When You Just Can't Hang Up

Sept. 23, 2006 — -- For some people, the addiction is caffeine. For others, it's smoking or gambling. Now there's another addiction that's becoming increasingly difficult to hang up -- cell phones.

There are an estimated 219 million Americans on cell phone plans. That's about three phones per household. Experts say these devices can interfere with everyday lives.

"Cell phones could be a behavioral addiction … because people's behavior are being altered by them and they can have negative consequences as a result of using their cell phones," said Dr. Harris Stratyner, associate professor of psychiatry, at Mount Sinai Medical Center.

Sometimes those consequences can be life changing.

A new study from the University of Staffordshire in England took a look at its own students cell phone habits.

Forty percent said they couldn't cope without a cell phone, 35 percent used a cell to escape their problems and seven percent even blamed the cell phone for a lost relationship or job.

"I have a patient that spends so much time on their cell phone that they are going into hock over their cell phone bills," said Stratyner. "I have another patient who prefers to have sexual relationships on their cell phone than do in real life. … And I have a third patient that uses their cell phone as a … way to make alibis to have affairs."

So far, cell phones haven't caused any marital problems for newlyweds Courtney and Tyler Tompkins. Still, this Des Moines, Iowa, couple admits they are cell phone junkies.

"I don't know what I would do if I didn't have it. I definitely need it," admitted Tyler.

"I use my cell phone as my alarm clock," said Courtney. "Pretty much first thing I grab when I wake up is my phone."

Even at Courtney's gym, the cell phone tags along.

"Everyone has headphones and does their own thing, so it doesn't really matter to everyone," she said. "The only people that have to suffer is the people I'm talking to when I'm breathing hard."

One reason cell phone usage is becoming more addictive is because phone companies have made chatting easier, experts say, offering an economical way for family and friends to be under one plan.

While the cost has come down, the minutes keep going up -- something Courtney and Tyler know well.

Right now, their combined cell talk time is nearly 4,000 minutes a month. But even that may not be enough. Sometimes, husband and wife use their cell phones to talk to each other -- when they're in the same house.