For years, Allison* thought her relationship with her cell phone was normal. She snuck glances at it during dinner. She woke up in the middle of the night to check her texts. She spent hours per day using it to access Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and Tinder.
Her friends never called her out on her behavior because they did the same thing. No one felt like it was rude to interrupt a conversation for a quick look downward. It was practically expected.
"It's hard to say who actually has an unhealthy obsession and who's using their phone as an average person," says Allison, 21, of Orange County, California.
It was only last year, when she had checked herself into Morningside Recovery Center, a rehab facility in Orange County, to help her manage her daily anxiety that she finally made the connection between her anxiety and her cell phone. Regular activities like school and work had begun to feel like burdens she had to endure until she could plunge back into the world of her phone—specifically her texts and social media.
Morningside, which caters to patients with a range of psychological conditions, is one of only a handful of rehab facilities in the U.S. that offer treatment for "nomophobia," short for "no-mobile-phone phobia." Experts say there are few facilities like this because most people struggling with this issue do not realize they have a problem.
Since her time at Morningside, the facility has moved to a newly renovated two-story building in Irvine. On a 75-degree day in February, several young female patients stood around high counters and chatted on swivel stools as sunlight flooded in from floor-to-ceiling glass doors. A dozen patients posed in downward-facing dog in the yoga studio, right near the gym loaded with elliptical machines, treadmills, and weights. A row of group and private therapy rooms was the only hint that the space was a rehab facility. In one room where a therapist was leading a discussion on mindfulness, patients crowded around a white board covered with words like "happy" and "on the go." Another therapist was meeting with a group outside in the sun.
Of the 70 total patients in treatment at Morningside at the time, about 10 of them were receiving help for cell phone addiction in addition to other disorders like depression and anxiety. Most of them were young women in their 20s.
"Losing yourself in connection to the online world is so easy now," says Kevin Granich, the marketing director at Morningside, which has been offering treatment for nomophobia for about three years. "We're changing with the times and with our clients."
Patients at Morningside live in shared homes in nearby Costa Mesa and are transported to Irvine every morning. They go through the group and individual therapy sessions, work out, and try activities that encourage self-expression, like drum circles, music, and art. The shortest stay, 30 days, costs $24,000. The typical stay is 60 to 90 days, with the first 30 days focused on learning coping skills, the next 30 on incorporating those skills, and the final 30 on future steps.
One difference that separates Morningside from other rehab programs is that it doesn't strip patients of their cell phones or laptops upon arrival. Patients focus on learning coping skills to keep themselves from obsessively checking their devices—such as running their hands under water when they feel a compulsion or engaging in a face-to-face conversation.
"For us, having electronics is an important part," Granich says, "because you're going to leave and have your cell phone. We want to mimic the real world in a safe, fostering environment."
The program also sponsors field trips to places like Big Bear Lake or the Grand Canyon, during which participants are not allowed to text or post on social media. Instead, they must socialize and process their emotions without the crutch of their phones.
A key to successful recovery lies in identifying the root cause of someone's attachment to her phone. According to Granich, one recent patient suffered a traumatizing rape that led to an addiction to her cell phone. She grew to believe that if she'd had her phone during the incident, she could have stopped it. By the time she sought help at Morningside, she was carrying three phones just in case. In more typical cases, the patient's issues are related to an untreated anxiety disorder or depression. Allison, for example, referred to her own hard childhood as an underlying factor in her struggles with anxiety.
According to the latest research, Allison's attachment to her phone was not unusual among college-age women. One study published last December in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions found that the typical female college student spends 600 minutes per day on her phone. That's 10 hours, compared with the 458 minutes spent by male college students.
Dr. James Roberts, the lead author of the study and a marketing professor at Baylor University in Texas, cites some obvious reasons why our generation is so obsessed with our phones, including portability, ease of multitasking, and more sophisticated technology than ever. His research also indicates that men use their phones primarily for entertainment, while women use them to enhance personal connections.
"I don't want to be too traditionalist, but it goes to the core of being a female, to place higher importance on relationships with family and friends," Dr. Roberts says.
