Froilan Vicente walks through Southland Mall in Hayward, Calif., his eyes trained sharply on the 3.5-inch diagonal iPhone 4 display screen he’s carrying in his hand.
The 22-year-old is oblivious to much around him as he taps on what he calls his “mobile laptop” to check sports scores, send texts, look up movie listings, watch trailers, figure out where to eat and how to get there.
“It’s really useful,” Vicente explains. “It’s not just for talking to friends.”
When asked, on a scale of one to 10, if he thinks he’s “addicted” to his phone, he puts himself on the top of the list – a full 10. He knows this because when he once lost his phone for a week, he suffered from what felt like withdrawal symptoms for three days: irritability, worry, panic.
Vincente is not alone. As most of us have witnessed at dinner with friends, in business meetings, even just walking down the street, those tiny screens have an enormous power.
For the approximately 72.5 million Americans who own smartphones, according to the technology industry analyst firm comScore Inc., our dependence on smartphones is not just a distraction but an addiction.
“It’s crazy in our mind that we could become addicted to a device, but that’s what is happening,” says David Greenfield, a West Hartford, Conn.-based psychologist and author of “Virtual Addiction: Help for Netheads, Cyberfreaks and Those Who Love Them.”
“We think we are free and easy and able to make our own decisions,” he says, “but we are addicted.”
Martinez, Calif., resident Rachel Pisarevich, 19, sleeps next to her phone. Terence Johnson of Rodeo, Calif., 22, is “always connected,” checking Twitter and Facebook for friends’ updates.
Emmanuel Rivera, 23, of Concord, Calif., has walked into strangers while checking his phone, and Kristy Trinh of Alameda, Calif., 18, walked into a Dumpster while checking hers.
On that one to 10 scale, Oakland, Calif., resident Jim Thorne, 50, calls his dependence on his iPhone 3GS an 11. He uses it for everything – to pay bills, play games, find people to date.
“It stays on my night stand,” he says. “If I wake up in the middle of the night, I check it.”
That all sounds like addiction, says Greenfield, a national expert on the topic of technology dependence.
The way the addiction to phones and the Internet works, he says, is determined by what is called a variable ratio reinforcement schedule.
It’s like a slot machine: You check the phone or the Internet, and, in an unpredictable fashion, you might see a new photo of a friend’s baby or get a text message. When you do see something new, it stimulates pleasure centers in the brain.
“Essentially, the Internet is addictive in this way,” Greenfield says. “There’s just no way around it. And all of these devices are addictive, and we as a society haven’t really come to grips with that.”
The “addiction” can be dangerous. A University of North Texas Health Science Center report says texting while driving claimed more than 16,000 lives from 2001 to 2007.
Debra Barcellos, a Concord, Calif.-based addiction counselor and recovering addict, says she defines addiction as having no other option than to pick up and use to feel good.
She says her nephew seems addicted to computer games, as he’s become anti-social and withdrawn because of his fondness for them.
“An addict has no choice,” Barcellos says. “Physically, they cannot feel normal without putting a substance into their bodies.”
Alana Conner, vice president of content development for The Tech Museum in San Jose and a Stanford doctorate psychology graduate, doesn’t like to use the word “addiction” when speaking of our fondness for smartphones.
“Do we use them compulsively? Sure,” she says.
“At the end of the day, smartphones are tethers to people we care about. As people become more mobile and scattered, we miss the people we love. This is a device that allows us to plug into their lives again.”
But an addiction? Conner is not convinced.
“It’s a powerful metaphor, and I think it conveys a lot of what happens with smartphones,” she says. “But as a psychologist, I am concerned with applying that word to things that don’t mix.”
The danger, however, is real. The Tech Museum addresses these issues in its exhibits, asking what implications these new devices are having on society.
“I do think this is something that we as a society really have to grapple with,” Conner says.
“With all these distracting peripheral devices, we need to build social and cultural constraints that allow us to function in the real world and allow us to function in the virtual world.”