Technology addictions, also commonly known as digital addictions or internet addictions, are often overlooked due to the acceptance that society has placed on using digital devices. Technology addictions often go unnoticed by loved ones because the addicted individual may appear as though they are tending to something important such as work-related tasks on their digital device, when in reality hiding behind the screen is something extraneous. When a technological problem does develop and is noticed it is often not viewed as being an imminent risk akin to an addiction to alcohol or drugs because not only is it more acceptable, but it is also not viewed as being acute or deadly. Despite these beliefs, pathological technology use can indeed be pervasive and detrimental to one’s health and wellbeing. In a growing digital age there is a rapid expansion of digital use and subsequent potential for problematic pathological technology use to ensue.
What Is Technology Addiction?
Technology addiction is a pattern of behavior characterized by a dependency on the internet and technology-enabled devices. Even though the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) doesn’t list technology addiction as a mental health disorder, people addicted to technology demonstrate an inability to control, regulate, or limit their use of the internet and technology, which is characteristic of behavioral addiction.
Like other behavioral addictions, technology addiction can have a negative impact on our academic performance, career, family, and social life. Being addicted to technology can cause us to:
- Experience sudden mood changes
- Obsessively focus on the internet and digital media
- Neglect our social, work, and school or professional lives
- Lose track of how much time we spend on the internet
- Feel like we need more time on the internet or a new game or device to be happy
- Experience withdrawal symptoms when not using the internet or technology
- Continue using the internet and technology even though it negatively affects our relations
Other signs of technology addiction can include:
- Getting less sleep due to technology or internet activities
- Compulsively checking text messages or notifications
- Losing interest in aspects of your life that don’t involve the internet or technology
- Feeling guilty or getting defensive about the time we spend online
- Turning to the internet or a technology-enabled device to improve your mood, experience pleasure, relief, or sexual gratification
- Trying but failing to cut back on internet or technology use
- Physical symptoms such as carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches, unexplained weight gain, vision changes, and back or neck aches
Types of Technology Addiction
Technology addiction can vary widely. Most people with an addiction to technology find the content consumed on the internet or via technology to be mood-enhancing or stimulating. This is what causes some of the changes in the brain’s reward center.
Some of the most common examples of technology addiction include:
- Excessive texting
- Online gambling
- Online auctions
- Compulsive web surfing
- Unrestricted video game playing
- Prolonged social media interaction
- Watching pornography
These addictions can range from moderate to severe. But all levels of technology addiction can impact the brain.
What makes technology addictive?
Technology fulfills our natural human need for stimulation, interaction, and changes in environment with great efficiency. When teenagers experience stress, be it romantic rejection or a poor grade on an exam, technology can become a quick and easy way to fill basic needs, and as such, can become addictive.
Technology impacts the pleasure systems of the brain in ways similar to substances. It provides some of the same reward that alcohol and other drugs might: it can be a boredom buster, a social lubricant, and an escape from reality.
Video and computer games, smart phones and tablets, social media and the Internet provide a variety of access points that can promote dependence on technology and negative consequences for youth:
The Internet. The Web can be addictive as a multifunctional tool that brings us exceptionally close to an enormous amount of information at unprecedented speeds. User-friendly by design, we now have access to the Internet on our computers, through apps on our tablets, phones and watches. “FOMO,” or “Fear of Missing Out,” is a commonly described phenomenon for teens and young adults, in which youth increasingly feel the need to stay connected to the Internet, so they aren’t the last to know of a news story or social happening.
Related to FOMO, some Facebook users, for instance, report that they use the Internet-based social media platform as a chosen method to alleviate their anxiety or depression.1 With so much accessibility to its use, the Internet is just as hard to stay away from at any given point in a day as it is easy and rewarding to use.
Video and computer games. One hallmark of human psychology is that we want to feel competent, autonomous, and related to other people. Challenging video games allow players to feel that they are good at something. Games offer a great variety of choice to players, promoting a sense of autonomy for teens who might feel otherwise out of control.
The same goals that drive people to pursue success in the real world are often present in video games. As one amasses virtual wealth or prestige by spending time on games and advancing through levels, virtual wealth can translate into some version of actual recognition—through monetary purchasing power within an online game or a positive reputation within an online community.
