Are you addicted to your smartphone?

Estimated 5-10% of mobile device users are hooked

SAN ANTONIO – Do you sleep with your cellphone? Do you become agitated or uncomfortable if you don't have your phone with you? If so, you could be a digital addict.

In our culture of constant connectivity, it seems some people may take it too far, becoming smartphone and tablet junkies.

Look around you. We eat with them. We sleep with them. And, we can't seem to leave home, even for a minute, without them.

"That actually happened to me," said University of Texas - San Antonio student Pamela Okolie, who jokingly admitted to a mini panic attack when she realized she left her phone at home. "It was very difficult. I feel like I'm detached from my friends and kind of lonely."

Fellow student Lummy Coo-Chiobi sat at the campus lunch table, her Galaxy within reach. She checks her phone at least 50 times a day.

"I just use it whenever I need to contact people," she said. "So when I don't have her on me, sorry - 'it' on me, I'm kind of scared because who would I call to ask for help if I don't have my phone on me?"

Yes, she referred to her phone as "she."

"I'm pretty sure I'm addicted to my phone," Coo-Chiobi said.

While she was half-joking, digital addiction is no laughing matter to those whose relationships, jobs and health are adversely affected because they spend so much time with their faces in their phones and iPads.

"The addiction is really to the modality of the Internet," said Dr. David Greenfield, founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at The University of Connecticut School of Medicine.

"In a sense, the Internet and smartphone are really the world's largest slot machine," he said.

He likens digital addiction to other addictions like gambling or drugs.

"Every once in a while, you get a little hit of something that's desirable whether from a social media feed or a piece of information or a text or email or Facebook update," he explained. "But, you can't predict what you're going to get, when you're going to get it or how good it's going to be."

When you get that "hit," he said, the neurochemical dopamine is elevated, lifting your mood and providing pleasure.

"What you are really getting addicted to is the elevation of dopamine, not the device itself," he said. 

That pleasurable rush is what compels people to keep checking their phones for new information and reacting to each buzz, chirp or ding.

Tiffany Rosenberg is a frequent user of the social media app Instagram. When she hears her phone notification, she can't resist taking a look.

"It's like, 'Oh, I've got to look, I've got to see something. I've got to see who's liking my stuff,'" she said.

While Casey Wilson said he's not terribly attached to his phone, he checks it before he goes to bed because it helps him fall asleep.

"And I wake up and then I check my social media," he said. "Yes, that's what I do."

Frequent use of mobile devices does not necessarily mean addiction.

Greenfield estimates five to 10 percent of mobile device users are addicted. Most people are simply in the habit of overusing or abusing their devices.

There are consequences. Greenfield points to a more sedentary lifestyle. Overuse can stifle a person's creativity and thoughts if he or she automatically checks email, Twitter or Facebook or plays a few games of Candy Crush every time he has an idle moment.

He suggests digital detox, breaking the neurological pattern where people are always plugged in and accessible.

As for first steps, he says simply set aside a couple hours a day when you turn off the phone or go out without it.

"Never have it with you at a meal. Don't bring it into a restaurant and have it next to the place setting with a knife and a fork," Greenfield said. "The truth is, we survived for centuries without this, and we can survive a few hours or a day without it."

(Quiz courtesy: Dr. David Greenfield and the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction)

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