Technology has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. Regardless of income level, most people have a cellphone in their hands at all times—usually a smartphone. TVs are installed in almost every single room in the typical American household and very often powered up with a marathon of a favorite show, playing episode after episode without pause. Kids become obsessed with the latest video game consoles and games, paying exorbitant amounts to be the first of their friends to get their hands on them. Even many parents compulsively check and post updates to a variety of social media sites throughout the day to keep up with friends and family and share the happenings of their lives.
But technology is not purely for entertainment. It has become a necessary tool for doing business and managing one’s life. Calendars help people to manage appointments on the go, GPS maps give people real-time directions as well as notifications about heavy traffic, emergency warnings are broadcast to the public, and many make use of the copious apps available to automate everything from nanny cams to preheating the oven.
This means that managing addiction to technology while in treatment and, especially later, while living in recovery can seem more like managing food addiction while needing to eat to live or addiction to sex while maintaining a healthy romantic relationship; it is a behavior that cannot be entirely abstained from. Instead, it is imperative to not only learn healthier coping mechanisms to best manage the issues that drive compulsive use of technology but also to learn how to engage with technology in a healthier way by making and maintaining sustainable boundaries.
‘Normal’ vs. Healthy
Let’s consider cell phones. The smartphone is a universal tool, seen in the hand of most Americans. People use them to listen to music, manage emails, adjust the temperature in their homes, text with friends and loved ones, check in on social media, take selfies, map their route, as well as talk to people. At restaurants, most patrons have their phones in hand if not out on the table. Even while walking down the street or in their cars, people are on their phones.
So much like with the use of food, because it is essential to our lives and has become such an engrained part of our daily routine, defining the line between what is normal and what is not becomes difficult. How much is too much use of the phone? At what point does it become a problem that requires attention or treatment? And perhaps, more importantly, just as with food, even if your consumption level is “normal,” is it healthy?
In modern culture, given that the average amount of smartphone use is heavy to begin with, should an individual use the phone even more frequently than average, there could be a relatively short journey before such behavior approaches the realm of compulsion or addiction. Some signs include:
- Using the phone or attempting to keep it on even when asked specifically not to (e.g., at work, at a movie, in a meeting, at a family event, etc.).
- Using online interactions through social media as a primary way to communicate with other people.
- Feeling uncomfortable or agitated when without your phone for any reason, even if for a brief time.
- Being unable to go without use of the phone for a brief period (e.g., a single day).
- Going to extreme measures to maintain connection (e.g., maintain online connection, keep battery charged, etc.).
- Friends and family members express concern about the level of smartphone use.
It is important to note that compulsive technology use can impact even those who do not appear to use their smartphone more excessively than average. Still, even “average” amounts of use for some people could be enough to create problems in their lives. As with the potential life issues associated with compulsive substance use, technology addiction can lead to any and all of the following:
- Financial difficulties: Smartphones are expensive. New ones come out all the time, and many people upgrade constantly to match the pace. Additionally, cell phone service bills, device maintenance, the cost of apps, streaming music and video services, and more can all add up. It makes full engagement with smartphone use a pretty hefty expense, and if use of the phone ends up interfering with the ability to work and earn, then it can have a doubly negative impact on a person’s finances.
- Health problems: It is easy to let important health maintenance fall by the wayside when one is focused on other things. Poor nutrition, missing dental and doctor checkups, and other issues can result when spending too much time focused on any addictive behavior. Additionally, there is evidence that the light from electronics screens can contribute to heart disease, obesity, disrupted sleep, and more.
- Relationship issues: When an individual is more focused on the phone than on having an in-person conversation with the person who is next to them, intimacy issues can develop. Taking time away from family time, dates, or events to keep up with updates online gives the impression that others are not important, and this can be damaging to healthy relationships.
- Mental health symptoms: Studies have shown that heavy use of technology can increase the risk of experiencing such mental health issues as depression, stress, and fatigue. Disrupted sleep may contribute to fatigue; stress may be related to the constant barrage of updates and the ability of everyone to contact you at any time for any reason; and depression can come from not taking enough time to unwind as well as a lack of personal connection in life.
For those who recognize any of the above issues in themselves or someone they are close with, if it is impossible to disconnect for any length of time, or if negative consequences continue to pile up, the compulsive behaviors of technology addiction could already be at play.
Video Game Addiction
Role-playing games. Cellphone gaming. Connecting with other players from around the world and gaming all day and night. There are several different types of video game addiction, but many of the associated issues are often the same. These might include:
- Isolation from other people.
- Depression and loneliness.
- Poor nutritional habits that lead to chronic health problems
- Disrupted sleep that could exacerbate other mental health issues.
- Stunted social development among young people that can contribute to problems later in life in terms of healthy interpersonal relationships.