Gamers find themselves linked to others who share their hobby through YouTube channels or subreddits dedicated to discussion of their game of choice with other enthusiasts. Like the Internet itself, games make themselves increasingly accessible to teens via apps on smart phones, never leaving kids’ palms or pockets.
While there is room for social connection in the gaming universe, this space also provides a potential escape from reality into a digital world where players get to assume new identities more appealing or more novel than those they hold in the real life.
Smart phones, tablets, and lifestyle technologies. These highly-mobile, flexible machines have the power to constantly connect. Smart phones and tablets, and the emergence of other smart devices from the Apple Watch to the Amazon Echo, promote addiction by removing the time lapse from tasks and activities that previously required logging into a deskbound, or at least a backpack-bound, computer source.
Social media. Social media presents individually-relevant information in the easiest ways—centralized, personalized portals, like a Facebook newsfeed, YouTube subscription, or Snapchat followership.
Whether it’s a Skype conversation with our grandmother in Alaska or a Twitter reply to the President, social media feeds our need for human connection by allowing us to share feedback with those who are far from us in time, geography, or social status. As social animals, we need human contact for emotional and psychological health. The appeal of social media is that it helps us to fill social needs without the efforts or restraints of in-person contact.
What are the risks of teen technology use?
While technology is certainly not all bad, its overuse can pose certain key risks, especially to teens.
Technology can give students a false sense of relational security as they communicate with unseen individuals around the world. The speed with which technology moves makes everything a teen might be looking for available within seconds, which encourages an unhealthy desire for instant gratification. A slow internet connection or “unplugging” can promote irritability and anxiety for a teen otherwise used to constant connection through technology.
Sleep disorders can develop as teens stay up all night to play with technology, and as a result, academic, athletic, and social performance can suffer. Weight gain and other complications of a poor diet and sedentary lifestyle, such as cardiovascular disease, may result. In-person social skills may deteriorate.
Even as healthy teens are challenged by increasing life responsibilities, hormonal changes, and the stress of new social and academic worlds like dating and applying to college, these life transitions become even harder for those wholly absorbed in technology.
Within a technology-addicted individual, the mind becomes increasingly unable to distinguish between the lived and the alternate realities that produce instant stimulation, pleasure, and reward. As such, the extreme use of technology can disrupt normal patterns of mood and socialization in teens. Dependency upon social media, gaming, or other platforms to function can become the new and unhealthy “normal.”
Technology addiction and teen substance use. Researchers have found evidence that people who overuse technology may develop similar brain chemistry and neural patterning to those who are addicted to substances.2
Another concern is that those who are addicted to technology are actually more likely to also use substances than their peers with healthier relationships to tech, providing the insight that technology addiction may be a risk factor for alcohol and other drug addiction.
One preliminary study found that a group of teens who “hyper-texted” were 40% more likely to have used cigarettes and twice as likely to have used alcohol than students who were less frequent users of technology. This same research noted that those who spent more hours per school day than peers on social networking sites were at higher risk for depression and suicide.3
It stands to reason then, that if we can prevent technology addiction, we may also be able to prevent other risky behavior and dangerous consequences to teens.
Technology and the brain. Studies have shown that brain scans of young people with internet addiction disorder (IAD) are similar to those of people with substance addictions to alcohol, cocaine, and cannabis.4
Damage to brain systems connecting emotional processing, attention, and decision-making are affected in both substance addicts and technology addicts. This discovery shows that being hooked on a tech behavior can, in some ways, be as physically damaging as an addiction to alcohol and other drug use.
Why Are Technology Addictions Dangerous?
Contrary to popular belief, technology addictions can be extremely dangerous and contribute to various neurological, psychological and social problems. In extreme cases digital addictions can even be fatal. Although fatality resulting from a digital addiction is rare, it does happen. Most commonly fatal cases result from individuals engaging in digital usage during high-risk behaviors such as driving a motor vehicle or taking pictures/video for social media content on cliffs, bridges, or other threatening places that can result in death with one wrong step. There have also been extremely rare instances of individuals engaging with technology use for long durations of time without eating, drinking or sleeping for days on end that resulted in death.
