Published on February 7, 2013 | by Rosie Conroy

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Help, I’m dangerously addicted to my smartphone

Strong bond with technology

Are we too reliant on today’s technology? [Jon Durr]

I am starting to think that my relationship with my iPhone is getting a bit out of hand. We have taken the next step and have started sleeping together.

I downloaded an app called SleepCycle that instructs you to have the phone under your pillow so that it can sense when you’re moving during sleep.

So now, not content with forever fiddling with my phone during the day; mid conversation, in the cinema, or while I’m meant to be working; I now have it laying beside me at night as well, like an intense love interest watching over me and monitoring my sleep pattern.

In addition to the app fulfilling a hole I wasn’t aware existed, my phone is worryingly becoming something I feel is a necessity.

We have become a generation of technology dependent obsessives – tap, tap, tapping away on touch screens and keyboards, addicted to our CrackBerries or iPhones.

You only have to hop on a packed tube full of hot and irritable Londoners to know these are the times in which we live. Phones and tablets have fast overtaken their relatively bland predecessor: the book.

Tweet

Not that books are bland in terms of content, but you can’t ‘tweet’, ‘like’ or ‘share’ a book – how retro. Earphones are stuffed into ears and eyes are always looking downward.

In fact if ever I catch someone’s eye on the tube I get a bit awkward and look back at my phone as quickly as possible. What is everyone so busy doing?

The BBC recently hailed 2013 as being the year of digital addiction clinics, with the NHS even starting to offer treatment for obsessive social media or internet use.

“Be conscious of your use patterns and start to change those patterns so you’re not using and abusing technology.” Center for Internet and Technology Addiction founder, Dr. David Greenfield

According to a 2012 Ofcom report, 92 per cent of Britons own a mobile telephone and send an average of 200 text messages each per month. Since my grandmother makes up part of this average and sends roughly one text a week – to make sure I’m still alive in London – then some people must be worryingly over par.

With these rapid developments in technology, it is now possible for my friends ­– or more likely companies I’m not interested in ­– to punctuate my day with a continuous stream of beeps and buzzes – so even when I feel like being productive, my concentration is guaranteed to be broken.

Social media is saturating the internet, with news now being broken first on Twitter via news sites and the ever growing crowd of smartphone-wielding ‘citizen journalists’.

Social engagements

People announce their engagements via Facebook and I now have ten years worth of meals burned into my retinas thanks to Instagram. The digital natives are growing up and they’re taking over the world of social media, shortly before they realise that in fact, in a cruel twist of fate, social media may have taken over them.

The website business2community.com reported that this year active Facebook users in the UK have exceeded 50 per cent of the population with an estimated 33 million using the site,. Twitter has also grown at a staggering rate with over 200 million users worldwide in December, with 34 million active tweeters in Britain.

Increased reliance on mobile phones also increases the users vulnerability. If I lost my phone, someone with very limited technological skills would have access to my two email accounts, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Internet banking, voicemails, text messages – the list goes on.

According to the mobile security firm TrustGo, almost a quarter of Android apps are unsafe, with software that is an easy target for fraud.

Instagram

Scientists have recently been exploring the possibility that addiction to the Internet has similar effects to those of alcohol or drug abuse.

The scientific journal Plos One conducted a study last year that found “abnormal white matter” on the brains of those diagnosed with Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) compared to similarly aged peers who used the Internet in a moderate amount, suggesting that excessive usage is actually changing the structure of users’ brains.

“From the growth rate of digital technology I made the assumption that we were going to have issues going forward.” Dr David Greenfield

A man who predicted this reliance and the need for treatment is Dr. Greenfield, the founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and fellow and former president of the Connecticut Psychological Association.

He agreed to answer some of my questions so I called him from my iPhone, and of course I recorded the conversation on yet another iPhone.

Dr. David Greenfield conducted research into internet addiction as far back as the 1990s and says he was able to predict that there would be a need for his kind of treatment. “From the growth rate of digital technology I made the assumption that we were going to have issues going forward,” he said.

On the cusp of addiction

For those who feel they might be on the cusp of addiction, Dr. Greenfield has some fairly straightforward advice and highlighted for me why it is that time slips away in a Facebook blur when you’re logged on:

“The first rule of thumb is to be conscious of your use patterns and to start to change those patterns so you’re not using and abusing the technology in the same way you usually do.

“The biggest power of this technology is that it creates something called dissociation, which is the unconscious use of it, in other words you lose track of time and space without any awareness.

“The first rule of changing that pattern is to start becoming conscious of how much you’re using it and to take conscious control over that use, so you don’t overuse the technology.” he advises.

