Technology addiction is a growing problem, and if we adults can’t control our own technology use, how can we expect our kids not to get allured into the same behavior patterns? Psychology experts say the technology addiction problem is not with the devices, it’s with the people who are using them – people who are predisposed to addictions of all kinds and people who have trouble with self-discipline.
What Is Technology Addiction?
If you find yourself saying, “I just have to check for this one message,” and then hours later are still looking at the screen reading Facebook or Twitter, you may have a problem. One psychologist says the constant reinforcement we get from messages and social media brings with it a “dopamine hit,” which can become a constant craving if not curtailed.
Today there is no question that most of us need our smartphones and computers for work situations or even just to keep abreast of today’s culture. And, there’s also no question that as tools that are used properly, they can make our lives easier and solve all kinds of problems. But, if abused, they can create problems as well. Just like everything else, moderation is the key. We must not allow ourselves to be so reliant on them that they take over our lives. How can you tell if you are using technology too much?
Dr. Kimberly Young, director of the Center for Internet Addiction, says how much technology use is too much is not the same for everyone, just like drinking alcohol. People have differing tolerance levels than others. While some become addicted by engaging in specific drinking habits, others don’t become addicted and it’s the same with technology use. “What we focus on instead is the effects and symptoms caused by a person’s relationship to the Internet,” Dr. Young said.
She recommends taking an honest look at whether your technology tools control you (how dependent are you on them?) or if you have control over their use. Can you set them aside and ignore them while being present for your family? Determine honestly and objectively how your phone and other devices impact your relationships, stress levels, family time and work efficiency. In today’s world, technology is not easy to eliminate because it makes communication and doing business so much easier and more efficient. Instead of trying to eliminate it or even reduce its use, Young recommends finding healthy ways to use technology by making a conscious effort to change your relationship with it.
The first step is to admit and be aware that overusing technology can have a negative effect on your personal life, relationships, stress levels and work efficiency. Just like alcoholics have to first admit that they are alcoholics before they can begin the recovery process, the same holds true for people with technology addictions.
Set boundaries for yourself in using your phone, computer and other devices. You can set specific times each day when you will be “screen free,” when you will not be looking at your electronic devices. Turn off your phone, so you are not even aware when you are receiving messages, or just leave it in another room where you can’t hear it or see it. If you feel the need to respond to texts and emails immediately, you can set up automatic response messages that let people know you are away and when you will return. Make some screen-free time part of your everyday routine.
During these screen-free times each day, schedule other activities that do not involve use of technology, such as time with family or friends, going out for a meal, a phone call to a loved one, reading a book, spending time outdoors, gardening, home improvement tasks or an activity you enjoy, such as walking, golf, tennis or other sport. It’s OK to take your phone along so you have it for an emergency, but turn it off (and leave it off) so you are not tempted to check your messages or send any.
Tips for Lessening Technology’s Hold over You
- When going out to lunch or dinner with family or friends, insist that everyone put their phone in a container or pile on the table. The first person who looks at his or her phone has to buy the meal.
- Use different ringtone alerts on your phone to let you know who is calling. This will help you determine how important the call is so you know whether or not it’s important enough to answer it or whether it’s OK to let them leave a voice mail so you can call them back later. You can also set up Do Not Disturb alerts to let callers know you are busy right now and will call back later. All these things will help you make progress toward letting go of the need to continuously check for messages, lessening the addiction.
- Learn to stay in the present moment and become fully engaged in your activities and the people you are with. Resist the impulse to check your phone or other device.
- Declare a “Technology Holiday.” Set aside a time, whether it’s one day, a weekend or an entire week when you will not use your phone, email, iPads and other devices with screens. If that’s unthinkable, you can agree to stay off them all day long and just check them once at night before going to bed, as long as you limit the time to half an hour or less.
- Use a clock or a watch instead of your phone or computer screen to check the time so you are not tempted to read email, checking Facebook or Twitter, or drawn into any other program that has you hooked.
