Is it Time for a Tech Detox?
Many individuals are hooked on their smartphones, and a growing number of people are entering rehab for technology addiction. So what could these extreme cases tell us about our relationships with gadgets?
An increasing number of individuals are hooked to their smartphones, and are now entering rehab for technology addiction. What does this say about our relationships with gadgets?
Can’t put your phone down? You’re not alone. A 2016 survey found that the average person spends 145 minutes a day on their phone – that’s over 36 days a year. But for some, it’s more than just a bad habit. Mental health hospitals that traditionally treated alcoholics and drug addicts are now treating tech addicts, too.
One such hospital is the Nightingale Hospital in London. Dr Richard Graham is head of its Technology Addiction Service, and the stories of his past and present patients* may sound familiar. Ryan is a teenager who spends 8 to 10 hours on screens after school, mostly on YouTube. Holly is obsessed with how many Instagram followers she has. Ollie, a man in his early-20s, suffered severe bullying in his teens, and became absorbed in gaming and Netflix. Recently, Ollie ‘woke up’ to what his world had become, Graham says, “and it was so upsetting for him. He felt he’d missed out on relationships, friendships, and all sorts of things that he could see now were what he’d really wanted.” All this raises the question: when does a habit become a problem?
Technology addiction is a term that covers addiction to the use of electronic devices, especially smartphones and gaming consoles. Estimates of just how many people are affected vary between studies, from about 2 per cent to 6 per cent, depending on the country and age group. Either way, that equates to at least a million people in the UK alone. And with overuse of gadgets being linked to sleep deprivation, anxiety and depression, that’s not good news.
‘True’ technology addiction, in which a person’s brain shows the same kind of dependency on League
Of Legends or checking their Instagram account as that of someone addicted to a drug like heroin, is clearly a big problem for the individuals affected. But it’s rare, Graham says, to find someone who has a truly balanced relationship with technology, and with their smartphone, in particular. “What about the rest of us,” he says, “walking around, staring at our smartphones, narrowly escaping lamp posts and cars and not able to respond to
the people in our lives, or not getting a good night’s sleep.” Even this level of tech use can interfere with our health, happiness and well-being, he says.
Nonetheless, many of us rely on technology for our jobs, and for staying in touch with friends and family. As Graham readily accepts, technology in the modern world is not only largely unavoidable but often extremely helpful. But in cases of what’s termed life ‘disruption’ rather than ‘addiction’ – a broader category that surely many of us fall into – strategies designed to help people with technology addiction could help us to use our devices in a healthier way. It’s not just addicts who could benefit from a tech detox.
A MODERN AFFLICTION
To understand how devices can get such a grip on us, it’s useful to look at research into full-blown addictions. Psychologist Prof Mark Griffiths, the director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, is a pioneer of research in the area. After 20 years of study, he’s come to the conclusion that ‘internet addiction’ and ‘smartphone addiction’ are really misnomers.
People who are addicted to online gaming, online gambling, online sex, or online shopping are not internet addicts, he argues, but rather gambling addicts, sex addicts or shopping addicts who are using the medium of the internet to engage in their addictive behaviour. For a gaming addict who plays on their smartphone, the structural changes in their brain’s reward system that cause cravings are down to the playing of the game, rather than the use of a phone. Repeated exposure to a game (or any other addictive behaviour or drug) causes nerve cells in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex, areas of the brain respectively involved in motivation and decision-making, to communicate in a way that links liking something with wanting it. In other words, we start to crave it.
Social networking is perhaps one of the few genuine or ‘pure’ types of ‘internet addiction’, because there is not an offline equivalent. But here, the addiction is to an app, and as such this kind of compulsion should be understood as ‘social networking addiction’, according to Griffiths.
These distinctions are vital for designing treatments. In the US, Internet Gaming Disorder is now a recognised psychiatric disorder. One former patient on a US ‘internet addiction’ rehab programme called reSTART has described to The Guardian how he used to play video games for 14 or 15 hours a day, with Netflix on in the background. Any time there was a break in that, he would play a game on his phone or text an ex-girlfriend. Of the truly techaddicted patients that Graham sees at the Nightingale Hospital, gaming is also a common problem.
For many of us, though, it’s texting, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook and other apps that can run on our smartphones, and are always with us, that pose a big problem. One recent survey of smartphone use among US college students, for example, found that 12 per cent identified as ‘fanatics’ and 7 per cent as ‘addicts’. “Our smartphones have turned into tools that provide short, quick, immediate satisfaction,” observed Isaac Vaghefi at Binghamton University, who led the study. “Over time this makes us acquire a desire for quick feedback and immediate satisfaction.”
Checking messages via social media can become almost compulsive, because of ‘Fear of Missing
Out’. This describes the anxiety that an interesting or exciting event may be happening elsewhere online.
So in a world where many of us carry smartphones in our pockets, and rely on our devices to keep us connected with everyone else, how can we know if we have a problem in the first place?
If gaming, checking Twitter or watching Netflix are encroaching on more and more of your life, it’s worth noting Graham’s observation that heavy use of one particular type of tech can signal a problem.