Escalation

In terms of the last few years and the escalation of social media, Dr. Greenfield views it as just another inevitable extension of the internet:

“Social media and the internet operate on a variable ratio, reinforcement schedule, meaning they operate on the principle that there are going to be constant changes, novel stimuli and rewards which is the way Facebook works, or texting, or even how emailing works.

“I don’t know what I’d do without my various Apple products.” Student Ben Blackmore

“Every once in a while you get a hit of something that is interesting or appealing, but you can’t predict when that is going to be so it facilitates you continuously going back and looking at the website or looking at your phone for a text, or looking at your computer or your phone for an email because unpredictable fashion both in frequency and power, you get a reward and that’s what makes it so addictive.

“It’s a buzz, and it’s like the world’s largest slot machine.  There’s a neurological, neurochemical component to that buzz – you get a dopamine hit, and that dopamine hit itself is pleasure, and pleasurable experiences are often repeated.

“You can’t not use the internet, that’s not possible today, so we teach them how to use it in a moderate fashion.

“We might put blocks and filters on their devices to limit certain times of very addictive content whether that be gaming, or pornography. But mostly we teach them how to use it in a moderated fashion and that’s really the only way you can do it, you cannot eliminate the use.”

Technology obsessives

But trying to limit use seems futile in a world conquered by internet bingeing. According to Ofcom, the UK is now the leading consumer of data worldwide and it looks like UK youngsters are not about to slow down.

Facebook addiction

Facebook is one of the most popular social media sites

Student Ben Blackmore, 21, would define himself as a heavy user of technology. He conforms to the twenty-something stereotype of technology obsessives and owns that coveted holy Apple trinity – iPhone, iPad and MacBook.

“I don’t know what I’d do without my various Apple products. Not a day goes by that I don’t play with at least one of them, I get bored if my hands aren’t doing something and they fit the bill,” he says.

And social media is not the only issue: for many people emails are a lifeline, essential for work or studies. A study conducted by the University of Glasgow found that half of those who took part in the research checked their email at least once an hour, while some were checking their email up to 40 times an hour.

Furthermore, an AOL study found those who used a smart phone or similar, check their phone every time an email arrives in their inbox, and 83 per cent of those checked their email every day even while on holiday.

Nomophobia

The study for the Journal of Behavioural Addictions used data from 191 business students and two universities, as mobiles are used by about 90 per cent of the students. Reporting in The Telegraph they say that the majority of youngsters claim losing their phone would be “disastrous to their social lives” and that some said they felt so bereft without their iPhone or BlackBerry that it evokes similar feelings to the “phantom limb” syndrome suffered by amputees.

“Mental health services need to adapt quickly to the changing worlds that young people inhabit.” Dr Richard Graham

Those are severe feelings for an inanimate object, but perhaps a signal of how much people feel that their phones, or technology use is an extension of themselves.

Nomophobia was the term created by British researchers in 2008 to identify people who experience anxiety when they have no access to mobile technology.

There is a website dedicated to this condition – although it’s validity and cogency are questionable – but it advises those suffering from ‘nomophobia’ to share their problems with other users and “buy a low cost mobile phone with a pay-as-you-go SIM card package as a back up and make sure that you have copied your address book to the SIM.”

Solutions and cures

If you’re feeling like you might be addicted, there could be a solution a little closer than expected. London’s Capio Nightingale hospital offers Technology Addiction Treatment, run by Dr. Richard Graham, who is the lead young person’s technology addiction consultant at Capio.

Graham is quoted on their website as saying “Mental health services need to adapt quickly to the changing worlds that young people inhabit, and understand just how seriously their lives can be impaired by unregulated time online, on-screen or in-game.”

Treatment is varied and can mean up to 28 days as an in-patient. Most will include some of the following treatments:

“Tech Hygiene: in which the user explores with others the meaning of their relationship to technology, whether a phone, a game or social media platform such as Facebook.

“Life Skills and Health: when there has been a prolonged period of technology addiction, the user is compromised both in terms of confidence in facing the demands of life in the external world, but also physically, following poor nutrition and reduced physical activity.

Missing out

I am still not entirely sure how to feel about my own usage of technology and social media. If I were to give it up it would be near impossible to find jobs, finish university and Skype my family across continents. I would always feel like I was missing out on the cyber-socialising you get via Facebook events, tweets and your Instagram stream.

But as with anything good in life, like chocolate or gin, it must all come down to moderation. And so, in the words of Dr. Greenfield’s clinic, “manage your internet and digital media technology so it doesn’t manage you.” I might tweet that.

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