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Nerd, interrupted: Inside a smartphone addiction treatment center

Leah Yamshon | Aug. 28, 2013
Those who suffer from nomophobia—the fear of being without a mobile phone—need a special type of rehab therapy and wellness programs to bring them back to reality.

And we're using our phones everywhere. Credentials management company Jumio found that one in ten smartphone owners admit to using their phone either during religious services, at a child's school or function, in the shower, or during sex. Roughly three-quarters of participants said they were usually within five feet of their smartphone at all times.

That data shouldn't come as much of a shock. We are deeply dependent on our phones, as they provide quick access to information, entertainment, and communication with other humans. As we access more and more types of information on our phones, the more socially acceptable this kind of behavior becomes. And the more our society accepts this behavior, the harder it is to tell whether—and when—such actions are becoming a cause for concern.

"People don't realize the negative consequences of tech use, because we consider [mobile phones] a necessary, integral part of our lives," says Hilarie Cash, a specialist in Internet and tech addictions. Cash is the cofounder of the Restart Internet Addiction Recovery Center in Fall City, Washington, just 15 miles east of Microsoft's main campus. She treats patients with a variety of tech addictions, and believes that nomophobia and addiction go hand in hand, with the Internet playing a major part.

"Mobile phone addiction is an Internet addiction," she says. "People are not getting addicted to their dumb phones."

Elizabeth Waterman, a therapist at Morningside Recovery in Newport Beach, California, agrees, adding that most of her patients with nomophobia have a larger, underlying issue. "Usually, nomophobia is a symptom of multiple diagnoses," Waterman says. "It's never just a phone addiction."

Both Cash and Waterman say their patients suffer from a wide range of disorders, such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder, or Asperger syndrome. Some come from a broken home life; some have a paralyzing fear of being alone in public. Whatever the background, the phone attachment is usually just the tip of the iceberg.

Mobile phone and Internet addictions start just as other addictions do.

"All addictions have certain things in common," says Cash, "like the feelings of pleasure or release, the development of tolerance, and an experience of withdrawal when access is lost."

The next time you get excited over a phone notification or someone posting on your Facebook wall, you can blame it on human psychology. Interacting with our phones stimulates the release of dopamine in our brains, and addicts anticipate the pleasure of the next tweet, text, or quick search on their phone in the same way a drug addict anticipates the next fix. If the device is taken away, addicts miss out on the feel-good response and experience withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety to the point of a panic attack.


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