Too much screen time? You may be facing technology addiction
The Counseling Center at the University of Texas-Dallas has a page on its website dedicated to computer addiction.
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS — Michael Decker is always reachable. The 42-year-old creative director from Dallas sleeps with his phone nearby on his nightstand. From when he wakes up and checks it until he sets it down before bed, his phone is constantly with him.
"It's an intrusion into your own private life," he says. "It leads to burnout if you can never turn it off."
Decker, who owns an iPhone, a laptop and an iPad, uses his gadgets for work and for play. Though he makes a point not to look at his phone at dinner, he says his friends still chide him. Put that thing down, they say.
"They always have a point," he says. "It becomes more important than truly interacting with friends and family."
For most of the population, technology is a tool to enhance our lives. Our phone beeps, and we feel compelled to check whatever new text, email or tweet has come our way. Decker's behavior is not uncommon, nor is it particularly unsettling.
Recently, indications of something more malicious have started to rumble. The Counseling Center at the University of Texas-Dallas has a page on its website dedicated to computer addiction. A quick search of Yahoo Groups returns more than 100 groups related to gaming addictions, with names like WOW — widow and EverQuest-Widows.
Search further, and extreme texting and gaming become more than an annoying character trait in a child or girlfriend. Excessive use can lead to addictive behavior, says therapist Cosette Rae, who launched a technology rehabilitation center in the Seattle area. She says her clients, far from being isolated cases, are part of a newly recognized problem: Technology has the potential to cause addictive behavior, experts say.
The evidence is in the existence of Rae's clinic, the ReSTART Internet Addiction Recovery Program, which she says is the first program of its kind in the United States, although similar programs are available in South Korea and Great Britain.
Therapists and counselors are petitioning the American Psychological Association to list technology addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the primary system used to classify and diagnose mental disorders.
Others say that even if technology use isn't extreme enough to be considered dependency, it can still harm a user's mental health and relationships.
Clearly, not every tech user is an addict masking some other mental health issue. Like food, technology is a crucial part of our daily lives. Texting during the day and watching TV at night doesn't mean a person has an addiction, but it is important to evaluate how often and to what extent we use technology, experts say.
Like other substance and behavioral addictions, technology use has a spectrum. While patients at ReSTART struggle with addiction and dependency, most people engage with technology in a healthy manner. Once that interaction creates negative consequences in multiple parts of a person's life, though, that relationship becomes abusive, says Jason Northrup, a researcher at Texas A&M University-Central Texas, in Killeen.
Researchers are finding that heightened technology use triggers the same sites in the brain that are activated through substance abuse and nonchemical addictive activities such as gambling, Northrup says.
Excessive technology use can also cause changes in dopamine levels — the part of the brain regulating rewards, punishments and euphoria and also linked with alcohol and drug use, experts say.
"Most researchers out there agree that the effects are often very, very similar to what you would see in a chemical addiction," Northrup says.
For example, a recent study at the University of Maryland asked students to go a day without electronic technology of any kind — phones, TVs, computers — and record their experiences.
Students used literal terms of addiction to describe their dependency, citing feelings of anxiety, isolation, depression and even physical reactions such as increased heart rate.
Low-level abuse can manifest itself in various areas of a person's daily life. Parents might find themselves spending less time with their kids, instead constantly responding to emails and phone calls. General wellness suffers as well. Houston counselor John O'Neill points to small, everyday changes such as no longer having to get up and cross a room to answer the home phone. Childhood obesity is rising as kids spend more and more time with screens instead of outside playing. Other studies show a link between the rise in attention deficit disorder and increased technology use.
Video gaming invaded the life of Jun Kristofferson, 22, and led him in June to check into rehab.
The California resident had been gaming eight hours a day. The former straight-A college student withdrew from classes. He had a job for a bit but just stopped going. He lived at a friend's place, rent free, and spent day after day gaming.
"There were months of just playing, but not even enjoying playing," Kristofferson says by phone. "Not knowing what to do. Having no direction. I was just lost."
When evaluating a potential case of technology addiction at ReSTART, Rae looks at all domains of someone's life, not just how many hours he is spending online.
"We are mental health workers looking at a client's entire history and how technology fits into that picture," Rae said. "Often, there's something in their life leading to this particular escape mechanism."
For example, patients often struggle with other issues such as depression, social anxiety or Asperger's syndrome. For Kristofferson, who started using technology at an early age when he got a Nintendo for Christmas, his excessive gaming is linked with depression and family issues.
The 45-day program costs $14,500, plus other potential fees.
Even if technology use is not yet dangerous to them, people need to be aware of the potential problems and be open to the idea that they might need to make some changes, experts say.
"There's nothing wrong with being connected, but it's incredibly distracting when you use these devices every minute or every other minute," doctoral student Sergey Golitsynskiy, who helped conduct the Maryland study, said in a recent interview. "It looks like you're spending 10 seconds there, a minute there, but it all adds up and fractions your day. You can't focus on anything meaningful."
Northrup encourages people to see what happens if they cut technology out of their lives for a day or a week.
"I don't believe everyone gets addicted to technology, or anything like that," he said. "It's kind of like fire. Fire can be a very useful thing or a very destructive thing. It depends how you use it."
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Five ways to build a healthier relationship with technology
Concerned about how much technology is dominating your daily life? Follow this advice from therapist Cosette Rae, researcher Jason Northrup and therapist John O'Neill.
Bring back family dinners: No technology allowed. Just family, food and conversation. Try instilling this rule one night a week or at every dinner. Turning off phones and other technology helps family members dodge what counselor John O'Neill refers to as "together alone" — a situation where we're surrounded by people, but everyone is so engaged in their technology that they might as well be alone.
Disconnect: Set aside some time every week — say, Saturday afternoons — to completely disengage from technology. Go for a walk, knit, play cards with a friend. Pull the plug and explore the world around you.
Keep work at work: Staying connected with work is important, but don't let it consume you. If your job requires you to be reached by phone or email 24/7, set other rules that can help keep boundaries. For example, instead of checking your email on your phone every 10 minutes, set a notification that will alert you to a new message. You're still reachable, but you aren't a slave to the Crackberry.
Know your weakness: Maybe you're an obsessive texter or an avid social-media user. Pinpointing your Achilles' heel will help you acknowledge which areas of your tech life you need to scale back.
Turn the phone off at night: Research shows that sleeping with our phones right next to us — under our pillows, clutched in our hands as a replacement teddy bear — can actually disrupt our sleep patterns.
— Caitlin Johnston