More commonly, digital addictions effect individuals and families in other destructive and dangerous ways. For example, digital addictions can have detrimental effects on individual’s career or education as they spend their time engaging in digital usage rather than focusing on school- or work-related tasks. Digital addiction can lead to procrastination and avoidance of work. Digital addictions can also impede on relationships as the individual loses interest in socializing or communication at the expense of their digital device. Technology is a breeding ground for isolation.
Technology addictions can have a severe impact on one’s mental health, exacerbating or contributing to anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as well as other disorders. Technology addiction also can lead to restlessness, irritability, agitation, and anger. Furthermore, technology addiction can impact the brain’s ability to produce natural feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine, as well as lead to increased impulsivity.
Technology addiction can also lead to severe physical health problems such as headaches, weight gain or loss, backaches, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Oftentimes digital dependencies can also lead to insomnia or poor sleep-hygiene, which can then also contribute to exacerbating underlying mental health conditions and increased stress levels. Excessive digital usage can also impede on physical health as a result of poor nutrition, lack of physical exercise, and inadequate self-care.
What Are the Signs of a Technology Addiction?
Here are Craig Knippenberg’s nine signs a a teen or young adult might be addicted.
- 1.It is hard for my child to stop using screen media.
- 2.The amount of time my child wants to use screen media keep increasing.
- 3.My child sneaks using screen media.
- 4.My child needs more intense and novel games and apps to reach the same level of satisfaction.
- 5.When my child has had a bad day, screen media seems to be the only thing that helps him [or] her feel better.
- 6.My child thinks obsessively about their game or phone when not using it.
- 7.My child’s screen media use causes problems for the family.
- 8.My child’s academics, activities or health are suffering because of electronics.
- 9.My child is becoming more and more isolated.
9 Tips To Managing Gaming For Teens
Here are nine practical strategies you can use with your child reduce gaming addiction:
- If you enjoy playing video games and want to share this with your child, play only a couple of games with your kids at a time, and then turn the game off. There are many ways to bond with your children, and with healthy limits, gaming can become one of them.
- Limit the amount of time your child/teen can play to 30-45 minutes per day (if you allow electronics during the week) and perhaps two separate 45-minute sessions on weekends. Recent research has shown that a daily one-hour limit helps increase children’s sociability. That time limit includes gaming in your own home as well as at a friend’s house.
- Instead of implementing a time limit with Fortnite, consider having a two or three game limit. (This takes into account the fact that any child/teen would be horribly embarrassed to leave their friends in the middle of the game.) For other games, have a set time limit.
- Implement rules for when the game can be played. Gaming time should only take place after homework is complete and should end at least 45 minutes to an hour before bedtime. Research has shown active screens stimulate the brain and can inhibit the release of Melatonin—which is necessary for sleep.
- Consider taking a total break from the game if your son or daughter is caught sneaking it, continually fights about turning it off, or is becoming overly frustrated or emotional while playing or is irritable afterwards.
- Have a limit on how much money can be spent on Battle Passes. After all, what child/teen doesn’t want to be part of the latest fashion trend?
- Create a gaming area in a family area.
- Be very strict with your time limits for first person shooter games.
- For on-line gaming, talk to your child about only playing with friends they know in real life.
12 Tips for Managing Smart Phones
Simple ways to help your teen look up from their phone:
- 1.Wait until 8th! This organization encourages parents to pledge to wait till 8th grade to give their child a smart phone.
- 2.Be good role models with your smart phone usage.
- 3.Start with a flip phone and have a “no-delete” rule for texting. Only parents should delete.
- 4.Phones must be turned over when requested by parents.
- 5.Create smart phone “free zones” and times in the house. No phones at the dinner table.
- 6.Keep school free of mobile devices. The temptation to hide a phone under a table in order to sneak a game in can be overwhelming for the developing brain
- 7.Talk to and do research with your kids about various apps. Help them be aware of various dangers (i.e.: bullying, predators, challenge games, pornography) and the potential social drama’s inherent in social media usage. Discuss how others might perceive messaging.
