Rising cellphone use hurts young people, experts say

The hazards of cellphone use are clearly demonstrated on the stairs built decades ago at Camosun College, educator Sybil Harrison says.

“Last year, we had three students fall down the stairs because they were texting at the same time,” said Harrison, director of learning services. “Nobody ever fell down the stairs before.

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“I just have to look around the campus to see the amount of cellphone use there is,” she said. “And it’s not just young people, because I see it with my colleagues when I go to meetings. People are always looking at their cellphones.”

Harrison’s story of the stairwell is almost funny, albeit dangerous. But educators and clinical psychologists are now recognizing that cellphone use is going beyond the realm of modern convenience. Increasingly, it is recognized as a wasteful distraction, even a harmful addiction.

A recent study at Baylor University in Texas found women students spend an average of 10 hours a day, men eight, on their cellphones, putting their academic performance at risk.

The study, The Invisible Addiction: Cellphone Activities and Addiction Among Male and Female College Students, was published in The Journal of Behavioral Addictions. It was based on an online survey of 164 students.

Those students reported the top cellphone activities were texting, an average of more than 90 minutes a day; sending emails, nearly 50 minutes; checking Facebook, nearly 40 minutes; and surfing, 35 minutes.

Respondents were also asked to respond to statements such as “I get agitated when my cellphone is not in sight” and “I find I am spending more and more time on my cellphone.”

The study authors called for more research to determine which cellphone activities are likely to push the device from being helpful tool to one that undermines personal and social well-being.

Neal Berger, a 40-year addictions consultant and director of Cedars, a treatment centre in Cobble Hill, said he has no trouble calling cellphone use an addictive behaviour.

“I think we are seeing just the tip of the iceberg and I don’t know what the iceberg looks like,” he said.

Berger said he regularly sees clients, checking in for treatment to deal with addictions to substances such as alcohol and narcotics. But one of their first hurdles is leaving behind their cellphone, part of treatment regime.

“There has been a few times where [leaving behind the cellphone] has been a greater source of anxiety than anything else,” he said.

“If they don’t have the ability to keep texting, keep Facebooking, keep doing their thing, they will get really uncomfortable and agitated.”

“That’s pretty well the same thing as any other addiction,” said Berger.

But what especially worries him as an addiction treatment specialist is the way young people are taking to cellphones. Addictions initiated at a young age, say 12 or 13, are far more difficult to kick than ones begun in adult years.

Berger dismissed the notion they are learning to “multi-task.” The reality is that every activity attempted while using a cellphone just gets diminished.

He said it’s also well known all brains, but especially young brains, will change and adapt their neural pathways according to stimulus and activity. Cellphones, like all digital devices, offer stimulus, invite, even demand, a mental response and provide instant gratification. It’s unlike just about everything else in real life.

“We have young people whose brains are literally being rewired according to digital technology,” said Berger. “They are losing skills that have been anthropologically significant and developing others that may or may not be significant.”


Victoria addictions counsellor, Sue Donaldson, of Pegasus Recovery Solutions, said doctors diagnose addiction based on whether the patient corresponds to specified criteria including:

• Addicts continue to engage in a behaviour even after negative consequences become apparent. Donaldson noted diminished academic scores are an identifiable negative consequence.

• Addicts experience strong cravings to engage in an activity and will neglect other activities or obligations, like family, work or school to satisfy their craving.

• Addicts experience withdrawal.

• Addicts find it hard to curtail the use of a substance or activity.

• Addicts will also express the desire to cut back on an activity or substance.

“And cellphone use absolutely falls into some of those categories,” said Donaldson.

Nevertheless, she worried about the over-use of the word “addiction.” In some ways she wondered whether as a society it’s time to devise social etiquette to govern cellphone use in the same way we govern smoking.

Most people now, at minimum, will ask if anybody minds before lighting a cigarette. Also, texting while driving is becoming seen as irresponsible as drinking and driving.

“I’ve run a lot of groups and invariably everyone has their cellphone at hand,” said Donaldson. “People will ask if they can eat or bring their coffee into a group but there is no thought about a cellphone.”

Meanwhile, back at Camosun College, Harrison said the use of cellphones is now being left to instructors and the students. They are, obviously, all adults.

She said some instructors even favour the inclusion of cellphones in class.

For example, allowing students to make tweets can add an interesting element to a lecture or discussion.

Also it’s hoped a lecture, or class, will be engaging and interesting enough so students will want to put their cellphones away.

“There is right now a whole spectrum of tolerance and acceptance of cellphones,” Harrison said.

“But increasingly it’s hard to say ‘Leave the cellphones at the door, don’t use that,’ ” she said. “And to be fair, there have always been students who sit in classrooms and are completely disengaged.”


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