- If these tips don’t help you lessen the hold your technology devices have over you, find a licensed mental health therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy. This professional can help you find other methods that will work for you.
To help other family members change the hold their smartphones and devices have over them to a more balanced, healthy relationship, Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman, Clinical Director for the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology, has several suggestions, particularly for parents of teens and children.
- Have a pre-determined place in your home where cell phones are placed when every family member walks in the door. This way, they are separated from their phone, as are you, and the phone does not become an extension of anyone’s anatomy.
- When you want to have a conversation with someone close to you, have a rule that everyone turns off their phones so there are no interruptions. If someone forgets (or refuses) to turn their phone off and it vibrates or rings, stop the conversation, ask the person to turn it off and then carry on with the discussion, making sure they understand they can turn it back on when the conversation has ended. This, at the very least, gives everyone a brief break from the tyranny of their smartphones.
One technology expert, Erik Fransen, of KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, says the distraction of smartphones is affecting our short term memory, particularly in our children. “Working memory enables us to filter out information and find what we need in the communication…it’s also a limited resource,” Fransen said.
According to his research, short-term memory which he calls working memory, can carry only three to four pieces of information at a time. When another piece of information is added, such as the vibration or ding of a smartphone, we are distracted enough that we lose our ability to process the information we had been holding.
So, turning off the power on smartphones during specified times will allow the brain to function as it should, at least during that time period. That’s why it’s especially important to have your teenagers turn off their phones during conversations with you so they will remember any instructions you are giving them. Otherwise, the distraction of their phones may actually cause them to lose that information.
Technology Addiction Statistics
In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Society of Pediatrics both recommend that children between the ages of 6 and 18 years of age should only be allowed to use technology devices up to 2 hours per day. That’s not what is happening in our society. Most teens use it four to five times longer than that every day.
These two organizations state that children under two years of age should not be exposed to technology at all, and that children 3 to 5 years old should be restricted to using technology devices only one hour per day.
Research from several different studies conducted by scientists form the basis of these recommendations and are cited with links to the studies on the agency websites.
Findings in the studies determined that use of technology by young children affected the way their brains developed and contributed to attention deficit disorder, cognitive delays, impaired ability to learn and also had a negative impact on the ability to self-regulate, increasing the likelihood of temper tantrums.
Other concerns were that use of technology could limit a child’s physical development due to lack of movement during use. Movement enhances learning ability as well as the ability to focus and pay attention, so lack of movement would have a negative impact on literacy and academic development. One study claims that use of technology in children under 12 is harmful to their development and learning capabilities.
The lack of movement during technology use can cause a child to become obese, contributing to major health problems and putting them at higher risk of early stroke, heart disease and other serious health issues.
Sleep deprivation, mental illness, aggression, digital dementia, and radiation emission are other major concerns cited by both agencies, due to findings from scientific studies.
Technology addiction was also cited, not just in the children but in their parents, which affects their relationship with their children. The primary concern is that parents are becoming more attached to technology and are detaching from their children. This causes the neglected children to become more emotionally attached to their electronic devices, thereby becoming even more addicted to their devices than their parents are, compounding the problem into an even more serious one. One study (Gentile, 2009) found that one in 11 children ages 8 to 18 are addicted to technology.
Tim Ferriss, author of “The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich,” makes similar suggestions to those of mental health professionals mentioned elsewhere in this article.
“Experiment with short periods of inaccessibility,” he says. Your life won’t implode. As with any addiction, there is a period of withdrawal and anxiety.”
He suggests setting Saturday as the day to not use your cell phone and email at all. On other days of the week, don’t allow yourself to check your email until 10 a.m. and only check it at regular intervals for the rest of the day, such as 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and maybe once in the evening. This will allow you to fully engage in other activities in between. Also in these interim periods, set your phone on Do Not Disturb. Once you are over the initial anxiety, you will be amazed at your lower stress level and how much more you can accomplish.