Studies have shown that 34% of adults in the UK look at their smartphone within five minutes of waking up; 55% within 15 minutes and 78% within one hour of waking. 41% think that their partner uses their smartphone too much. The statistics become even more alarming when looking at 16-19 year olds. Two thirds check their smartphones during the night and 25% then respond to any messages; 34% use their phones at family mealtimes and 53% look at their phones whilst walking along (Deloitte, 2017).
An addiction is defined as ‘the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma’. Someone who is an addict, usually has little or no means of escape from their addiction without seeking outside help.
Most of us would probably like to think that we could wean ourselves off using our smartphones, tablets, etc at certain times of the day or in certain situations if we had to or really wanted to. There are those who have taken things a step further and have given up the use of some social media platforms or decided to relinquish their smartphone altogether. Celebrities who have decided to delete their Facebook or Twitter accounts are also a case in point. Technology use is perhaps in these cases a ‘compulsion’ rather than an ‘addiction’.
In 2013, the DSM-V – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association – included an updated definition of addiction to include behavioural addictions as well as addictions to substances.
There are similarities in the way the brain reacts to the frequent use of technology and how it reacts with the use of drugs and other addictive substances. As with all activities which give us pleasure, dopamine is released in the brain. But technology use can also cause stress, which causes the brain to release cortisol. Both substances can kill off neurons in the hippocampus – the memory centre of the brain. Stress can also affect the brain’s frontal cortex which governs the brain’s sense of pleasure and can cause the brain to seek more pleasure and whatever substance or activity is providing the pleasure – thus eventually causing an addiction.
Even if you don’t consider yourself to be ‘addicted’ to your smart devices, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t any harmful effects from the habit of using technology.
Looking at our smartphones can be a source of pleasure, but more often than not, it can be a source of pressure. Checking for emails, perhaps catching up on the news, checking up on friends on social media might be pleasurable. For some, however it can be something else – a fear of missing out, perhaps even a source of anxiety or worse.
There are several studies that have shown that the use of any technology – TVs, tablets, phones – immediately before going to sleep can disturb the quality of sleep we get. Waking up in the middle of the night to use a mobile phone subjects the user to bright, blue light. This can impact physically on the quality of sleep. A good night’s sleep is essential in maintaining good mental health as well as good physical health.
There is also evidence that the more successful you are in your career, the more likely you are to be engaged in compulsive internet use, particularly outside of normal office hours or even when on holiday. There is in effect no real ‘down time’ for the mind to recover increasing feelings of anxiety which can put an individual at risk of damaging his or her mental health.
If you are spending hours interacting with your smartphone or tablet, you are not spending that time interacting directly with other people, which can cause isolation and have further ill effects on emotional well-being. Human interaction is especially important for children and young adults as they are learning to interact with the world and how to socialise.
People born after 1995 have never known life without the mobile phone or the internet. Growing up in the era of social media and constant access to the internet comes with its stresses; for example, the pressure of trying to keep up with the seemingly perfect lives of others, cyber bullying and even grooming. Childhood is as a result very different to how it was over 20 years ago. Being able to handle the effects of technology has become an important part of growing up and dealing with the world. A recent study undertaken by King’s College London concluded that 23% of the young people studied demonstrated behaviour which was consistent with an addiction when it came to their smart phone. Clearly, the smartphone is fast becoming an important part of life for many people, but what can be done to prevent it becoming an ‘addiction’?
There are simple things we can do to limit our technology use. For example, disabling those beeps and pings which sound every time an email, new post or text arrives; ‘forgetting’ to take your phone to the pub or to that dinner out; scheduling when you go on the internet and setting a strict time limit; trying out phone-free days; only reading and replying to those emails which are really necessary – and perhaps even picking up the phone instead and speaking directly with the sender. Many smartphones now have apps which monitor phone usage and split it by the time spent on particular online activities such as social networking, reading and reference, and enable comparisons to be made over time which can help in raising personal awareness of phone usage. Not all these things will work for everyone, but trying even one thing might a difference.
It is interesting to note that in 2018 two former employees of Facebook and Google joined forces to launch a campaign to fight the ‘tech addiction’, as they see it. ‘The Truth About Tech’ has set out to raise awareness amongst children and their parents of the addictive qualities of technology and what can be done about it. It is also interesting to note that both one of the co-founders of Twitter and Bill Gates have admitted to limiting their children’s access to smartphones and other screen technology. They might be on to something.
It’s not all bad. Technology also comes with enormous benefits. Being able to connect with friends and family, especially over distances; sharing views and new things with other people; keeping yourself informed to name just a few. But as with most good things – everything in moderation.
The consultant psychiatrists at Private Psychiatry have many years’ experience in treating addictions of all sorts. Please get in touch if you would like us to help you or someone close to you overcome an addiction.