Technology Addiction: You’re Hooked And It’s Affecting Your Health

Here’s what every parent should know about the health effects of a technology addiction. Plus: The questions you MUST ask to uncover your relationship with technology.
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Over the last decade, we’ve seen a massive increase in the demand for smart screen devices. Each year mobile phone sales continue to grow and with it our insatiable appetite to consume digital media pouring from those screens.

Here’s what we know: Americans are pouring hours of their days engaging with screens. A study conducted a few years ago by Common Sense Media showed that teens spent on average nine hours per day consumed with digital media, tweens spent around six hours, and children from toddlers to eight years of age were spending upwards around three hours dialed into their screens. If that didn’t seem shocking, consider how much adults spend in front of a screen: on average U.S. adults spend close to 12 hours per day. Here’s the thing, when we look at these numbers they appear shocking, but when we introspectively observe our own habits...these numbers sort of feel...normal. Have we become hyper-desensitized to our own digital media consumption? Could you be addicted to technology?

How Does Technology Keep Us Hooked?

Even though there is a growing belief and recognition that an addiction to technology problem exists, many of us don’t have a bead on how all that technology is actually creating that addiction. There’s even debate among professionals on if there’s any addiction at all and if all this technology (social media included) is causing damage. According to Arunus L. Radzvilavicius, a theoretical researcher in human behavior, he claims that “your phone addiction is a myth” and what some consider an addiction, he considers a powerful social norm at work. Others would disagree and claim that technology addiction is real and we need to take it seriously.

“They have been created to appease the basic human need of belongingness and connection”

Debating whether it’s compulsion, addiction, or a social norm is for another day, but we wanted to dive into the concrete reality that technology is keeping us hooked. What is it play here? Is it cultural? Is it physical? By what means are we finding ourselves stuck in this technology attention loop?

addicted to technology

From a Compulsive Perspective

It has been well documented that social networks, the gaming industry, and technology manufacturers themselves have engineered tactics in their software and ecosystems designed to keep users coming back again and again. They have been created to appease the basic human need of belongingness and connection; this is where the term FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) stems from.

Likes, notification, nudges, shares, and comments all play a role in creating that mental pressure we feel to want to respond to others (positively and negatively) within our social spheres. These compulsive feelings of having personalized content and experiences within these technologies where we feel a heightened sense to always check-in or refresh have roots in addictive design and they prey on our neediness to belong and to connect.

From an Addiction Perspective

Those who frequently use digital technology devices at times express symptoms have behavioral addiction. Many times, users engage with digital media in situations and scenarios where it is either deemed inappropriate, dangerous, or includes conflict and/or mood modification. Basically, exhibit behaviors that are classic symptoms of an underlying addictive response. They are likely to trade off real-life interaction (which would benefit them socially) for gaming or other social networks. Their priorities are such that human interaction takes a back seat to technology.

Unlike addictions to alcohol or drugs, what makes pegging down addiction to technology difficult to get a grip on is that everytime we engage or interact with technology, it is an active, conscious, and sometimes an informed decision. Or is it? According to Wolfram Schultz, professor of neuroscience at Cambridge University, dopamine (that chemical inside our brains that controls a lot of our behavior patterns) plays a larger role in our addiction to technology that we may realize.

What is that basic human vulnerability? Parker explains, “We give you a little dopamine hit.”

The power of dopamine to influence our habits and behavior is something familiar with drug addicts and smokers. These habit-forming mediums can affect the dopamine systems which can affect our overall behaviors and decision-making. We potentially get those dopamine hits when we engage with digital media. One of Facebook's main architects, Sean Parker, publicly announced, “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” By taking advantage of a “vulnerability in human psychology” he said. What is that vulnerability? Parker explains, “we give you a little dopamine hit.” Combine that human psychological-engineering nugget from one of facebook’s founding presidents with what Dr. Schultz describes as one of dopamine’s powers and it makes you wonder what kind of control digital media may be having on us.

“When that happens, we lose our willpower.”