- 8.Talk to you child about use of privacy settings (vs. public) when utilizing apps.
- 9.For older teens, teach and role model turning the apps to “no notifications” during family time and during homework.
- 10.Block specific times of twenty minutes to check social media.
- 11.Don’t save, send or forward pornographic material.
- 12.Discuss consequences ahead of time for misuse and how responsible usage equals increased freedoms
6 Tips To Manage Technology At Night
Sleep is vital for teens and young adults. Sometimes, technology can impact their sleep cycles and increase technology addiction. Use the 6 ways to help your child get a good night’s rest.
- Start with daily limits on electronic usage outside of required homework.
- Follow the advice of no screen time 30 – 45 minutes prior to bedtime.
- Utilize nighttime settings on devices (f.lux).
- No electronics in your child’s bedroom after “lights out”.
- Use an alarm clock to wake up in the morning instead of a smart phone as devices should already be checked in to the charging station.
- Most importantly, have a consistent bedtime and practice pre-bedtime rituals, which help soothe your child/teen emotionally and promote a good night’s sleep for their overworked frontal cortex.
Treatment of Technology Addiction
Technology addiction falls into the category of compulsive behavior that it is difficult or impossible to simply abstain from, like food or sex addictions. Thus, treatment for technology addiction involves educating teens and young adults about what is happening in their brains and bodies, recognizing the consequences of their compulsion, helping them to set limits and interrupt the compulsive cycle, and find alternatives.
Sandstone Care integrates treatment of technology addiction into its programs by treating is as a cooccurring mental health disorder. As referenced, technology addiction is often present with other disorders including anxiety, depression, trauma, or substance use. So taking a holistic and comprehensive treatment approach is important in order to help achieve sustainable recovery.
Some of the treatment modalities that Sandstone Care uses include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
- Group Therapy
- Julia Smith, technology addiction, https://www.sandstonecare.com/resources/substance-abuse/technology-addiction
- Lin Sternlicht & Aaron Sternlicht, https://www.familyaddictionspecialist.com/blog/the-6-most-common-types-of-technology-addiction
- Conrad, Brent. “Why Is Facebook Addictive? Twenty-One Reasons For Facebook Addiction – TechAddiction.” Video Game Addiction Treatment & Computer Addiction Help – TechAddiction. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2017. http://www.techaddiction.ca/why-is-facebook-addictive.html.
- Goldstein, Rita Z., and Nora D. Volkow. (2011). “Dysfunction of the prefrontal cortex in addiction: neuroimaging findings and clinical implications: Abstract: Nature Reviews Neuroscience.” Nature Publishing Group: science journals, jobs, and information. Nature Publishing Group, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2017. http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v12/n11/abs/nrn3119.html.
- NHS. “Extreme levels of texting ‘unhealthy’.” NHS Choices. 10 November 2010. N.p. Web. 2 8 Feb. 2017. http://www.nhs.uk/news/2010/11November/Pages/Texting-and-teen-behaviour.aspx.
- Lin, Fuchun, Zhou, Yan, Du, Yasong, Qin, Lindi, Zhao, Zhimin, Xu, Jianrong and Hao Lei. (2012). “Abnormal White Matter Integrity in Adolescents with Internet Addiction Disorder: A Tract-Based Spatial Statistics Study.” Plos One. Web. 8 Feb. 2017. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0030253.
- Barseghian, Tina. “How Teachers Make Cell Phones Work in the Classroom | MindShift.” KQED Public Media for Northern CA.KQED, 10 May 2012. Web. 8 Feb. 2017. https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2012/05/10/how-teachers-make-cell-phones-work-in-the-classroom/.
- Hargrove, R. “The Role of Technology in Developing Students Creative Thinking Abilities – IATED Digital Library.” IATED Digital Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. http://library.iated.org/view/HARGROVE2009THE.
- Lublin, Nancy. “Nancy Lublin: Texting that saves lives | Video on TED.com.” TED: Ideas worth spreading. TED Conferences, LLC, n.d. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. http://www.ted.com/talks/nancy_lublin_texting_that_saves_lives.html.