“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” —Anne Lamott
Smartphones. Never-ending news cycles. Busy at work and then taking work home. Electric screens at all hours of the day – and night. Does it ever end?
All the “modern conveniences” have us more hyper-connected than ever before. And while there’s something to be said for increased productivity and instant information, there is a point of diminishing returns. Somewhere along the line, we’ve crossed a threshold and entered the realm of “peak technology.” Everyone can benefit from simply unplugging, even if it’s just one day.
If every action has an opposite and equal reaction, then the natural, logical reaction to your personal electronic universe is to seek a peaceful refuge with no glowing screens, no beeping devices and no constant reminders. It all starts with a commitment to unplugging and unwinding from the daily onslaught of modern technology.
Signs and symptoms of smartphone/internet addiction
- Trouble completing tasks at work or home. Do you find laundry piling up and little food in the house for dinner because you’ve been busy chatting online, texting, or playing video games? Perhaps you find yourself working late more often because you can’t complete your work on time.
- Isolation from family and friends. Is your social life suffering because of all the time you spend on your phone or other device? If you’re in a meeting or chatting with friends, do you lose track of what’s being said because you’re checking messages or updates on your phone? Have friends and family expressed concern about the amount of time you spend on your phone? Do you feel like no one in your “real” life—even your spouse—understands you like your online friends?
- Concealing your smartphone use. Do you sneak off to a quiet place to use your smartphone? Do you hide your smartphone use or lie to your boss and family about the amount of time you spend online? Do you get irritated or cranky if your online time is interrupted?
- Have a fear of missing out. Do you hate to feel out of the loop or think you’re missing out on important news or information if you don’t check you phone regularly? Do you need to compulsively check social media because you’re anxious that others are having a better time, making more money, or leading a more exciting life than you? Do you get up at night to check your phone?
- Feeling of dread, anxiety or panic if you leave your smartphone at home, the battery runs down or the operating system crashes. Or you feel a phantom vibration—you feel your phone vibrating but when you check, there are no new messages or updates.
Withdrawal symptoms from smartphone addiction
A common warning sign of smartphone or Internet addiction is experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you try to cut back on your smartphone use. These may include:
- Anger or irritability
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sleep problems
- Craving access to your smartphone or other device
What are the health consequences of too much screentime?
- Back and neck spasms
- Bad neck and shoulder posture
- Tension headaches
- Tendinitis of hand and forearm (text claw)
- Sitting for hours on end, which has been shown to increase obesity and is a risk factor for early death
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
- Poor Nutrition (failing to eat or eating in excessively to avoid being away from the computer)
- Poor Personal Hygiene (e.g., not bathing to stay online)
- Dry Eyes and other Vision Problems
- Weight Gain or Loss
- Increasing loneliness and depression
- Fuelling anxiety
- Increasing stress
- Exacerbating attention deficit disorders
- Diminishing your ability to concentrate and think creatively
- Disturbing your sleep
- Encouraging self-absorbtion
- Isolation from friends and family
- Decrease productivity at work
- Financial problems
- Affect personal/work relationships
Types of smartphone/internet addiction
- Virtual relationships Addiction to social networking, dating apps, texting, and messaging can extend to the point where virtual, online friends become more important than real-life relationships.
- Online compulsions such as gaming, gambling, stock trading, online shopping, or bidding on auction sites like eBay can often lead to financial and job-related problems.
- Information overload Compulsive web surfing, watching videos, playing games, searching Google, or checking news feeds can lead to lower productivity at work or school and isolate you for hours at a time.
- Cybersex addiction Compulsive use of Internet pornography, sexting, nude-swapping, adult chat rooms, or messaging services can impact negatively on your real-life intimate relationships and overall emotional health.
- Internet gaming addiction Internet gaming disorder involves persistent use of Internet games leading to distress or problems functioning. Among the specific symptoms are preoccupation with Internet games, unsuccessful attempts to limit participation, loss of interest in other activities, deceiving others about the amount of time spent on games and problems in relationships, school or work because of Internet games
The number of people in the U.S. spending more than 20 hours a week on the Internet nearly doubled between 2008 and 2015 to more than 43 million people.
And many of us may feel we (or people around us) spend too much time online. But how much is too much? Is Internet addiction real? Does it make a difference how a person spends time online – browsing, shopping, using social media or playing games?
Many parents are concerns about their children's Internet use. A study from Pew Research found that more than 50 percent of 13 to 17 year-olds go online several times a day and nearly a quarter are online "almost constantly." Nearly 60 percent of parents think their teens are addicted to mobile devices according to a recent survey by Common Sense, a parent advocacy group. About half of teenagers agree.
