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?

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Contents - WORDS BY EMMA YOUNG

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.


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.



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


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.

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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

and es­says


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

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