Medical Experts Say Addiction to Technology Is a Growing Concern

Surveys show that tech addiction is on the rise

23 December 2016

Several medical experts who treat patients with addictions have raised the alarm about more people becoming hooked to their digital devices as they surf the Internet, play online games, use social media, and text. The experts are calling high-tech gadgets for some users “digital heroin” and “electronic cocaine.”

The British media watchdog Ofcom in August warned that the country’s citizens are becoming increasingly addicted to the Internet. Nearly 60 percent of those it surveyed about the Internet acknowledged they were addicted. On average, people said they spend 25 hours per week online and check their smartphone 200 times a day. They reported that not a day goes by that they don’t check their computer or phone, and they said that as a result, they’re sometimes late for work or they neglect housework. One in four people reported spending more time online than sleeping.

Addiction therapists who treat gadget-obsessed people say their patients aren’t that different from other kinds of addicts. Whereas alcohol, tobacco, and drugs involve a substance that a user’s body gets addicted to, in behavioral addiction it’s the mind’s craving to turn to the smartphone or Internet. Technology addiction is considered so serious in India that clinics have opened to help wean people off their electronics.

EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Andrew Doan, M.D., a recognized expert in technology and video-game addiction who heads addiction research for the Pentagon and the U.S. Navy, calls video games and screen technologies “digital drugs,” according to a Newsweek article published in October. Many technologies are so stimulating, Doan says, that they raise levels of dopamine—the feel-good neurotransmitter most commonly linked to addiction. Research, he says, shows that long amounts of time focused on a screen can affect the brain’s frontal cortex the same way that cocaine does.

“Depression, anxiety, and aggression have all been linked to excessive screen time, and can even spur psychotic-like features,” he says. “Further research shows that as more kids use digital media, their social skills erode. And the more time a child spends dedicated to cyber-reality, the more they lose their ability to interpret real-life emotions.”

In an August interview with Vice, Nicholas Kardaras, Ph.D., a top U.S. addiction expert who has worked with hundreds of heroin addicts, says it’s easier to treat a heroin addict than a true screen addict, because screens are “so ubiquitous in our society that people inevitably have to interact with them on some level—not so with heroin.” Kardaras’s Glow Kids book, released this year, explores how compulsive technology usage and reliance on screens can harm the developing brain of a child in the same way that drug addiction can.

“I definitely think that screen addiction meets all diagnostic clinical criteria for addiction,” he says. Those include social impairment, risky use, and withdrawal issues.

And with augmented reality and virtual reality headsets increasingly being used in the workplace and in schools, the number of tech addicts is sure to rise.

In “Yu Yuan’s Mission Is to Improve Lives Through Virtual Life,” the IEEE senior member and chair of the IEEE Digital Senses Initiative raised concerns that virtual reality technologies could become as addictive as online games. “Children and young people could become so addicted that eventually they may not be able to distinguish between virtual life and real life,” he said.

KICKING THE HABIT

Technology addiction is so serious in India that two clinics have opened in the past two years to handle patients, according to The Financial Express. The behavioral addictions clinic at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) opened this year in New Delhi, and the Service for Healthy Use of Technology (SHUT) clinic opened in 2014 in Bangalore. Both help people cope with the overpowering and sometimes destructive presence of technology.

One challenging aspect of tech addiction is the method of treatment, because the Internet has become part of practically everyone’s life. Yatan Pal Singh Balhara, associate professor of psychiatry and consultant in charge of the AIIMS’ behavioral addiction clinic, says its approach is to encourage healthy use rather than no use at all.

For those looking to keep a handle on their use of digital devices, Manoj Kumar Sharma, a professor of psychology and the coordinator of the SHUT Clinic suggests asking yourself these five questions: Do you crave access to gadgets? Do you lose control over yourself when using them? Do you feel compelled to use technology? Are you using technology to cope with distress? And finally, what are the consequences—are you experiencing any problems because of your usage?

“If you answer yes to four out of five questions, there’s a problem,” Sharma says. To tackle it, he suggests following a 3A approach: Acknowledge the problem, ask for help, and find an alternative pleasurable activity.

Do you think tech addiction is a growing problem? What are some ways you unplug?

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