Dr. Schultz says, “These unnaturally large rewards are not filtered in the brain – they go directly into the brain and overstimulate, which can generate addiction.” He continues, “when that happens, we lose our willpower. Evolution has not prepared our brains...so they become overwhelmed and screwed up. We are abusing a useful and necessary system.”

What Role Does Social Media Play In Our Addiction

In a companion post published by Today's Mama on the role of social media and depression, we explored the role of social media and how it fuels our addiction to technology. How by the very nature of social media (regardless of platform) creates an open social loop, which essentially never closes and extremely addictive (whether psychologically or compulsively is irrelevant). We admit, it may be difficult to determine if an activity we enjoy doing crosses some proverbial line into something that is dangerous for our psyche or addictive.

social media addiction

At Chicago University, researchers determined that social media addiction has the potential to be more addictive than alcohol and cigarettes. They experimented with cravings of several hundred people for several weeks and found that media cravings were ranked in favor of cravings for alcohol and cigarettes. Another study performed by Harvard University researchers found something more sensual when it comes to social media. They hooked up participants to MRI machines and scanned their brains to see what happens when people talk about themselves (which is the main functioning component of almost all social media platforms). They found talking about ourselves stimulates the brain’s pleasure center more than food and more than...sex.

“...You might be developing an addiction…”

In recent years, there has been multiple studies researching and analyzing how excessive social media use can affect our health. In one such study, among minorities researchers found that social media use is associated with a plethora of psychological problems including depression, anxiety, loneliness, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and...you guessed it...addiction. There are a lot of people using social media, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are addicted. Many of those who use social media just have unhealthy habits of use. What makes it addicting is when those behaviors become toxic to our overall well-being and affect our behaviors and relationships. Just because you check social media at the dinner table doesn’t make you an addict. On the flip side, if you find yourself spending hours on social media, not being able to control urges to constantly check your facebook status, or have tried to reduce the time you spend on social media but can’t...you might be developing an addiction and may want to see a psychologist.

How Do I Know If I’m Addicted to Technology?

So how do you know if your behavior is a harmless hobby or the beginning of a compulsive or addictive habits? Let’s be real, digital media is how we connect. We use it at work, at school, at home, in our churches...just about everywhere. To Radzvilavicius’ point above, it is a social norm woven within our culture. At what point do we determine if we’ve crossed that line into the addiction abyss.

digital addiction

Ask Yourself These Questions About Your Relationship With Technology

Here are some introspective signs you may have a problem. Ponder them for a moment. As you read each one, really answer it honestly:

  • Do you lose track of how much time you spend online?
  • Do you become restless or troubled if you are unable to use technology?
  • Do you lack a social life?
  • Do you feel guilty about using the internet?
  • Do you feel frustrated when you are forced to disconnect from technology or social media?
  • Have you often tried to reduce your use of technology or social media without success?
  • Do you feel urges to use social media more and more?
  • Do you use technology or devices to forget about personal problems?
  • Do you reach for technology when you feel overwhelmed or to zone out?
  • Do you have the unwillingness to complete other tasks?
  • Does your use of technology affected your hygiene?
  • Do you use social media so much that it has had a negative impact on your job or studies?

If you answered yes to more than a handful of these questions, you may be developing a compulsive or addictive behavior with technology.

Is Internet Addiction Real?

First, let’s clarify that when most use the term “internet addiction” they are referring to anything associated with behavior or use utilizing the web. This includes online shopping, gaming, social media, streaming movies, emails, etc. It also includes the use of those web applications through multiple devices: computer, PC, laptop, tablet, and smartphones. Most research on technology addiction a decade ago, focused a lot on tv and radio, but with the explosion of new technologies, the definition has evolved. Some consider Internet addiction as a subset of technology addiction but most current studies treat them one and the same. With that cleared up, the question of is internet addiction real is a valid question.

“The word addiction gets thrown around quite easily and is often overused and misused.”

