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Cellphone vibration syndrome and other signs of tech addiction

New book, iDisorder, looks at the dangers and offers advice for dealing with obsession

May 24, 2012 06:11 AM ET

Computerworld - It turns out that the phantom cellphone vibration syndrome is fairly common. Ask around. See if you can find someone who believed the smartphone in their pocket was vibrating but found when they checked, there was nothing new. No call. No text.

There's a growing body of research on phantom vibrations and many of the other problems associated with technology obsession, all of which is explored by Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, in his new book, iDisorder.

Rosen, who earned his bachelors degree in mathematics before getting a Ph.D in psychology, examines technology's impact on our lives. His book, which combines the latest research with his own experience, anecdote and observation, warns about obsessive technological use and offers practical advice for keeping tech at bay.

In this interview, Rosen talked about some of the issues associated with unhealthy, or least unreasonable, levels of tech obsession.

What is iDisorder or technology addiction? Is it obsessive compulsive disorder, narcissism, depression, anxiety - none of this or all of the above? iDisorder is any psychological disorder that appears to be either caused by or potentially exacerbated by your relationship with media and technology. But, in fact, it's all of the ones you mentioned. Interacting with our technology can make us display signs and symptoms of everything ranging from depression to mania to narcissism to voyeurism - you name it. The research is all showing that it appears that these kinds of technologies can, unless we're watching what we're doing, lead to these kinds of issues.

If I check my cell phone every few minutes, what does that indicate? I would want to know what you are doing and what you are feeling when you do that. If you pick up your phone and check your text messages, and you go 'I got to text right back to this person,' I would suggest that what you're feeling is anxiety about not being able to check in. That's one of the underlying issues of obsessive compulsive behaviors. If you got on your phone every couple of minutes and I saw you make this big smile and say 'I got an email from an old friend and it felt so good,' then I would say that it's probably an addictive kind of behavior. It's that split between a level of addiction, meaning we're trying to get pleasure, versus our level of obsession or compulsion, meaning we're trying to reduce our anxiety.

Talk about the phantom vibration syndrome, where it feels as if the cell phone is vibrating but it isn't. Why does this happen? We're just starting to see research on this. I think it's a fascinating phenomenon. I think it comes again from anxiety. Our body is always in waiting to anticipate any kind of technological interaction, which usually comes from a smartphone. With that anticipatory anxiety, if we get any neurological stimulation, our pants rubbing against our leg for example, you might interpret that through the veil of anxiety, as 'Oh, my phone is vibrating."

And this syndrome is fairly common? Yes, I have not found anybody whom I've talked to, particularly males, because they carry their phone in their pocket, who can admit that it has never happened. There are a lot of people who say they are patting their pocket all day long.

Are phantom cell phone vibrations a reason for worry? The worry part comes from this: Is it overwhelming anxiety and is that anxiety getting in the way of anything else in your life? Most of the people will report that what it does is it gets in the way of their social relationships, because they are constantly focusing on reducing the anxiety about what they're missing out on their phone. At dinner, they're not paying attention to their family and kids. When they go out, they are not paying attention to a movie because they are always on edge and worried. If they are at a family gathering they are always checking their phone constantly. If it's that severe, then it's time to re-conceptualize what you are doing.



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