in an individual who is experiencing teenage cell phone addiction symptoms, there is always a strong possibility that one mental disorder could lead to another. Whether mild or severe, these issues are all problematic, as is that of uncontrolled cell phone abuse in teenagers.

How Can Parents Combat Teen Cell Phone Addiction?

Teenage cell phone addiction is a serious issue. Fortunately, there are ways that you, as a parent, can help prevent your child from experiencing cell phone addiction and minimize their issues with this particular behavior.

1. Talk to your child

  • One of the best lines of defense parents have against the many harmful things their children encounter is an honest and frank conversation. Teens respond well to honesty from their parents.
  • Having a conversation with your teen about substance abuse could help them avoid it. Talk to them about the important of balance in their lives, and the dangers of becoming too reliant on devices.

2. Implement No-Phone Times

  • Implementing time periods where you choose not to use your phone can help your teen beat a cell phone addiction habit. Since these will be difficult to enforce at school, talk to your child about times at home where they won’t be able to use their phone.
  • For example, a no devices at the dinner table is a good policy both teenagers, and parents can practice. Much like you would limit their Internet or videogame usage as kids, cell phones should also be treated as a privilege.

3. No Cell Phone Use When Driving

  • This is a potential rule you may want to implement if you are worried about your teen getting into an accident while texting and driving.
  • There are certain ways you can enforce it, like installing a tracking app on their phone, but you can also ask them to remember: if they want to use the car, their cell phone needs to be off.

4. Turn It Off with the Light

  • When your teen is getting ready for bed, discuss with them the need to turn their phone off at night. This will help them develop better sleep habits, and it will minimize their likelihood of using their phone instead of sleeping.
  • They can get an alarm that plays the radio instead of using their phone to wake them up in the morning, and they can plug their phone in on the other side of the room so they will not be tempted to use it in the middle of the night.

5. Set Data and/or Spending Limits

  • One great way to ensure that your teen does not spend too much time on their phone is to set limits on how much data they can use or how much money they can spend on games, ride sharing apps, etc.
  • This way, they will understand that there are boundaries associated with their cell phone use, and they will not be able to cross them, even when they want to.

6. Set an Example

  • If you are asking your teen to use their phone less, try to be an example to them and do the same. Don’t use your phone at the dinner table, don’t text and drive, and show them you are just as capable of avoiding overuse as they are. When they see you are trying to do the same, they will be more likely to respect the rules you make for them.

7. Look for the Signs

  • If you are ever concerned that your child may be abusing their cell phone or spending too much time on it, it’s important to keep an eye out for the signs of abuse and addiction (which are highlighted above). These can give you a good idea if your efforts are working or not and if your child may need more help putting an end to their problematic cell phone use.

While it’s almost impossible to remove cell phones from the equation these days, you can do many things to help your teen ensure that they do not experience severe issues associated with this behavior. After all, smartphone addiction is becoming more and more common, as individuals are beginning to recognize its potentially toxic effects. Why not do everything we can, then, to help our teens avoid this issue and learn to safely control their own behavior with the help of their loved ones?