Technology has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. Everyone has a cellphone in their hands, usually a smartphone, including many who are unemployed and/or homeless. 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 have these devices. 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 through treatment in recovery is more like managing food addiction or addiction to sex when in a romantic relationship; it is a behavior that cannot be entirely abstained from. Thus, it is imperative to not only learn healthier coping mechanisms to manage the issues that drive compulsive use of technology but also to learn how to engage with technology in a healthy way and to make and maintain boundaries that are sustainable.
‘Normal’ vs. Healthy
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 complete with “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 walking down the street or in their cars, people are on their phones.
So much like with the use of food, because it is such an engrained part of our lives and essential to function, 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?
Given that the cultural use of the smartphone is heavy to say the least, it is likely that if an individual uses the phone even more frequently, then it is likely a behavior that has entered the realm of 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 technology addiction can strike those who do not use their smartphone anymore excessively than average. Note that “average” is actually achieved with a very high and intense rate of smartphone for use, and for some people, this level of engagement creates problems. Just like any addiction, these can include any or all of the following problems related to use of technology:
- Financial difficulties: Smartphones are expensive and new ones come out all the time. Additionally, bills to keep smartphones up and running, 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 to 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 themselves or the experience of someone they love above, if it is impossible to disconnect for any length of time, or if negative consequences continue to pile up, it can be a sign of technology addiction.
Video Game Addiction
- Isolation from other people
- Depression and loneliness
- Poor nutritional habits that lead to chronic health problems
- Disrupted sleep that leads to unbalanced mental health
- Stunted social development among young people that can contribute to problems later in life in terms of interpersonal functionality
Though the primary age group struck 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. Every year there is another social media platform, and many add it to their list or become engaged in the social media phenomenon through its use. Like any use of technology, however, it has the capacity to become addictive. 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. The capability of getting 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.
- 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 due compulsively comparing their lives and accomplishments to the posts of others online and feeling less successful comparatively
Tech Addiction and Mental Health
There is also the possibility of being addicted to the tech industry in general. Being an early adopter does not necessarily qualify someone for a diagnosis of addiction. Potential signs of tech addiction 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 if not engaged in 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. Depression related to technology addiction, isolation, and low self-esteem can similarly give rise to the use of drugs and alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate the issue.
No matter what the purpose of drug and/or alcohol use, however, when it begins to cause negative consequences of its own yet the person is unable to stop drinking or getting high, it too has turned into an addiction. When a substance use disorder like addiction occurs at the same time as a tech addiction, treatment that can effectively address both issues is needed.
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 has been shown to actually change the size and function of neurons in the brain. While tech addiction 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 experienced withdrawal symptoms when without their technology device of choice.
Additionally, in both technology addiction and substance addiction, the pleasure pathway in the brain is triggered with use. The more frequently that the pleasure pathway is triggered, 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, any feeling, behavior, situation, or challenge that triggers someone to drink or get high should be 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, and it also means strictly limiting engagement with electronics devices. Examples include:
- Set aside a set period of time to answer emails during the day and setting a timer to maintain those limits.
- Avoid use of all social media sites, or limit focus to a single site and check in for a brief time once per day.
- Have an electronics-free day every week.
- Notice when boundaries start to slip and implement 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 self-worth can be an ongoing trigger for relapse if not addressed. Similarly, depression symptoms must be treated. Though stopping use of drugs and alcohol as well as redefining engagement with technology can help to minimize symptoms and episode frequency, if symptoms continue, dedicated treatment is necessary for long-term growth and stability in recovery.