Michael Weiner, Ph.D., MCAP and Charles Smith, CASP

family members on cell phones

It seems like everyone has thought about, discussed or made jokes about cell phone use being an addiction. We began such a discussion. It began with a conversation about social media and moved on to include gathering information and data, messaging and gaming, etc.

The common denominator was the use of a cell phone.

The discussion was light-hearted at first, but then the topic reached a point where it seemed to deserve some serious consideration. Can cell phone use become dysfunctional enough to meet the criteria of a diagnosable disorder?

It has already been demonstrated that the ding or ring of a cell phone can activate the same brain centers and neurotransmitters that substance use disorders trigger; namely the mid-brain and cortical interaction of dopamine, norepinephrine, and glutamate.


Cell phone addiction would not be the first behavioral disorder included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’s (DSM-5) chapter on “substance related and addictive disorders.” Gambling is already there. Thus, “Gambling Disorder” can be our template.

DSM-5 lists nine symptoms that could indicate a “Gambling Disorder.” The direction is to diagnose the disorder if four symptoms can be documented. There are four symptoms that could be a perfect template for diagnosing a Cell Phone Use Disorder:

1.“A tendency to become restless or irritable when attempting to cut back or stop gambling /using a cell phone.” It sounds a lot like “withdrawal” to me. Having experienced it, it feels a lot like “withdrawal.’ When was the last time you lost or misplaced your phone? Mine recently just died. I felt disconnected and anxious. What was I missing? The feeling wasuncomfortable. I think that it was getting worse with time, not better. That’s withdrawal.

2. “Repeated unsuccessful attempts to control, cut back, or stop gambling/using a cell phone”
Have you tried things like:
• Living without a cell phone?
• Checking for messages only a few times a day?
• Turning off the ringer so you can check it without being disturbed?
• Getting another cell phone so that one would be personal and the other for business?

Has any one of those attempts proved to be successful? The last one doesn’t even make sense. Cutting back by buying another one?

3. “Being pre-occupied. Having cravings or a preoccupation e.g. having dinner or being in a therapy session while pre-occupied with the next call?”

4. “Has jeopardized, or lost a significant relationship, job, or educational opportunity ……”

Ask my wife about that one!

There is one that might be added when it comes to using a cell phone.

• Using a cell phone when it is clearly dangerous?


I suspect that most of us have done that. The rest are in denial. None of us would intentionally put lives at risk. Many of us have done so.

The behaviors listed can surely fit the criteria for addiction. But is it? Is it an addiction, or is it what we humans do to keep up with a world that is constantly changing?

“If the past 50,000 years of man’s existence were divided into lifetimes of approximately sixty-two years each, there would have been about 800 lifetimes. Of these 800, fully 650 were spent in caves. Only during the last seventy lifetimes has it been possible to communicate from one lifetime to another –as writing made it possible to do. Only during the past six lifetimes did masses of men ever see a printed word. Only during the past four has it been possible to measure time with any precision. Only during the past two has anyone, anywhere, ever used an electric motor. And the overwhelming majority of all the goods and material goods we use in life today have been developed during the present, the 800th lifetime (Alvin Toffler, FUTURE SHOCK).

The scariest thing about what Alvin Toffler wrote is that it was written in 1970.

What can humans do to adapt? Change continues to happen in a geometric progression. Humans haven’t changed. We can still process the same amount of information as we could lifetimes ago. What do we give up when we adapt?

So, are we identifying a disorder or an adaptation?

Recently, I was descending toward a hotel lobby in a glass enclosed elevator. There were a lot of people in the lobby. There was almost no interaction. It would have been a great photograph (couldn’t get to my cell phone fast enough). No one was talking to each other- it seemed dysfunctional. But what is “functional” in the world we live in today? Would 50% of the people being on cell phone be the norm? How much use and in which situations would cell phone use be considered dysfunctional?

There are people who use a cell phone for an incredible amount of time every day. Perhaps they need to be. Have you ever hung out with a real estate agent? There is gender, occupational, personality and age differences regarding how often a cell phone is used.

The question becomes are we talking about addiction or adaptation?

What would the world be like today if we were still using encyclopedias and dictionaries rather than Google? It seems obvious that as a culture we would be at a disadvantage to all others when it comes to business, education, etc. without technology. We need our cell phones. How do we determine when cell phone use has become dysfunctional? Is the DSM-5 even an appropriate template?

Residential and outpatient treatment is available for people whose lives have become very dysfunctional. So, some people seem to have figured out a way to measure dysfunction.



We don’t know what the admission criteria is, nor do we know anything about these programs. We’re simply pointing out that they exist. We’re sure that there are others.

A play titled “Octet” is currently being produced in New York (N.Y. Times, 5/19/2019) focusing on a 12-step support group for internet addicts. As you may have guessed, one already exists. It’s Internet and Tech Addiction Anonymous (ITAA).

A thought to leave our readers with, is that cell phone use, and technology in general, has had an impact on our behaviors, emotions, occupations, relationships, etc. How has it changed us?

It may be true that penmanship is not as readable or as creative as it was before we began to use typewriters and word processors. We’re not as good at basic arithmetic since we’ve started to use calculators.

Does it matter?

Michael Weiner has a private practice in West Palm Beach Fl. He is also a Clinical Consultant to the Palm Beach Detox and Wellness Institute. Dr. Weiner’s professional interests include the lifespan treatment of addiction and the elimination of stigma. He can be reached at (561) 398-8696, michael@lifespanrecovery.net

Charles Smith, CASP, Palo Alto Networks Security Engineer, Juniper Networks DevOps & Automation Specialist, Chief Cybersecurity Content Creator, Cyber Coastal