July 1st, 2010

Excessive emailing/texting: The newest addiction?

In June 2008, the British Broadcasting System (BBC) published a story about two adolescents in Spain undergoing treatment at the Child and Youth Mental Health Centre near Barcelona for dependency on their mobile phones. Studies out of South Korea, China and Australia have also raised questions about potential cell phone addiction. While concerns around the globe about compulsive emailing and texting via cell phone are growing, the jury is still out on whether or not this behavior actually constitutes addiction.

To date, no formal studies have been conducted in the United States, but some respected groups have released pertinent data. A recent report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project indicates that one-half of all U.S. teens with cell phones send more than 100 texts each day. Of that number, 87 percent either sleep with or near their phones. The Nielsen Company reported that the average teenager sends more than 2,000 text messages every month.

The March 2008 issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry published somewhat more controversial information. An editorial in this publication by Jerald J. Block, M.D., labeled excessive texting as a subtype of Internet addiction, a “compulsive-impulsive spectrum disorder.” He applied four characteristics to this behavior: excessive use, i.e., losing sense of time or acting in a neglectful manner; withdrawal, i.e., becoming angry and/or depressed when deprived of access; tolerance, i.e., craving more usage, and negative repercussions, i.e., lying, becoming socially isolated and/or fatigued.

John M. Grohol, Psy.D. of Newburyport, Mass., CEO and founder of PsychCentral.com, is reluctant to call this behavior an addiction and also shuns the word “dependence.” He says, “My thoughts are that people are using it as a coping mechanism.”

Like many other technological advances – the automobile, telephone, television, computer, video games, etc. – cell phones are being “demonized,” Grohol says. “When a child turns 13 or 14, a cell phone becomes a requirement,” he says. “In the 1970s, teens used phones for hours every day. No one said they were addicted. That data is not different today.”

Lisa M. Najavits, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine and practitioner at the Veterans Administration Boston Health Care System, says, “There is nothing inherently that couldn’t be addictive.” She cites shopping, gambling and exercise as normal, enjoyable activities that can escalate into obsessions.

“How to define [an addiction] is the problem. There is no consensus on behavioral addiction definitions,” says Najavits. “Is the criteria the same for pornography as it is for texting? There is a need for a lot more research.”

While the amount of use is certainly relevant, Najavits suggests that negative consequences provide better insight into the matter. “There has to be some significant problem in life, such as avoiding relationships, not doing schoolwork, not going to work. You’d have to see something really notable,” she says.

Najavits views emailing and texting via cell phone as a societal norm. “You have to look at trends over time. Email is a much more acceptable way to communicate now. How we connect with one another changes over time. You have to take the long view and see what emerges,” she says.

Cell phones, particularly for teens, represent a security blanket, according to Catherine Gordon Cauthorne, Ph.D., a private practitioner in Peterborough, N.H.. While having a cell phone helps people keep in touch, individuals prone to obsessive, compulsive behavior may adopt emailing and texting as a compulsion, she explains. “This satisfies a level of anxiety and emotional fragility,” says Cauthorne.

While electronic communication may create a bond between individuals, that connection is artificial, Cauthorne says. “It’s not skin-to-skin. We need more internalized sense of self in reference to others.” She also expresses concern about peer pressure prompting teens to engage in cell phone-related activities that might prove harmful. “Some research suggests that emails can be read with a negative view. There is a good chance of being misinterpreted. People are not responsible for that. They are not saying it, but sending it. The problem is when the child is hiding and not accepting responsibility,” she says.

Grohol hesitates to suggest parental intervention for what might seem like excessive digital communication. “[Teens] are exploring the limits of their behavior. There is no need to punish or stop the behavior,” he says. However, a longstanding problem might be cause for a conversation regarding responsible phone use. “But punishment should be a last resort,” says Grohol. “It can be pretty ineffective, depending on the existing relationship.”

Although research has not clearly defined excessive emailing/texting as a mental illness, Grohol emphasizes that psychologists can be invaluable to clients who profess to have an addiction. “Psychologists have the tools and techniques that can be employed and be effective,” he says, suggesting clinicians examine the bigger picture to identify other, underlying factors that might be responsible for overusing a cell phone. “The controversy overshadows agreement on the diagnostic label.”

By Phyllis Hanlon

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