MOBILE-phone users who spend most of their waking hours glued to a handset may have to call a therapist after a university study found they were as addictive as smoking and junk food.
The heaviest mobile users even display the typical signs of "cold turkey" drug withdrawal - anxiety, restlessness and even panic - when parted from their phones.
The psychological cost of excessive mobile phone use was highlighted in a study published yesterday by Queensland University in Australia.
Diana James, the academic who led the study, said: "Mobile phone addiction is going to surpass internet addiction because at least you can walk away from your computer.
"Our dependency on mobiles means most people are never without them. The fact that handsets are carried around all day and provide instant pleasure means the risk of addiction is on a par with snacking on junk food and even smoking."
The Queensland study analysed people under 45 to establish the emotional, psychological, financial and social impact of their use of mobiles. It found some suffered low self-esteem if they were not free to receive calls and text messages and the phone appeared to be a kind of "security blanket" which improved feelings of self-worth. Other users appeared "obsessive" in their need to be near a mobile phone and became deeply agitated when parted from it.
In a few cases, large amounts of texting led to the physical symptoms of repetitive stress injury as well as the psychological issues, the report found.
Ms James said: "Like substance abuse, excessive use of mobile phones can lead to personal problems. People who use their phone heavily may be addicted - it depends on the impact it has on their day-to-day life. Is their phone costing them more than money in terms of emotional, social and physical stress?"
Britain's love affair with the mobile phone is now virtually universal, with 80 per cent of the population owning at least one. Ofcom, the telecoms watchdog, says the average Scot makes about 21 mobile phone calls a week and sends about 29 text messages. However, heavy use among office workers and younger people - particularly when it comes to texting - can send that tally far higher.
A 19-year-old from Paisley last year became what was thought to be the first person in Scotland to be treated for text addition. The teenager, whose name was not made public, spent 4,500 on text messaging in a year and at one point was sending approximately 700 texts a week. He received counselling at the Renfrewshire Council on Alcohol Trust in Paisley.
Philip Irvine, a project leader at the trust who treated the youth, described excessive mobile phone use as similar to a gambling addiction, in that users frequently become dependent to bolster their self-esteem.
"If a person is using a mobile phone to make themselves feel better, or it is actually impinging on their life - they are not going to work, or they are spending more money than they can afford - then I would certainly say they've got a problem," he said.
While texting in moderation remains comparatively cheap, financial problems with mobile phone bills have become an issue due to the soaring popularity of ringtone services. In many cases, people have been unaware that buying a single ringtone often means signing up to a subscription service costing 3 a week plus the cost of reverse-charge text messages.
Missing a call sparks feeling of dread
FRANSINA Nuuyuni's dependence on her mobile phone extends to taking the odd call while in the toilet.
The 25-year-old, from Edinburgh, admits to spending about 120 a month on phone charges and calls.
Ms Nuuyuni, a receptionist who works for a Dalkeith-based property company, admits to using her mobile phone at least once an hour for calls or texts throughout the week and said her usage increases at the weekend.
The thought of being parted from her Nokia provokes feelings of dread.
"It would make me very awkward and anxious - as though I might miss out on something," she said. "I can't stand the thought of missing a call."
While Ms Nuuyuni admits to cooking while on the mobile phone, several rooms in her house remain off limits, for now.
"I don't take the mobile into the shower or the bath with me, although I do leave it behind the bathroom door so that I can hear it if it rings," she said.
Her main mobile phone vice is texting, a practice she occasionally suffers for.
"I love texting and sometimes get a sore thumb from texting so much," she said.
However, the office worker regards herself as a symptom of an era driven by technology rather than a victim of it - and is determined to keep up.
Ms Nuuyuni got her first mobile phone eight years ago and upgrades her handset every two years.
"It's important to keep up with new technology if it makes life easier," she said.
"I'm going to upgrade my phone next month so that I can get one with a camera and video on it."
Ms Nuuyuni admits that one consequence of upgrading to a new handset is that she will probably spend "even longer" on the mobile phone than before.