Video games are often a particular concern. Boys use video games much more than girls – on average teen boys spend almost an hour (56 minutes) playing video games every day compared to an average of 7 minutes for teen girls, according to the Common Sense survey. On any given day, more than 40 percent of teen boys play video games compared to 7 percent of teen girls.
Internet addiction is not included in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) used by health professionals for diagnosis. The only behavioral addiction (as opposed to substance addiction) included in the latest DSM is gambling disorder. However, Internet gaming disorder was included in a section of the DSM-5 recommending further study.
There is ongoing debate about how best to classify the behavior which is characterized by many hours spent in non-work technology-related computer/Internet/video game activities. It is accompanied by changes in mood, preoccupation with the Internet and digital media, the inability to control the amount of time spent interfacing with digital technology, the need for more time or a new game to achieve a desired mood, withdrawal symptoms when not engaged, and a continuation of the behavior despite family conflict, a diminishing social life and adverse work or academic consequences.
Some researchers and mental health practitioners see excessive Internet use as a symptom of another disorder such as anxiety or depression rather than a separate entity. Internet addiction could be considered an Impulse control disorder (not otherwise specified). Yet there is a growing consensus that this constellation of symptoms is an addiction. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) recently released a new definition of addiction as a chronic brain disorder, officially proposing for the first time that addiction is not limited to substance use. All addictions, whether chemical or behavioral, share certain characteristics including salience, compulsive use (loss of control), mood modification and the alleviation of distress, tolerance and withdrawal, and the continuation despite negative consequences.
What is so rewarding about Internet and video game use that it could become an addiction?
- The theory is that digital technology users experience multiple layers of reward when they use various computer applications. The Internet functions on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule (VRRS), as does gambling. Whatever the application (general surfing, pornography, chat rooms, message boards, social networking sites, video games, email, texting, cloud applications and games, etc.), these activities support unpredictable and variable reward structures. The reward experienced is intensified when combined with mood enhancing/stimulating content. Examples of this would be pornography (sexual stimulation), video games (e.g. various social rewards, identification with a hero, immersive graphics), dating sites (romantic fantasy), online poker (financial) and special interest chat rooms or message boards (sense of belonging.
- There is increasing evidence that there can be a genetic predisposition to addictive behaviors. The theory is that individuals with this predisposition do not have an adequate number of dopamine receptors or have an insufficient amount of serotonin/dopamine, thereby having difficulty experiencing normal levels of pleasure in activities that most people would find rewarding. To increase pleasure, these individuals are more likely to seek greater than average engagement in behaviors that stimulate an increase in dopamine, effectively giving them more reward but placing them at higher risk for addiction.
Treatment of smartphone/internet addiction
There are a number of steps you can take to get your smartphone use under control. While you can initiate many of these measures yourself, an addiction is hard to beat on your own, especially when temptation is always within easy reach. It can be all too easy to slip back into old patterns of usage. Look for outside support, whether it’s from family, friends, or a professional therapist.
To help you identify your problem areas, keep a log of when and how much you use your smartphone for non-work or non-essential activities. There are specific apps that can help with this, enabling you to track the time you spend on your phone (see the Resources section below). Are there times of day that you use your phone more? Are there other things you could be doing instead? The more you understand your smartphone use, the easier it will be to curb your habits and regain control of your time.
- Recognise that you have a problem
- Recognize the triggers that make you reach for your phone
- Understand the difference between interacting in-person and online.
- Strengthen your support network.
- Build your coping skills.
- Recognize any underlying problems that may support your compulsive behavior.
- Modify your smartphone use, step-by-step
For most people, getting control over their smartphone use isn’t a case of quitting cold turkey. Think of it more like going on a diet. Just as you still need to eat, you probably still need to use your phone for work, school or to stay in touch with friends. Your goal should be to cut back to more healthy levels of use.
1Set goals for when you can use your smartphone. For example, you might schedule use for certain times of day, or you could reward yourself with a certain amount of time on your phone once you’ve completed a homework assignment or finished a chore, for instance.
2Turn off your phone at certain times of the day, such as when you’re driving, in a meeting, at the gym, having dinner, or playing with your kids.
3Don’t bring your phone or tablet to bed. The blue light emitted by the screens can disrupt your sleep if used within two hours of bedtime. Turn devices off and leave them in another room overnight to charge. Instead of reading eBooks on your phone or tablet at night, pick up a book. You’ll not only sleep better but research shows you’ll also remember more of what you’ve read.
4Replace your smartphone use with healthier activities. If you are bored and lonely, resisting the urge to use your smartphone to play games or check social media can be very difficult. Have a plan for other ways to fill the time, such as meditating, reading a book, or chatting with friends face to face.
