Smartphone Addiction: Will U.S. Go the Way of South Korea?

By Suzanne Kane

Some in South Korea are now carrying more than one smartphone, driving the penetration rate about 100% in that country. In the U.S., the percentage of teens with the phones has increased dramatically in just one year.

With a mobile phone penetration rate of more than 100 percent in South Korea and nearly two-thirds of those devices being smartphones, the government is scrambling to implement programs to deal with the explosion of addiction this technology has spawned.

The lessons learned may have profound implications in the United States, where smartphone penetration was 50 percent in June 2013, according to the International Telecommunication Union. Pew Research Center said that 37 percent of teens here had smartphones in 2012, up significantly from 23 percent in 2011.

South Korea, one of the most wired nations on Earth, is home to Samsung, the world’s biggest smartphone maker. It’s not unusual for people to carry more than one smartphone with them.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, about one in five South Korean students is addicted to using a smartphone. The South Korean government has long had a problem with teens’ addiction to online gaming, but the increase in smartphone penetration among children ages 6 to 19 tripled to 65 percent in just one year.

A South Korean government survey found an 18 percent smartphone addiction rate among teens, double the 9.1 percent adult smartphone addiction rate. Smartphone addiction is defined as spending more than seven hours a day using the phone and consequently experiencing withdrawal symptoms when deprived of or cut off from the device.

While taxpayer-funded counseling is available to adult addicts in the country, the government is looking into programs for young people as well. Teachers are being trained on how to deal with students’ smartphone addiction.

Teachers have already resorted to collecting students’ smartphones in a basket to keep distractions at a minimum. But many students conceal their phones or additional phones and use them during breaks or even during class.Smartphone Addiction

Smartphone Addiction

Experts in addiction treatment say that in addition to causing students to be distracted from their studies, excessive smartphone use by teens is damaging to interpersonal skills.

Students have a compromised ability to read facial expressions, due, in part, to spending more time texting instead of talking to people. They simply don’t learn how to read nonverbal language.

What other damage does smartphone addiction cause? Like other classic symptoms of addiction, smartphone dependence results in:

  • Inability to stop using despite negative consequences
  • Increasing stress
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Delinquency
  • Aggressiveness
  • Difficulties relating to others

A Tidal Wave That Shows No Sign of Stopping

What are the implications for America, where instant connectivity and always-on technology devices are ubiquitous? Consider that despite laws prohibiting texting and cell phone use in many states, drivers continue to slavishly make and receive texts and calls, check emails and post updates to social networking sites.

If there’s any doubt that smartphone addiction has hit here, and hit hard, the results of a Mobile Consumer Habits study conducted by Harris Interactive provide a bit more insight into the disturbing trend.

The study found that 72 percent of Americans surveyed reported being within five feet of their smartphones at all times and admit to using the devices in other unusual places:

  • 55 percent while driving
  • 35 percent  in a movie theater
  • 33 percent during a dinner date
  • 32 percent at a child’s or school function
  • 19 percent in church or place of worship
  • 12 percent while in the shower
  • Almost 9 percent during sex (among people ages 18 to 34, this number rises to 20 percent)

What Can Be Done?

At the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA’s) 2013 annual meeting in San Francisco earlier this year, Jonghun Lee, MD, PhD., professor of psychiatry at the Catholic University of Daegu School of Medicine in South Korea, said that the number of adolescents addicted to smartphone use “will increase because the popularization of smartphones is an inevitable social trend.

“And the younger they are, the more vulnerable they are,” said Dr. Lee.

The lead investigator of a study of nearly 200 adolescents in South Korea, Dr. Lee said that the more addicted the youth were, “the more severe their psychopathologies were.” He recommended that clinicians screen adolescent patients for smartphone addiction, as well as addiction to the Internet or computers.

Noting that there is no current standardized scale for defining such addiction, Dr. Lee added that one needs to be developed. In addition, he said it’s important to identify youth who are at risk to prevent their addiction.

Addiction treatment experts advise that parents play a key role in monitoring whether smartphones are negatively affecting their child’s functioning and intervening when necessary.

Establishing a firm set of rules for use is necessary if use of smartphones or the Internet is getting in the way of the child’s ability to function.

The effects of smartphone overuse are very similar to those of Internet overuse. And Internet use gaming disorder has been included in the just-released fifth edition of the APA’s Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This is the section of the manual reserved for conditions considered worthy of further research.

Research into the causal effects between smartphone and Internet addictions and subsequent psychopathologies is just beginning.