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Playtime's over: When technology leads to addiction


Image of person playing on smartphone
Rob Hampson | Unsplash

Case study by Danielle Boyle


Most of the time, technological advances are seen as a good thing. But in some instances, they can also bring out the worst in us. Tapping into her own experience, Danielle Boyle explores the issue of technology addiction and what we can do to address it.


"I looked at my phone yesterday and it said I spend 8 hours a day on my phone and that’s not right."


My therapist’s eyes widened, her veil of imperceptibility failing for a second "No," she replied, "it’s not."


In fact, it was 8 hours and 28 minutes a day, my iPhone informed me. A further breakdown revealed I had spent an embarrassing 11 hours and 44 minutes of my week on solitaire. Apart from some vague knowledge that this was definitely not ‘right’ and coming to a realisation that I might have a teeny, tiny technology (and apparently solitaire) addiction, I didn’t actually know how my mobile phone use had become so excessive.


Surely, it’s not too bad? Everyone’s always on their phone and there’s been no phone use-related deaths yet, right?… Right???


Time to ignore the irony that you’re probably reading this article on a phone or a computer… and explore the world of internet addiction.



Is tech dangerous?


Research on the effects of technology use is still limited. Although, since the invention of the computer, some naysayers have been warning of the perils of using this electronic devil since the beginning of the internet. Early research by Kraut et al. in 1998, found that lengthy amounts of spent on the internet was associated with strong symptoms of depression, stress and social isolation.


The idea of Internet addiction or IA was introduced by KS Young in her seminal paper on the addictive uses of the internet. Since then, with the lack of scientific study and historical use cases, IA has not yet been formally determined as a disorder or found its way into mainstream vernacular. Instead, theorists primarily focus on two known conditions: behavioural addiction and gaming or gambling addiction when studying possible effects that excessive mobile use has on the brain.


How has living more life on screen become the new normal?


"If [an item] come[s] to fulfil a deep need, you can't do without them, and you begin to pursue them while neglecting other aspects of your life, then you've developed a behavioural addiction," Adam Alter concludes in his book, Irresistible why we can't stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching. By his definition, the internet and mobile phones are incredibly addictive.



Don’t think you’re addicted? Try it. Turn your phone off and put it into a cupboard. Leave the house without it. If even the thought of being without your phone makes you shudder, congratulations - you’ve got a behavioural addiction!


So, what keeps us hooked? The ‘reward centre’ or ‘pleasure pathway’ of the brain is activated by addictive substances or behaviours. Exposed to the pleasure neurochemicals: dopamine, morphine, and endorphin, a tolerance develops. To avoid withdrawal, the individual needs continuous engagement in the addictive behaviour coupled with an increase to achieve the same level of stimulation.


Why am I addicted? Some researchers believe that existing conditions, such as depression and anxiety, are the root causes of people misusing the internet. Escapism, FOMO, self-soothing and the elusive search for dopamine could explain the reason early research links these conditions with excessive internet use. Equally, in a chicken and egg scenario, excessive internet use could be a cause rather than a result. Most studies agree, further investigation is needed.


 

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Addiction or a survival tool?


Alter’s definition of behavioural addiction as reliance throws up an interesting take. Those, such as myself, with anxiety and depression can be very reliant on technology to organise their life and prepare for every eventuality. Posed with the idea of breaking up with my phone, my mind goes into a tailspin:


But the sat nav?! How will I get around???


Who will be able to contact me if there’s an emergency??


How will I possibly book my gym classes??


Having a small computer in my hand, inevitably, makes life easier to manage. Pasabari Ginige even goes as far to say that the internet and mobile phones are new survival tools. Total abstinence, in her view is unlikely to work as our lives are so deeply entrenched online. Sensible internet use, she says, is the only real way forward in treating internet addiction.


Makes sense. But what about mobile games? Solitaire is very much not essential to survival, so why am I spending an obscene amount of time flipping cards?



Solitaire is life: gaming addiction


So, why is the majority of my time spent on solitaire? Well, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has likened addiction to mobile games to a gambling addiction.


This is what Candy Crush Saga does to your brain, an article by Dana Smith, explores how games like candy crush tap into our reward behaviour systems. Every time a level is won, Smith explains, we experience ‘mini rewards in our brains, releasing the neurochemical dopamine and tapping into the same neuro-circuitry involved in addiction, reinforcing our actions.’ Smith explains how the games are built to activate addictive tendencies in order to make profit, much like online gambling.


So how do I break the addiction?!


For general sensible internet use, some experts, including Pasabari Ginge, suggest the following:

  • Setting limits on internet use with alarms or usage monitoring apps.

  • Setting aside phones at meal times, friends and family gatherings.

  • Investment in interesting ‘offline’ activities such as crafting, sport, socialising, reading.

  • Having an internet free day, once a week in your household. Probably on a Sunday so as not to aggravate teachers or bosses.


A new technology-free me?


Armed with this knowledge and new perspective, will I hang up my phone charger and rejoin the real world? Probably not, but I might try and curb my solitaire use…



 

If you are worried about the impact that internet use or gaming has on your life, please seek professional guidance. Mixtures of CBT, reality therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) has been proven to help with addictive behaviours and addictions concerning internet use.

 

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