Cell phones viewed as a dog leash for many Americans, with addiction concerns

Dave Masko's picture

Although cell phones are marketed as a device to make one's life easier, it's an inconvenient truth that “this technology is actually beginning to interfere in the lives of users who don’t know when to turn them off,” says a psychologist who studies addictions to the Internet and other technologies.

Cell phones do much more than just phone calls. In addition to being a telephone, “cells” as they’re dubbed, also do a lot of “fun stuff” for kids who seem to be bored with such things as talking to parents, playing sports outside or anything non-tech, says Coos Bay mom of four Gina Wolcott.

Wolcott recently stopped by the “Pony Mall” in downtown Coos Bay to “check out possible gifts for Christmas.”

“I was surprised by all the additional stuff cells now offer,” she explained while pointing to a chart of accessories, such as SMS for text messages, e-mail and Internet access, gaming service and Bluetooth and infrared short range wireless communications.

“There’s a camera phone that my son wants, but why does he need more than just a phone that takes pictures,” she asks. “I mean there’s all this messaging, MP3 player and radio features. And even a GPS feature and he doesn’t even drive yet.”

Wolcott is concerned that with her son “not doing great in school,” that the distraction of having a cell phone that’s more or less code for a portable computer these days, “will only hurt him in school.”

And, she adds, “I have to hold my breath when he starts driving next year and has this thing (cell) with him all the time.”

Although the first handheld mobile phone was first used back in 1973, and weighed nearly five pounds, it’s become a “sort of cultural game changer,” say experts who’ve studied the phenomena.

Cell phones can lead to addiction, say experts

“It’s not so much talking on the phone that’s typically the problem, it’s this need to be connected, and to know what’s going on and be available to other people. That’s one of the hallmarks of cell phone addition,” says Lisa Merlo, a University of Florida psychologist who a frequent media source for technology issues.

Merlo also noted that “cell phone addicts” compulsively check their phones for voicemails and text messages. This time spent doing this “checking of the cell,” is time they are not devoting to listening to people and other person-to-person communications.

When cell phone overuse really becomes an issue is when “people have underlying anxiety or depression issues,” Merlo says.

One clue to possible cell phone or gadget addiction is when “people can’t be separated from their cell phones. Frequent users often become anxious when they are forced to turn off the phone or if they forget it at home, so much so that they can’t enjoy whatever they’re doing,” she adds.

Your cell phone may be hazardous to your health

In total, more than 270 million people subscribed to cellular telephone service last year in the United States. Officials with CTIA - the Wireless Association - state that’s an increase from “110 million in 2000.”

While CTIA – a company that receives funding from wireless companies – states that cell phones do not pose a public health risk, others seem skeptical about a science that’s yet to be fully studied over a long period of time.

In 2009, Dr. Ronald B. Heberman, director emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, sent a memo to more than 3,000 faculty and staff members warning them of cell phone cancer risks.

Heberman’s memo said “children should use cell phones only for emergencies because their brains were still developing and that adults should keep the phone away from the head and use a speakerphone or a wireless headset.”

“Scientific conclusions often take too long when it comes to the dangers of cell phones,” he said.

Families are rethinking cell phones for gifts

Tony and Norma Drago are shopping for smart phones in a San Francisco area strip mall. They ask the clerk about “absorption rates” for a phone that may go to their teenage daughter Terri. The clerk says “I don’t have a clue about absorption rates… I just cell phones.”

At the same time, the San Francisco mayor’s office has marketed the idea of cell phone warnings over the past year in hopes of getting enough local support to require warnings for anyone who buys a cell phone in the city.

“I’ve seen the proposal from Mayor Newsom and it’s pretty cool from a design standpoint. He wants the cell phone advisory of risk in big letters and the word ‘warning’ in red with a color graphic of a child’s brain next to the warning. It’s a bit over the top when you think that most people view cell phones as safe,” says San Francisco based web site designer Meg Ferrand.

Moreover, a Maine legislator wants to make its state the first in the country to require cell phones to carry warnings “that they can cause brain cancer.”

While there’s no consensus among scientists about the cancer danger, Ferrand notes that cell phone companies “have billions to spend on marketing their product. They want Americans to buy more cell phones, and they will do just about anything and everything to make sure that happens.”

Cell phone use “massive” in America, worldwide

BillShrink, a popular website which collects and analyzes the cell phone calling needs of about 500,000 cell phone users per month, says consumers make 65 percent of their calls to the same five phone numbers. However, these same callers “could easily just talk to these family members and friends,” adds Ferrand who’s admitted addiction to cell phones.

“I quit, or should I say I’ve really cut down on my cell use. I also don’t allow my daughter Tina (age 7) to use a cell because of what we simply don’t know yet about how much cell phone use can lead to cancer.”

The Federal Communications commission, which maintains that all cell phones sold in the U.S. “are safe,” has also set a standard for the “specific absorption rate of radio frequency energy. But, the commission does not require cell phone makers to divulge radiation levels.

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