Though the age group primarily impacted by video game addiction includes those between the ages of 12 and 18, the problem can extend far into adulthood, especially if it continues unchecked during adolescence and the teen years.
Social Media Addiction
Almost everyone has a Facebook page, many people are on Twitter and Instagram, professionals and entrepreneurs spend time on LinkedIn, and Snapchat is a focus for many as well. It seems that each new year brings us another platform which could serve as someone’s introduction to social media or merely be added to a long list of social media outlets that someone already engages with. Like any use of technology, however, it has the capacity to advance to compulsive levels of use with some people and spur the development of an addiction. Live-streaming capabilities, 24-hour access, and the goal of getting more “likes,” people following you, friend requests, etc., can be an ongoing motivating force. Being able to receive notifications whenever a new update is posted or someone attempts to reach out keeps users engaged around the clock. Many cannot—and do not want to—escape the pull of social media addiction.
Too often, those who are struggling with a social media addiction will:
- Forgo sleep to engage with others online.
- Interrupt in-person appointments, engagements, and conversations in order to respond to online comments or updates.
- Feel badly about themselves if others do not “like” their posts or otherwise comment, retweet, share, or support their updates.
- Experience depression in connection with compulsively comparing their lives and accomplishments to the posts of others online and feeling less successful as a result.
Tech Addiction and Mental Health
There is also the possibility of being addicted to the tech industry in general. While merely being an early adopter might not signal the presence of an addiction (though it can prove quite expensive), there are other tech-related compulsive behaviors that could add up to be problematic to the individual engaging in them. Such behaviors could include:
- A constant and compulsive engagement with tech blogs, news sources, industry updates and more to know what is coming and how products are evolving.
- A heavy and frequent financial investment in the latest technology and apps, despite the impact on family or personal finances.
- Feelings of inadequacy if not in possession of the latest and most evolved version of any technological device.
- Feelings of discomfort, agitation, or feeling less than whole when talking about, learning about, or using tech appliances.
Co-occurring Disorders: Tech Addiction and Substance Abuse
It is not uncommon for tech addiction of any kind to co-occur with drug and/or alcohol abuse and addiction. When at home alone drinking, many turn to social media for entertainment. Still others like to escape with video games after smoking marijuana or using other sedative drugs. Conversely, any anxiety or depression associated with technology addiction, isolation, and low self-esteem could itself contribute the use of drugs and alcohol in an attempt to make oneself feel better.
No matter what initially motivates someone’s drug and/or alcohol use, when negative consequences related to such use begins to mount, yet the person is unable to stop drinking or getting high, a substance addiction is likely to have developed. When a substance use disorder like addiction exists at the same time as a tech addiction, treatment that can effectively address both issues may be required.
Addiction and the Brain
Addictions of all kinds—whether the behavior of choice is getting high or drunk, shopping, gambling, using technology, or having sex—are medical disorders. Ongoing use of drugs and alcohol may actually change certain aspects of neural structure and function. While tech addiction continues to be studied and has not yet been shown to cause those same changes, the problem has very often been compared to drug addiction. In fact, in one study, it was found that people who had a technology addiction experienced cravings much like a person who was addicted to drugs and, furthermore, experienced a type of withdrawal when they went without their technology device of choice.
Additionally, in both technology addiction and substance addiction, our brain’s reward centers may be activated in association with use. The more frequent triggering of a reinforcing reward response, the more likely it is that addiction will develop, and the more essential it is that professional treatment be sought to address the issue.
It is imperative in treatment for a substance use disorder that all of the issues that contribute to the use of drugs and alcohol be addressed during treatment. That is, all possible feelings, behaviors, situations, or challenges that could potentially contribute to continued drinking or getting high should be identified and addressed. If one of the triggers for substance abuse is engagement with technology, it is important to explore that issue more thoroughly in therapy. Finding other methods of entertainment and relaxation is essential, which will indefinitely require stricter limits on the use of electronic devices, etc. Other goals might include:
- Setting aside a set period of time to answer emails during the day and setting a timer to maintain those limits.
- Avoiding use of all social media sites, or limiting focus to a single site to which you check in for a brief time once per day.
- Having an electronics-free day every week.
- Recognizing when boundaries start to slip and implementing check-ins with an accountability partner to put them back in place.
It is also important to rebuild self-esteem and undergo treatment for co-occurring issues with depression if needed. Learning how to redefine one’s self-worth in a new context rather than comparing oneself to others can take time, but issues with negative self-worth can be an ongoing trigger for relapse if not addressed. Similarly, any significant mental health issues such as depression and anxiety should be specifically targeted and managed as part of a comprehensive, integrated approach to the treatment of process disorders such as technology addiction. Though stopping use of drugs and alcohol as well as redefining engagement with technology on one’s own can help to minimize symptoms and episode frequency, longer-term professional addiction treatment could be necessary for lasting recovery.
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