Dr. Roberts knows the term "addiction" to describe obsessive cell phone use is controversial. The American Society of Addiction Medicine, a professional group representing thousands of physicians, asserts that "addiction" is a "primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry." It's traditionally used to refer to abuse of substances that directly alter the brain's biochemistry, but in the last few years, the field has accepted the so-called "behavioral addiction" of gambling disorder because, the American Psychiatric Association writes, it is "similar to substance-related disorders in clinical expression, brain origin, comorbidity, physiology, and treatment." The most recent DSM revision came out in 2013, and although experts considered including Internet addiction, they ultimately concluded the data was insufficient.
Dr. Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University at Dominguez Hills and author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us, contends that cell phone "addiction" is a misnomer. He prefers the term "obsession" or "compulsion."
"In order for it to be an addiction, the person has to be deriving some pleasure from it," Dr. Rosen says. "Most people we study don't appear to check their phones and feel good about it—they check every 15 minutes or less because they don't want to miss out on something, which is anxiety-based."
The heaviest cell phone users, according to Dr. Rosen, are women ages 18 to 30. His research has shown that when their phones are taken away, their stress levels spike after just 10 minutes and escalate over the course of an hour.
Melanie Palmer, 43, is a therapist at Morningside who still treats Allison on an outpatient basis, though Melanie prefers the broader term "technology addiction." Five years ago, she says, she saw one in every couple hundred clients for these issues, but in the last year, it's increased to one in every 10 to 15.
"I see people always on Facebook checking statuses, even the lamest stuff like cat photos," she says. "It creates anxiety that they're always having to be on it and see people they don't even know, when they're neglecting the friend right next to them."
She encourages patients to set boundaries with baby steps: turning off their phones for an hour, then learning to cope with the withdrawal emotions. The next assignment might be going to a coffee shop alone without their phones and saying hello to one stranger, since many sufferers struggle with interpersonal skills.
"I keep hoping—this is super naïve—that we're going to get over it," Palmer says of our culture's obsession with smartphones. "But now I don't see it going that way. I think it will get worse and become a full-fledged disorder in the next DSM."
Though Allison says she feels much more in control after going through Morningside's program, the condition of her interview with Cosmopolitan.com may have made it difficult for her to be truly candid; she spoke while in Palmer's office, with Palmer present, during a recent therapy session and Palmer would not connect me for a follow-up interview. Palmer herself admits that the relapse rate is "pretty high," meaning that many people fall back into old patterns after a period of trying to establish a healthier balance.
That's because we can't quit cold turkey like with smoking or alcohol. We have to deal with our cell phones every day.
Many people are blissfully addicted, says Dr. Roberts, the Baylor professor. They joke about their attachment to their phones and haven't registered serious enough consequences, like a car accident from texting and driving.
"The real cost is we've traded in a meaningful life for a life of momentary pleasures," Dr. Roberts says. "We have missed out on opportunities that allow us to live happy lives."
That lamentable calculus was exactly why, in 2011, another woman, Tiffany W., decided to participate in an event called the National Day of Unplugging, in which cell phone users disconnect for 24 hours.
Tiffany, 43, realized she had a problem when her 6-year-old son called her out for constantly checking social media and told her she needed a "dumb phone" instead. To honor his request, last year she bought a flip phone and quit her iPhone for a month.
"It was a wake-up call that I was constantly posting stuff about my kid and taking myself out of the moment," says Tiffany, who requested that Cosmopolitan.com use only her first name and last initial. "Once you don't do it for a while, you realize how unnecessary it is. We're all walking around as if every time the phone rings or there's a beep, it's like an emergency."
She thought she had "cured" herself after a month and resumed using her iPhone. But slowly, her old habits returned, though she says she now checks her phone around once an hour, instead of every 15 minutes. She has also started carrying hardcover books around to distract her. Tiffany says she hasn't sought out therapy because she thinks she can manage her addiction through yoga and mindfulness, though she adds, "Maybe I'm still in denial."
Allison, meanwhile, reports that her nonstop anxiety has finally ebbed, her relationships have improved, and she feels less distracted. And if, for example, she receives an alert that isn't an emergency, like a new Tinder match, she tries to refrain from checking it immediately. She also regularly leaves home without it, which she says was difficult at first, but now is manageable.
"I'm fully, fully present," she declares. "It's something I haven't felt in a really long time."
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.