Oh, what a tangled web we weave…
What is technology addiction? Is it real? What does it look like? Is there a cure?
When it comes to addictions, we tend to see some as terrible, some as a nuisance, and some as almost laudable. Crack cocaine and heroin are bad addictions. We’ve seen them ruin health, destroy productivity, and tear families apart. But then there are addictions to coffee, sugary or diet soda, chocolate, or shopping. We see these addictions as a nuisance. Lastly, exercise, work, and achievement. We laugh these off with a sense of haughty pride as victimless habits, but are they?
Let us first examine technology addiction, what it is, and what its mechanics are.
Is Tech Addiction Real?
By definition, an addiction is anything you have to have, without which you suffer uneasiness, discontentedness, or physical or emotional withdrawal symptoms, i.e. irritability, anxiety, high blood pressure. By this measure, it is clear that all of the behaviors mentioned above fulfill the requirements that describe addiction.
Tech addiction is under consideration for inclusion in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders) in the United States. It is already listed in the European equivalent.
Discussions about technology addiction are often oversimplified, but what we do know is that there are multiple nuanced factors at play in tech addiction. There is evidence that, as with substance abuse, there is a genetic predisposition to tech abuse. And, like substance addiction, it is a progressive disease that accelerates with early, excessive exposure, playing on the brain’s habit loop and reward mechanisms and fueled by the hormone dopamine.
There is also evidence that those predisposed to addiction have sluggish limbic systems, thereby requiring more exposure in order to receive dopamine’s pleasurable sensation. With continued exposure, the limbic system becomes even more sluggish and thus needs more stimulant than a “normal” person’s brain. This overstimulation weakens the neural pathways that are responsible for controlling impulses and can only be satisfied with more, more, more.
Unfortunately, one cannot just take away the stimulus and be healed. New habits (preferably good ones) need to fill the void. It’s akin to writing a new program over an existing faulty program. Without well ingrained new habits, i.e. prayer, meditation, social connection, exercise, etc., one is inviting, “seven other spirits more wicked than the first, to enter and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.” (Matt. 12:45).
How Do I Know if I’m Addicted?
While there is no standardized test to diagnose tech addiction, there are many symptoms that might be cause for concern. . Beyond that, it may be useful to ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I incessantly check my email or Facebook page, even when in the company of others?
- Do I spend more time with ‘virtual’ friends than real ones?
- Do I turn to my devices for a break from a tough work day?
- Do I sleep with my phone on, or beside, my bed?
- Do I feel anxious if I don’t have my phone with me?
- Would I feel comfortable turning my phone off when I’m out to dinner?
- Do I spend more time virtual gaming than on outdoor activities?
- Do I bring my phone to church for the sole purpose of note taking? Really?
- Do I spend as much quality time with my family and friends as I would if I didn’t have a smart phone or other device?
We read these questions and say, “I do some of these things but what’s the harm?”
First, it turns out that the harm may be equal to smoking or obesity in terms of damage to health and social ties. Second, we were created to be relational people. Our physical and mental health suffer dramatically in isolation; we need to be in physical proximity to other people in order to thrive. Solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment as it does irreparable psychological and emotional harm.
Whose Fault is It?
Part of the fault belongs to technology creators. All of the lights, sounds and notifications emanating from our devices are designed to create habits in us, a trigger – a reward loop. When we hear the sound of a notification on our smart phone it is nearly impossible to ignore it without producing some uneasiness. Mail used to come once a day and not on weekends. It now floods our inboxes ceaselessly.
Some of the fault lies with work place pressures. Many of us work for companies who expect constant connection, and while it isn’t easy for many of us to do, we MUST establish healthy boundaries. Often, bosses are unaware of the pressure you feel from them and will respect fair and reasonable boundaries.
But while there is plenty of blame to go around, it is you who is ultimately responsible for your actions. Fortunately, there are steps you can take:
Make a Not-to-do List in Addition to Your To-do-list.
I will not – check email until dressed, fed, and ready for work – it stresses the adrenal glands, causes confusion and leads to reactive decision making. If your day starts in fight or flight mode, it is incredibly difficult to regain calm focus.
I will – begin my day with prayer and meditation. Just five minutes of prayer and 10-minutes of meditation will calm your system and prepare you to make focused and creative decisions. Creativity requires uninterrupted focus.
I will not – check my email, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat at all times of the day and night.
I will – check them at pre-set intervals. Perhaps at 10am, 1pm, and 4pm – and never after 8pm.
I will not – spend endless hours playing video games.
I will – partake of physical activity for at least one hour a day – preferably out of doors!
I will not – bring my phone into church.
I will – bring a notebook and perhaps leave my phone at home for one full day each week; maybe the Sabbath.
If you try to adopt these measures and find you are unable, there are many programs available to help you including Celebrate Recovery, which is a Christ-centered community here at Pacific Crossroads that deals with various hurts, habits, and obsessive or compulsive behaviors. For more serious addiction to technology there are a growing number of medical treatment centers.
As Christians, we believe that the only thing we really need is Jesus Christ. If you find yourself praying at the altar of Google or vacationing in the World of Warcraft, it might be wise to take your problem seriously. Find an accountability partner – it is nearly impossible to recover in isolation. Set schedules and adhere to them, or there is little doubt you will find yourself sick and tired of being sick and tired. Over-reliance on being plugged in is as insidious an idol as there is because it adorns itself in the cloak of productivity. So, while you must use technology, don’t let it use you.