“CHECKING MESSAGES VIA SOCIAL MEDIA CAN BECOME
He highlights “the gamers who keep playing the same game, or people going to the same social media channel, or people who’ll start a Netflix boxset and won’t be able to stop until it’s finished – rather than watching one episode and then changing the channel, or doing something different.”
Graham also encourages people to be aware of biological changes that may indicate they’re on the road to addiction. Most of us need around eight hours of sleep a night, he notes. (We can get by on less, but not without costs to physical or mental health.) If you’re not getting enough sleep because of your tech use, or you notice that your body clock is becoming disrupted (perhaps you need an alarm to wake up, or you feel extra lethargic in the morning), these are signs of a problem.
If your eating habits have become irregular, you’re skipping meals, or you’re opting for ready meals so
you can quickly get back to a screen, or you’re not getting the recommended 30 minutes of exercise a day – these are also indications that tech use may be taking over your life to an unhealthy degree.
You may not be seeing friends as much as you used to, either – but since heavy gamers and social media users will argue that they’re interacting with people online, it might be better to focus on the biological signs of a tech problem, Graham suggests. It’s also worth noting that there’s evidence that online social connections are not equivalent to friendships. One recent study of US adults aged 19 to 32 found that people who reported spending more than two hours a day on platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram felt more socially isolated than those who spent half an hour or less on these sites per day.
Identifying a problem is an important step, of course. But the question then is, what’s to be done?
Some researchers are focusing on the devices themselves. A team at Bournemouth University, for example, is advocating for smart warning labels to be built into devices. These labels could establish time limits for device use, and warn users if they’re not sticking to them. Unlike the traditional labels found on tobacco and alcohol, the digital labels could be interactive, changing the colour of the screen when the device has been used for a certain amount of time, for example, or sending personalised messages related to the user’s interests.
Apps that can help you monitor time online are already available, but people with an addiction – or even a life disruption – need more help. With his tech-addicted patients, Graham usually starts with a 72-hour tech detox, which entails complete tech abstinence. This can be tough, and patients often report the lows associated with withdrawal from an addictive drug. The goal of drug rehab treatment, of course, is total abstinence. But since few of us can live without tech, the next step is to reintroduce it, but in a controlled way.
The detox can have a powerful impact, Graham has found. When he started his tech-addiction service in 2010, he anticipated that patients would need to spend extended periods of time in residential programmes. But he’s found that if parents (he specialises in treating adolescents) simply take tech-addicted child away for a weekend or a longer holiday, without any devices, the results can be profound.
After 72 hours or perhaps a week without tech – and with more sleep, and reduced social anxiety – many patients find they can let go of fears of missing out. “It’s like stepping off a merry-goround,” Graham explains. “Things will have moved on in the online world – whether that’s news feeds or the latest videos trending or game development. Once they’ve gotten over that, they feel more rested and more at ease.” This allows them to take a more
“DURING A 72-HOUR TECH DETOX, PATIENTS OFTEN REPORT THE LOWS ASSOCIATED WITH WITHDRAWAL FROM AN ADDICTIVE DRUG”
balanced view of the importance of their devices in their lives, Graham says.
After the detox, the gadgets will eventually be switched on again. And then the notifications will start up, demanding instant action and attention. “But in the fight of man versus machine, I think being able to put your smartphone down for a few days and just get a sense of what it’s actually like to feel different again is really helpful,” Graham stresses. And this could help those of us who aren’t fully addicted to our devices, too, he says.
The next step is to be much tougher about tech use, and to prioritise the things in life that are truly rewarding, rather than giving in to that instant, transient ‘hit’. An approach that’s been found to work well in treating depression can be helpful here, Graham says. People who are depressed become more socially isolated and do less of the things that make them feel good, whether that’s mountain biking or cooking; painting or playing music. If you can schedule in more of these kinds of activities, as well as more face-to-face time with other people and periods of exercise, you will necessarily spend less time with technology. Crucially, these activities will help you feel better about life, too.
This approach can work for those recovering from addiction, as well as the rest of us. “It helps shift the balance,” Graham says. “I think for many people, their use of technology can slide into something more like the sort of heavy drinker who no longer even enjoys it, but it’s become a habit.
”It’s unlikely that many of us will be throwing away our smartphones. But being able to recognise when our technology use is becoming excessive, and then scheduling in some time away from our gadgets – whether that’s an hour, a day, or an entire weekend – could surely benefit us all.
Scan this QR Code for
the audio reader
BELOW: At the USbased reSTART
residential programme, technology use is restricted, so residents are encouraged to take part in alternative activities. There’s a huge chessboard for games in the sunshine, while plenty of reSTART’s notebooks are on hand for scribbling down stories
When people are hooked on tech, their brains can exhibit similar changes to those seen in individuals who are addicted to drugs RIGHT: The reSTART programme offers a rural retreat for people who are addicted to online gaming, social media and gambling
Designer Klemens Schillinger has created substitute phones, complete with tactile beads, that he claims can help smartphone users cope with withdrawal by offering physical stimulation (touching, swiping and scrolling) without connectivity
OPPOSITE PAGE: Participant undergoing an MRI scan as part of research into gambling addiction