Is technology addictive?

While the Internet in all its forms has countless efficiencies to make our lives easier, our dependency on handheld devices and screens can be harmful.

Which would you choose: To lose a finger? Or to never use your smart phone again? 

If you’re wondering “Which finger?” you might have a dependency issue. 

Like it or not, we’re all dependent on technology to some extent. Indiana State psychology Professor Tom Johnson, who studies addiction, compares it to electricity. “We’re not necessarily addicted to electricity, but we sort of depend on it to function and to let us do our jobs and live our lives,” he said. “That dependence is not necessarily problematic, but it is at that context in which things could become problematic.”

There’s been an uptick in research exploring our overuse of technology in its varying forms — social networking, cybersex, online pornography, TV and movie streaming, video gaming, online shopping. Take, for instance, problem online gamblers. Similar to a chemical addiction, problem gamblers develop a tolerance for use, experience physical withdrawal symptoms, misjudge use, conceal use, etc. 

“You just run down the list of things that are features of substance use disorders, and problem gambling falls in there,” Johnson said. “Also with substance addictions, there’s no hard-and-fast line between graduations of addiction, but it’s more of a continuum of problems. We see this in technology, too. There may be situations where people may be using technology or over-using technology that wouldn’t necessarily be qualified as an addiction, but we can misuse our technologies as well as use them.” 

Why is that? Well, Johnson says, these programs and social networking platforms are built so we derive pleasure from them to keep us coming back. 

“Anything that causes us pleasure lights up the region of the brain that’s involved in reward. Pretty much all drugs of abuse, even though they do very different things, activate that reward area and create a liability for addiction,” he said. “You’re particularly vulnerable if you don’t have other ways of lighting up your dopamine system.”

From a practical standpoint, handheld devices are just so, well, handy that it’s tough not to rely on them, Johnson said. Additionally, for especially young people, they provide a sense of identity — from the type of device you have to how it’s accessorized. They can become a sort of security blanket and offer a sense of freedom from the watchful eye of adults. 

“The ancient Greeks had the saying, ‘The middle course is safest and best’ with the story of Icarus who flew too close to the sun,” Johnson said. “These devices are great in moderation, but with most things in life, that’s the tough thing to achieve.”  

Tips for unplugging

Knowledge is power. Install an app to track how much screen time you’re clocking. 

Just say no. Turn off unnecessary notifications on your phone. 

Be self-aware. Delete frequented apps from your handheld device if you find you’re spending too much time using them. 

Set a good example. Implement a no-phones policy at dinner or a digital curfew each evening. Try to make technology use as social — and not isolated — an activity as possible.

Embrace boredom. Instead of pulling out your phone the next time you’re waiting in line, strike up a conversation with a stranger. 

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