5Spending time with other smartphone addicts? Play the “phone stack” game. When you’re having lunch, dinner, or drinks together, have everyone place their smartphones face down on the table. Even as the phones buzz and beep, no one is allowed to grab his or her device. If someone can’t resist checking their phone, that person has to pick up the check for everyone.
6Remove social media apps from your phone so you can only check Facebook, Twitter and the like from your computer. What you see of others on social media is rarely an accurate reflection of their lives—people exaggerate the positive aspects of their lives, brushing over the doubts and disappointments that we all experience. Spending less time comparing yourself unfavorably to these stylized representations can help to boost your mood and sense of self-worth.
7Limit checks. If you compulsively check your phone every few minutes, wean yourself off by limiting your checks to once every 15 minutes. Then once every 30 minutes, then once an hour. If you need help, there are apps that can automatically limit when you’re able to access your phone.
8.Curb your fear of missing out. Accept that by limiting your smartphone use, you’re likely going to miss out on certain invitations, breaking news, or new gossip. There is so much information available on the Internet, it’s almost impossible to stay on top of everything, anyway. Accepting this can be liberating and help break your reliance on technology
Therapy and counseling for smartphone addiction
Therapy can give you a tremendous boost in controlling smartphone and Internet use. Cognitive-behavioral therapy provides step-by-step ways to stop compulsive behaviors and change your perceptions about your smartphone. Therapy can also help you learn healthier ways of coping with uncomfortable emotions, such as stress, anxiety, or depression.
If your smartphone or Internet use is affecting your partner directly, as with excessive use of Internet pornography or online affairs, marriage counseling can help you work through these challenging issues. Marriage counseling can also help you reconnect with your partner if you have been using virtual worlds for most of your social needs.
Group support for smartphone addiction
Organizations such as Internet & Tech Addiction Anonymous (ITAA) and On-Line Gamers Anonymous offer online support and some face-to-face meetings to curb excessive technology use, as well as tips on starting your own chapter.
Helping a child or teen with smartphone addiction
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that kids under age 2 have no screen time, while young children older than 2 should spend no more than 1 to 2 hours a day viewing age-appropriate material. Of course, once kids have their own smartphones, limiting their use becomes that much more difficult. Any parent who’s tried to drag a child or teen away from a smartphone or tablet knows how challenging it can be to separate kids from social media, messaging apps, or online games and videos. Youngsters lack the maturity to curb their smartphone use on their own, but simply confiscating the device can often backfire, creating anxiety and withdrawal symptoms in your child. Instead, there are plenty of other ways to help your child find a healthier balance:
- Be a good role model. It’s no good asking your child to unplug at the dinner table while you’re staring at your own phone or tablet. Try not to let your own smartphone use distract from parent-child interactions.
- Use apps to monitor and limit your child’s smartphone use.
- Create “phone-free” zones. Ban phones from the dinner table and bedrooms and insist they’re turned off after a certain time at night.
- Encourage other interests and social activities. Get your child out from behind the phone or computer screen. Expose kids to other hobbies and activities, such as team sports, Scouts, and afterschool clubs. Spend time as a family unplugged.
- Talk to your child about underlying issues. Compulsive smartphone use can be the sign of deeper problems. Is your child having problems fitting in? Has there been a recent major change, like a move or divorce, which is causing stress? Is your child suffering with other issues at school or home?
- Get help. Teenagers often rebel against their parents, but if they hear the same information from a different authority figure, they may be more inclined to listen. Try a sports coach, doctor, or respected family friend. Don’t be afraid to seek professional counseling if you are concerned about your child’s smartphone use.
Medication is mostly used to treat underlying psychiatric conditions such as depression, anxiety and ADHD. There is not enough research available yet to recommend specific medications for internet addiction. Some of the medications used with good response are: - Antidepressants such as SSRI’s and Bupropion.
- Methylphenidate for underlying ADHD
- Mood stabilisers
The bottom line
Learning to power-down technology is an important life skill with numerous benefits. It is becoming a lost art in our ever-connected world. But the wisest of us take time to learn the discipline. And live fuller lives because of it.
This post is for informational purposes only. It should not be considered therapy. This blog is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. We are not able to respond to specific questions or comments about personal situations, appropriate diagnosis or treatment, or otherwise provide any clinical opinions. If you think you need immediate assistance, call your local doctor/psychologist or psychiatrist or the SADAG Mental Health Line on 011 234 4837. If necessary, please phone the Suicide Crisis Line on 0800 567 567 or sms 31393.