Some pass off overuse of technology and digital media as just some by-product of our culture and the way our culture is evolving, but some have noticed and even felt something deeper happening. They see it in our relationships, they see it in our interactions with people and strangers, and they see it in the way we interact with technology. Regardless of what you call it, there is a growing concern with parents and those who study human behavior (science) about this phenomenon with technology and the internet. The word addiction gets thrown around quite easily and is often overused and misused.

technology addiction

According to Dr. David Anderson, a clinical psychologist and director of the Behavioral Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, “More often than not, when people say that someone is addicted to the internet or addicted to their phone, they’re using it colloquially.” It’s how we communicate our concern that an inordinate amount of screen time is not good for us or our children.

“Addiction doesn’t really capture the behavior we’re seeing.”

According to Dr. Matthew Cruger, a neuropsychologist and the director of the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute, there is scientifically no such thing as an internet addiction. He says, “Addiction doesn’t really capture the behavior we’re seeing.” Cruger continues, “With addiction you have a chemical that changes the way we respond, that leads us to be reliant on it for our level of functioning. That’s not what ‘s happening here. We don’t develop higher levels of tolerance. We don’t need more and more screen time in order to be able to function.”

That’s not to say that overuse of the internet doesn’t create destructive behaviors or behaviors expressed by those who use the internet frequently don’t align with addictive qualities. In a study on internet addiction, researchers set out to determine if problematic computer use was a growing social issue and that Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) ruined lives by causing neurological complications, psychological disturbances, and social problems. They concluded that even though IAD didn’t have an official recognition as a distinct behavioral addiction and more research must be performed, the symptoms they “observed in clinical practice show a great deal of overlap with the symptoms commonly associated with (behavioral) addictions.” In a nutshell, it’s not technically an addiction, but the symptoms of addiction are really close. As a parent, that’s close enough for me to recognize the dangers when technology or internet use goes unchecked.

Can Too Much Technology Hurt Our Health?

Although there may be differing opinions (and differing science) on if there is an addiction to technology, there’s one thing we cannot ignore: We are using technology a lot and it’s affecting our health in one way or another. From physical ailments caused by ergonomics and poor posture to mental effects caused by psychological intricacies of using technology, the chances that technology is affecting your health are pretty good. Check out the effects of technology on our health below and determine if the time is right for a digital detox for you and your family.

technology impact on health

Technology Impact On The Brain

According to Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California who performed research on technology and the brain, the way we interact and process technology is literally rewiring our brains. He says, “We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do." Despite if this rewiring of the brain is good or bad for us, Gazzaley contends that “we know already there are consequences."

“We know...there are consequences."

Just as important as affecting our brains is how technology affects our ability to multitask and focus. With the incessant need of wanting to check in constantly with our social networks, it could be interfering with our ability to stay on task and even focus on tasks that should have a higher priority than the amount of Likes that last selfie we posted received.

technology impact on brain

Other Health Related Impacts From Technology

Aside from the impact on the brain, there are a slew of other health issues which are caused by technology. Some of these don’t even have to do with the length in which we engage on our devices. Technology affecting our health is just one of the by-products we experience regardless. Here are just a handful of health related effects which may be impacted from technology:

  • Digital Eye Strain (Strained Vision)
  • Headaches From Overexposure to Screens
  • Loss of Hearing
  • Physical Idleness
  • Forearm and Wrist Pain
  • Isolation and Loneliness
  • Neck and Back Strain (Don’t Slouch!)
  • Depression and Anxiety
  • Muscle and Joint Pain
  • Sleep Disorders
  • Poor Memory
  • Lack of Focus
  • Emotional Imbalance and Mood Swings

There are a lot of health related impacts from technology! And there are likely more not represented in this list. Looking at these health effects tends to beg the question: Is it time for a digital detox? We’re not saying, “QUIT TECHNOLOGY!” altogether. We’re not saying ignore its impacts either. But it is vital we make a conscious effort and determine our relationship, be it healthy or not, with technology.

digital detox

More From Today’s Mama

Social Media and Depression: The Toxic Comparison Paradox Problem

Screen Time Rules for Your Family

Time for a Digital Detox: Tips for Reducing Screen Time

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