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Is My Teen Addicted to Their Cellphone? Is That a Problem?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

Meet The Team >

When you were young, you probably heard this line about a thousand times from your parents:

“Too much television is going to rot your brain.”

Every time they said it, you’d roll your eyes – internally if you had strict parents – and think to yourself:

“There’s no way something so good could be so bad. Television is awesome.”

Now that you have a teenager, you’ve probably said this line about a million times:

“Too much time on that phone is going to rot your brain.”

Which is ironic, because every time you say it, they roll their eyes – internally if you’re strict – and think to themselves:

“There’s no way something so good could be so bad. My phone is awesome.”

And there you are. You’ve become your parents – in one way, at least. We won’t dwell on that here – a different discussion for a different time – but what we will do is talk about your teenager’s cell phone use. It’s widely accepted that internet addiction and video game addiction are real things. Loads of scientific data back up that assertion. The latest version of the mental health diagnostic bible, the DSM-V, includes them in their list of official mental health disorders.

But what about cell phone addiction?

Is that a real thing?

Cell Phone Addiction: An Open Debate

One thing is for certain: no matter what the psychiatrists and mental health researchers say about cell phone addiction, the question of whether or not they’re addictive is one hundred percent valid. When you think about how you use something, whether it’s alcohol, exercise, or a cell phone, it’s important to examine the role that thing plays in your life. Especially if it’s something you use every day, like a cell phone. If you don’t already, it’s a good idea to take a mindful perspective, and ask yourself if it’s helping or hurting, adding or subtracting, enriching or detracting – that way you can be sure you aren’t unconsciously doing something that’s bad for you.

The same goes for the things your kids use every day – like their phones. You’re in the best position to make a judgment about how they use technology, from the family television to their personal computer to their cell phones.  Yes – even if your kid spends more time avoiding you than talking to you, you still know their personality and habits better than anyone. That means you’re the one most qualified to identify any positive or negative changes in their behavior, mood, and overall well-being. Where your kid is concerned, you’re the expert.

Unfortunately, with regards to cell phone addiction, the experts don’t agree. Peer-reviewed scientific studies present data which seem to support both sides. Some researchers believe the evidence is unequivocal: cell phones are addictive, they change our kid’s brains for the worse, and cell phone misuse lays the behavioral and neurochemical groundwork for substance abuse later in life. Others disagree. They argue there’s insufficient data to classify excessive cell phone use as a true addiction. They advise using caution, and while they do generally believe there’s ample evidence cell phones can be overused and cause problems, they stop short of discussing excessive cell phone use the same way they discuss gambling, alcohol/substance abuse, or internet addiction.

So what does that mean to you, the parent of a teen who’s on their phone so much you think it’s a real problem?

For the time being, it means you have to make a judgment call about how your teen uses their phone. You don’t have to make a medical diagnosis – you shouldn’t try to anyway, if you’re not a doctor – but if you’re concerned about your teen’s cell phone use, then you should follow up on that concern.

We have a great idea about how to do that.

The Nomophobia Quiz

A group of researchers at Iowa State University developed a quiz to diagnose Nomophobia – the fear of being without a cellphone. Fair warning – this group of researchers are in the “yes, cell phones are addictive” camp. We’re going to sidestep weighing in on one side or the other, and default to “the more you know, the better off you are” position.

Here’s our idea: empower both yourself and your teen by using the quiz in a novel way. Set aside some time – it shouldn’t take more than half an hour – and take the quiz with your teen. Here’s the cool part: we think you should both take it twice. The first time, answer for yourself. The second time, answer for your teen. Have them do the same thing: answer the questions for themselves the first time through, then the second time, have them answer for you. Then tally up your scores and discuss them. That way you can learn something new about one another, and you’ll also learn about how you see each other.

Ready? Here’s the quiz:

Respond to each statement on a scale of 1 – 7, where 1 means you strongly disagree and 7 means you strongly agree with the statement. When you’re done, add up all your responses to get your total.

  1. I would feel uncomfortable without constant access to information through my smartphone.
  2. I would be annoyed if I could not look information up on my smartphone when I wanted to do
  3. Being unable to get the news (e.g., happenings, weather, etc.) on my smartphone would make me
  4. I would be annoyed if I could not use my smartphone and/or its capabilities when I wanted to do
  5. Running out of battery in my smartphone would scare
  6. If I were to run out of credits or hit my monthly data limit, I would
  7. If I did not have a data signal or could not connect to Wi-Fi, then I would constantly check to see if I had a signal or could find a Wi-Fi
  8. If I could not use my smartphone, I would be afraid of getting stranded
  9. If I could not check my smartphone for a while, I would feel a desire to check
  10. If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would feel anxious because I could not instantly communicate with my family and/or
  11. If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would be worried because my family and/or friends could not reach
  12. If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would feel nervous because I would not be able to receive text messages and
  13. If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would be anxious because I could not keep in touch with my family and/or
  14. If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would be nervous because I could not know if someone had tried to get a hold of
  15. If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would feel anxious because my constant connection to my family and friends would be
  16. If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would be nervous because I would be disconnected from my online
  17. If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would be uncomfortable because I could not stay up-to-date with social media and online
  18. If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would feel awkward because I could not check my notifications for updates from my connections and online
  19. If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would feel anxious because I could not check my email
  20. If I did not have my smartphone with me, I would feel weird because I would not know what to

[Note: this test cannot give you an official medical diagnosis. Only a doctor or psychiatrist can do that.]

How to interpret your results:

  • A score below 20 means you probably don’t have a problem.
  • A score between 20 and 60 means you may have a mild problem.
  • A score between 60 and 100 means you may have a moderate problem.
  • A score above 100 means you may have a severe problem.

How did you do? How did your teen do? When you calculate your results, take some time to talk about them. Does your teen think you’re addicted to your phone? Do you think they’re addicted to their phone?

The Next Step: A Professional Opinion

If either of you answer yes to either of those last two questions, then it’s time to pay close attention. Remember – an addiction, very loosely speaking, is something you keep doing even when you know it’s bad for you. Something that negatively impacts your ability to function at work, school, or in your relationships with others. If the way either of you uses your cell phone is detrimental to your quality of life, then that’s something important to know. Maybe you take the quiz and realize neither one of you really has a problem. Maybe you (or your teen) just needs to dial it back a bit. However, a score of over one hundred on the quiz may be cause for concern – and it may mean it’s time to talk to a mental health professional and get their perspective.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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