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Are you addicted to your phone?

Thursday - 2/6/2014, 4:16am  ET

phone addiction (screen grab: menthal)
New research shows some people check their phones 80 times a day. Is that addiction? (Menthal)

WASHINGTON - Anyone who has ever felt a "phone jones" after forgetting a mobile device will attest to the growing dependence many have on their phones.

Recent research of college students shows some using their phone two hours a day, and checking the device 80 times a day, or approximately every 12 waking minutes.

But is that addiction?

Researcher Alexander Markowetz, junior professor in computer science at the University of Bonn, isn't sure.

"In psychiatry, people are discussing if it's even possible to get addicted to a non-substance, like whether gambling can be an addiction or not," says Markowetz. "I'm not sure I should be touching that."

The study of 50 students over six weeks showed phones were mostly used for messaging, social networking and playing games.

"Regular binge drinking doesn't make one an addict, but it's not really beneficial to our health," says Markowetz.

The German study set out to determine why people are constantly engaged with their phones.

"It's not productive; it doesn't make us happy, but we're still doing it. Why is this," Markowetz wondered.

What's in it for me?

Markowetz says that regardless of whether the dependence on digital technology is technically an addiction, many demonstrate behavior that mirror physical addiction.

He likens it to an alcoholic's constant worry about how to make it until the next drink.

"If you forget your phone at home, if your phone runs out of battery, or you think 'Where can I get the next charge?' that's the classic sign," says Markowetz.

As for the subconscious reward that addicts get, Markowetz compares the constant checking of the phone to a gambler's high as a slot machine's wheels spin.

"You push a button, and then it's a moment of surprise - cherry, cherry, lemon," says Markowetz.

"It's a rush of some happiness hormone," says Markowetz. "All these happiness things in the brain are all wired to the same thing."

Markowetz says phone over-users often claim they do it because they need to stay in touch with what's happening in the world.

"As humans we have a lot of excuses for what we're doing with the phone," says Markowetz.

Addicted to your phone? There's an app for that

Markowetz and his team developed a free Android app, called Menthal, that monitors smartphone usage and details how often users text, call, use apps, engage in social networking and do other phone tasks, and how much time they spend on each.

"You can see how often you are engaged with the phone," says Markowetz.

He hopes once people see how often they are using their phones, some will go on what he calls a "digital diet."

"It's like fasting one day a week," says Markowetz.

Is this you? Are you addicted to your phone?

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